Advent is here. It is one of my favorite liturgical seasons not least because it is so completely counter-cultural. The Christmas ornaments have been on display at my neighborhood grocery store since Halloween. The world has already begun celebrating Christmas, if you can call the orgy of materialism a celebration, but the Church gives us this season of four weeks, recognizing that preparing the heart for the coming of Christ takes longer than preparing the house for a holiday party.
Black Friday is well named. It has turned this season of expectancy into a season of instant gratification. The consumerism of our culture provides an easy path to what it deems happiness. Our culture tells us that if we only acquire this gadget or that trinket, we shall be happy, and we shall be happiest of all if we can get them at a discount. The culture of consumerism simultaneously robs us of our freedom, generating false needs and false gods, and it makes us lords of the consumerist realm. We get to choose. That is our name on that credit card. We are in control. Even when the purchasing of gifts for Christmas is a thoughtful task born out of love, it is all too easy to see ourselves as the source of the happiness we hope those gifts will engender, rather than seeing all human desire to express love, including gift-giving, as rooted in that prior source of love, the Incarnation.
Last week, I spoke about gratitude as a posture, a stance towards the world, one that is essential in the spiritual life. In Advent, we encounter another essential stance, expectancy, and this stance is also one that is difficult to fathom in our culture and especially in our Church. We have lowered our sights. In the culture, we expect material gifts to bring us happiness. In the Church, we expect that more people at Mass, or lives lived with greater moral purpose, or that more social justice, or that more fidelity to the Magisterium, or that better bishops, or any one of a number of things will suffice to serve as goals.
Advent blows such slim expectations away. Advent reminds us that God comes in surprising ways, that His ways do not correspond to our plans. Many Israelites expected a powerful savior, capable of delivering them from the evil of political reign of Rome. But, God sent them a savior yet more powerful than any they could have conceived, one who delivered them from a greater evil, indeed from all evil, a savior who could conquer not just the Romans, but death itself. And, instead of sending an army, he sent His Son via a poor pregnant woman from Nazareth. Her poverty and her obedience, “Let it be done to me according to Thy will,” these are shown to be more powerful than armies, even armies of Black Friday shoppers.
Can we see that? It is a common place to lament the secularization of our day, and so we should: Living as if God did not exist is inhumane and it is false. But, how often are we complicit in the process? How often do we reduce the saving Gospel of Christ with this political agenda or that ecclesiastical change or some measurable moral improvement. I am all for politics, and recognize the necessity of certain ecclesiastical changes, and who is opposed to moral improvement? But, we don’t need a savior for that, do we? Instead of lowering our sights, we should raise them. Instead of preaching a gospel reduced merely to social justice or theological conformity or sexual purity, Advent demands that we look away from what we can accomplish on our own, and towards the unknown, towards what God wishes to accomplish in us. Advent demands that we not extinguish a genuine expectancy with a plethora of plans and programs. Advent demands that we recognize that it is not we who are coming into the world – we are already here – but it is Christ who is coming into the world.
Do not get me wrong. I am all for social justice and sexual purity. I am no fan of bad theology. But, these must flow from our prior awareness of the awesomeness, and the surprising character, of the Incarnation, not the other way round. We are committed to the good not as pagans, but as Christians. And, so we know that the good is greater than mere justice, the Christian good demands mercy too. We know, as Christians, that there is more to the moral life than sexual philistinism, and that prudes are far from the kingdom, doing the right thing for the wrong reason. We know that a more just society and more rigorous moral lives will be fleeting, that we will sin again, that greed will manifest itself anew, that the fight for justice is on-going and un-ending. And, besides, Advent reminds us that we want more than a just world and pure lives, great though these are. We want a savior, one whose justice is unending, one who takes our human loves and elevates them, one who is the source of truth that grounds all intellectual inquiry, and one who can conquer death itself.
Advent reminds us that the cultivation of expectancy requires a diminution in the importance we attach to our own agendas and a willingness to discern in the example of Mary the model of Christian discipleship. Advent is the quintessential Marian season. She was, as we say, “expecting.” She was capable of bringing the Christ child into the world because of her humility and her obedience. Whatever agendas she entertained for herself, she threw them out the window when the angel came in.
The other day I received an email from a friend who was lamenting the state of the Church. There is much to lament. He called attention to the large number of people who are leaving the Church, which is indeed a thing to lament. But, I have to ask myself when I encounter this phenomenon of people leaving: Are they going because the demands of Christian discipleship are too great, or are they going because we have watered down the Gospel into something easy-to-grasp, something that is all too easily manipulated for this or that profane objective? I worry that when we fret about secularization outside the Church, we fail to see the degree to which too many churchmen and churchwomen are complicit in the process of secularization, too willing to bring God into the world in predictable ways, too willing to hitch the Gospel to our politics or our prejudices, and always, always, always, too unwilling to look to those areas of our lives that are in radical need of conversion.
Advent is a time to re-convert ourselves, and, because it is so counter-cultural, to recognize that conversion begins not in this good deed or that act of penance. Conversion begins because God wills it. Conversion begins in the heart of Christ and flows out to us through the sacraments of the Church and the ministry to the poor. Conversion is, finally, about that most un-21st century of skills, the ability to cede the initiative, to let it be done to us according to His will, the recognition, finally, that the Christmas we await, and the Christian life to which we aspire, is not primarily about us, but about Him.