The Second Sunday of Advent
[Scripture Readings: Bar 5:1-9; Phil 1:4-11; Lk 3:1-6]
It seems that one of the distinguishing features of a really advanced technological culture, is its ability to identify new diseases and give them exact names, and, thanks to continual new advances in medicine and diagnostic techniques, we in North America have access to a rather large and diversified selection of ailments with which we can be diagnosed. We might even say without boasting that in the United States of America, some of us are afflicted with ailments that people, say, in Africa or Asia have never even heard of.
One possible candidate for this class of ailments might be, what is referred to today as: “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome”. Here’s a diagnosis so intimately identified with advanced western culture that you will probably need a high school education and maybe a year or two of college even to understand what is being talked about in the expression: “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” It’s not depression. Everybody — even a poor sheep-herder in Bolivia—has a basic grasp of what depression is. This is a little harder to characterize; something more subtle. One is simply—tired . . .not necessarily always tired. “Chronic” doesn’t mean “always”. There are times when you don’t feel tired, but you know you’re going to feel tired later. That’s what “chronic” means: the fatigue keeps coming back. But you can hold on to those tickets to the Notre Dame football game, because—who knows, by Sunday, you may feel just fine, even if, by chance, you suffer a sudden relapse on Monday morning, and have to call in sick for work.
If you are thinking to yourself: “This doesn’t sound to me like a real disease.” well—it doesn’t claim to be. It’s called a “syndrome”. The “Family Health Book” put out by Mayo Clinic says “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” is evidently not a disease but—quote: “A collection of complaints without a clear cause.” Actually, it sounds more and more like this condition might characterize much of the human race.
In light of all this, you can appreciate how a person suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome could be in serious trouble. An ailment that is this difficult to describe, is likely to prove very difficult to treat or to cure. There is a positive way of looking at all this: if you happen to be a hypochondriac; if you are a person who likes to be sick and are annoyed by people continuously intruding upon you trying to make you “get well soon” . . . this could be the disease for you. Here is an ailment that is so tricky to identify and treat that you might realistically hope to suffer from it for a very long time to come—maybe the rest of your life.
It sounds strange to speak of someone who “likes to be sick”, but the curious fact is that, as much as people are wont to complain about their misery, once they have it, they can be surprisingly resistant to the idea of it being taken away. Like the man I was talking to one day who left me speechless with the retort: “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean people are not out to get me.” How very strange that someone would want to be sick? How strange that someone would choose to be in misery?
And then again, maybe it is not so strange. Many people today experience the demands made upon them by spouse, children, boss, colleagues as a bit overwhelming; simply too much to deal with, and going to bed sick for a day or two can provide one a space to breathe; to recoup. Actually, getting sick periodically can feel like a way to keep life’s pressures at a level that is manageable. Paradoxically, the misery of chronic illness can seem to supply a person with a sense of security and safety in the context of a life that feels like it’s spinning out of control.
That might explain the opening line of today’s first reading in which Israel is commanded, (actually given a direct command by God), to “take off her robe of misery“. Why would Israel have to be commanded to take off her misery? Does Israel want to be miserable? It will be pointed out that in the reading from Jeremiah, Israel has been doing penance. Israel is in misery because she’s repenting for her sins. That is true. But the fact that Israel has to be commanded by God to cease doing penance raises a very interesting question: How does the penitent know when he’s afflicted himself sufficiently? How much misery is enough? How do we know when it is time to stop making ourselves miserable in atonement for our sins—and begin rejoicing, clapping our hands, and singing in thanksgiving for the gift of God’s mercy?
Someone will say—well, it’s not time yet. It is Advent after all, a season traditionally observed by the Catholic Church as penitential. The call to repentance, after all, is explicit in today’s gospel where John, said to be “preaching a baptism of repentance“, cries out in the wilderness: “Make ready the way of the Lord! Clear him a straight path! Every valley shall be filled! Every mountain and hill shall be laid low!” One might interpret this gospel to be saying: Afflict yourself, do penance, draw misery round about yourself until you’re wearing it like a warm winter coat, and let misery be your security and safety against the day of judgment that is coming very soon. Why else does the church prepare us for Christmas every year by subjecting us to the fearful shouting of John the Baptist Preaching repentance and immanent judgement?
Does the image of John the Baptist wearing a hair shirt and shouting prophecy frighten you? Is it a little creepy to hear John predict that a day is coming very soon when “every mountain will be laid low” and course of rivers changed? Listen to the first reading’s explanation of why God is going to lay the mountains low: “God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low and that age-old depths be made level so that: Israel may advance secure in the glory of God, for God is leading Israel in joy by the light of his glory!” God wants to lead his people Israel to glory—and the mountains are in the way.
