Sunday, November 30, 2008

Fire and Brimstone

Ah there’s nothing like kicking off Advent (the liturgical season in which we remember the first coming of Christ and keep watch for his second coming) with a little fire and brimstone. Today’s readings reminded me of a couple of important things. First off, here’s a bit from the first reading:

“Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind. There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt” (Isaiah 64:4-6).

I like to say that the Good News (the Gospel) is so good because the bad news is so bad. An example of good news for my father was when he found out from the doctor that he was getting a life-saving quadruple heart bypass. Now if a doctor came to me and just told me to get a heart bypass I better well need one! And that’s exactly why sin – especially original sin – must be real. If it were not, there would be no need for Christianity. Having Christianity without sin would be like writing the Lord of the Rings without the Ring!

And it’s not that Christianity simply focuses on sin but rather that the evil of sin is what launches us into this great war for the eternal souls of our brothers and sisters, just as the Ring is what propelled the fellowship to attempt its destruction. Trying times can bring out the best in humanity – and when God’s involved, all the better!

But the point of the passage from Isaiah is that it points out the sinfulness of human beings. G.K. Chesterton once quipped that original sin can be seen by simply picking up the newspaper. Of course our society does whatever it can to deny sin, and thus deny our own responsibility for sin. But at the same time, we can easily look at the world and see people acting quite evil – even if we refuse to see it in ourselves. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We need a savior. Thus, to me, the question is never: why do bad things happen to good people?, but rather, why do good things happen to bad people?

But now to the good news found in the second reading:

“I give thanks to my God always on your account for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus, that in him you were enriched in every way… God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:4-5, 9).

As we have all heard a thousand times, God so loved the world that he sent his only son… But there is more. To have faith in the Son means to join the very body of that Son. We enter into Christ when we enter into the Church, which is his body. At baptism we die and are reborn, made anew, conformed to the New Adam while the old Adam in us is put to death. This is why St. Paul says that “the grace of God [was] bestowed on you IN Christ Jesus…”

God is faithful. Sure God could have justly destroyed all of humanity for sin – but he didn’t! Instead he worked out a recue plan. Covenant after covenant he swore with our ancestors and one by one the human race failed. But instead of whipping out humanity, God joined his nature with ours and took upon himself each and every curse of the covenants – rendering justice but giving mercy.

What’s most important is that faith does something. Check out the Gospel (Mark 13:33-37):

Jesus said to his disciples: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch. Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”

Yes, yes I think we all get the glaringly obvious message of being watchful for Christ’s return. But I think there’s more there. The home in the parable is like the Church, and we have entered into it and have each been given a special work to do on the Church’s behalf. The gatekeeper to me symbolizes St. Peter and his successors (the popes), who have been given the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 16). They should be especially watchful! But more still, it’s easy for us to get caught up in whatever our job is or whatever we are doing. We have to remember that our work must be ordered to the coming of Christ.

Otherwise we work in vain.

Works are very good and have been spoken of time and time again in the Bible. But if our work is to “earn” salvation or to somehow try to make an earthly paradise, our works are meaningless. This world is good, but it is fallen. We must bring Christ to earth on a daily basis by making his name known, not simply by giving money or working at a homeless shelter.

So as you move along through Advent and do all that shopping and sacrificing while getting ready for family and fun, think to the future and make sure your works are building towards Jesus’ second coming (and of course, the final judgment)!

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