Sunday will be Gaudete Sunday, when the Church in this season of repentance and anticipation ramps up the focus on the anticipation and takes a slight break in the repentance, signaling the change of focus with a change of vestments, from the purple we associate with penance and mourning, to the rose, hinting at the white vestments that will be worn at Christmas Mass. Among all the many great Advent hymns that communicate this sense of anticipation, one of my favorites is “O Come, divine Messiah!”:
O come, divine Messiah!
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away.
The several stanzas of the great French Advent carol capture the twofold experience of watchfulness that is at the essence of Advent: We recall Israel’s anticipation of the coming of the Messiah and we look forward to the return of Jesus, the Messiah, at the end of time.
The sadness that we hope will “flee away” is the sadness that inevitably follows in the wake of sin and death. We sin, usually, because it is fun, but it is fun in a self-destructive way, always inviting us to place a limited good in front of a greater good, sometimes in front of the greatest good which is God. Conceptually, I understand the difference between an intrinsic evil and an extrinsic one, but they all seem to end up at the same place: sadness, forlornness, abandonment, which may thrill in the beginning when it masquerades as freedom, but is terribly de-humanizing on the morrow.
We can’t escape sin in this life. Even the holiest people, especially the holiest people, know that they too must have recourse to the confessional. The sins of the flesh are easy to spot, less easy to resist, but the sins of the spirit stalk us all our lives long. Envy lives among the successful. Malice can well up inside the heart of a man whose life offers almost every contentment a human life can offer. Pride, the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, works its way into our good deeds and generous motivations. What distinguishes the holy person, finally, is not the absence of sin, but the absence of despair, the sure confidence in the power of God to redeem and save. As I have noted before, the Church requires that a priest who is to become an exorcist must be an especially holy priest because the Devil will hold up his own sins to him, to tempt him to despair. So long as he can maintain his sure hope in the power of God to save, the exorcist can always invoke God’s power to defeat the demon. Sin always ends in despair and, often enough, starts there too. Despair is the currency of the Devil.
Beyond the hurdles of sin, there is the abyss of death. I was talking with a friend the other day about the experience of death, and its abysmal loneliness. That is the source of the horror: Someone upon whom we have come to rely for our own sense of well-being is taken from us, and taken forever, taken finally. Even when we are surrounded by loved ones, people who also loved the person who has died, we feel alone, that person’s absence manifesting itself. Evil is always an absence, said Augustine in addressing the issue of theodicy, but his insight pertains precisely to our experience of the evilness of death. The final, irrevocable absence of a loved one is wrenching, as Augustine describes in The Confessions, reflecting on the death of his childhood friend.
Obviously, we cannot, on our own, overcome death anymore than we can overcome sin. We moderns live in the shadow of Freud’s suspicions about our Christian belief in eternal life. He thought this belief was a mere projection of our desires, not to be trusted. But, every other desire of the human heart has something that corresponds to it. If I am hungry, I can eat something to satisfy my hunger. If I thirst, there is drink to slake my thirst. If I am feeling in need of exercise, I can make a walk. Why would this one desire, this deepest desire, of the human heart, the desire to live forever with those we love, have no correspondent satisfaction? I am more suspicious of Freud than I am of the Gospels.
We need a savior. Advent is a tricky time for the Christian. We anticipate what has already begun. We look forward to what has already arrived. And then we look to our own sins and our experience of death and wonder what precisely has changed because of Jesus’ birth. When I entertain such thoughts, I remember the words of Augustine: Lord, I believe. Help me with my unbelief. And, I get out my copy of Pope Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth, the first one in the trilogy, wherein we find these beautiful words:
What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought?
The answer is very simple: God. He has brought God. He has brought the God who formerly unveiled his countenance gradually, first to Abraham, then to Moses and the Prophets, and then in the Wisdom Literature – the God who revealed his face only in Israel, even though he was also honored among the pagans in various shadowy guises. It is this God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the true God, whom he has brought to the nations of the earth.
He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope, and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little. Yes, indeed, God’s power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and lasting power. Again and again, God’s cause seems to be in its death throes. Yet over and over again it proves to be the thing that truly endures and saves.
Advent, then, is the time to soften our hearts, especially in this Year of Mercy, so that we do not think that Jesus’ bringing God is too little, that we recognize our need for a savior and believe in faith that the savior has come, bringing God to the nations. Then, with softened, faithful hearts, hope shall sing its triumph, and sadness flee away. Gaudete!