When do we stop afflicting ourselves? When do we put off our misery and sing the song of gladness? The thrust of all the readings this morning seems to suggest that time is coming very soon. “Take off your robe of mourning and misery Jerusalem! Put on the splendor of glory from God forever! God intends to show all the earth your splendor! Up Jerusalem – stand up on the heights!”
Brothers and sisters, your name is “Jerusalem“. God is speaking to you. The great night is coming very soon. The church is proclaiming it with a clarion voice, and when this night comes God is going to do something new in the world.
Something is about to happen in our midst which is going to change our human condition forever. A light is coming into the world that will be our happiness, our life, and our lasting reward. Will you meet the Lord when he comes with faith, confidence, and rejoicing, or will he find you suffering, from a collection of complaints – with no clear cause?
The Second Sunday of Advent
[Scripture Readings: Is 40:1-5, 9-ll; II Pt 3:8-14; Mk 1: l-8.]
As a young boy, I wasn’t always a model child and would sometimes get into fights with my siblings. My mother would break up the disputes with the warning: “Just wait until your father gets home.” This would sour the rest of the afternoon as we sat in gloomy anticipation of the punishment we would be given on his return. I wonder if our images of Advent really improve much on this pattern of waiting for a returning judge. The coming of God tends to provoke the image of a fearful unknown, with warnings to mend our behavior and repent to avoid harsh consequences. We can’t really learn too much from our contemporary culture about how to enter into this liturgical season. Society will tell us a lot about how to spend Christmas, but it leaves Advent alone. Its primary values are assertiveness, gratification, and immediacy. The biblical vocabulary for Advent is alien to society’s preoccupations. Patience, waiting, repentance, desert, salvation: these are all squeezed out by the demands for assertiveness, pleasure, and speed.
I once asked Jeremy Driscoll, OSB, if the classical anthropology of Greek and patristic thought — which understands the person in terms of body, soul, and spirit—was still helpful for people of today. He answered that those categories give us language to speak about our inner experiences, they give us access to an inner dimension of ourselves that otherwise we would ignore, misinterpret, or suppress. I am suggesting that this “alien” vocabulary of Advent gives us a language to acknowledge and enter into latent experiences in our own spirits and souls.
There are at least three ways in which the Advent season does this. First: it proclaims that our world and cosmos is not a closed system. We are not trapped within a finite range of possibilities, forcing us to aggressively obtain our share and defend it from all poachers and encroachers. Our world is addressed by the reality which embraces and transcends it. Maybe a better way to express this encounter is to say we are questioned by it—prodded at the deep points of our responsiveness and creativity. A tension and dissatisfaction is built into our own existence and we are called to go beyond ourselves even to be true to ourselves. Our lives are not matters of fate, but of destiny. Their meanings and implications are hidden in the mysterious plan of God which summons us into God’s future. The effort to find gratification and satisfaction numbs this level of sensitivity which is crucial to our responsiveness and obedience.
Secondly: our own lives exist in openness and relationship. The call to repentance is not an exercise in morbid self-purification or pseudo-perfectionism. Repentance acknowledges the ultimately related character of our being, that we do not and cannot live in isolated assertiveness. Confession of sins allows us to appropriate our responsibility for the impact of our behavior and attitudes on others and on our own bodies. We open our lives to a mercy which can redeem and heal the effects of the invasion of evil to which we had consented. Mark describes hordes of people running out of the towns into the desert to admit their sins and receive baptism from John. A baptism of repentance is good news because it lets the water of communion flow again in the covenant community.
And finally: living life takes a long time. The deepest and most significant human processes only unfold in an environment which allows a respectful time and space for them to emerge. Patience and waiting are written into the fabric of human life. Patience is not an exasperated suspension of activity or interference. It is itself a participation in the other, in which we give fully of ourselves. Rather than being closed off, we identify with what we wait for. In his Rule , Benedict says that we “participate by patience in the suffering of Christ.” He tells his monks to bear with patience the illnesses, sufferings and short-comings of other monks. In other words, he is telling us that our patience allows us to identify with them at that deep level in which suffering transforms the body, soul, and spirit. It is not an experience of “our own” patience, but an experience of the very patience of God. There is an immediacy in this experience, but it is one which respects the slow organic processes of historical and created existence.
The One who comes after John will baptize with the Holy Spirit. The Advent season allows us to enter into those deeply formative human experiences of hope, repentance, and patience and know that it is the very Spirit of Christ at work in us to give birth to his image in our hearts.