Thursday, December 13, 2012

Advent 2012

If you view Advent as a time of purification, of evacuating the self to make room for Christ in you at Christmas, it will appear as a little Lent. It would be likening Advent to the state of desert, which is precisely the meaning of Lent as desert experience. Benedict XVI explained that the German word for Lent is “Season of Fasting,” of overcoming the self in order to stand fast against the natural tendency to dissipation.

                Advent has a different and bigger meaning. It is salvation history itself writ small. Its proper understanding demands refocusing the meaning of “God-with-us.” Indeed, God has become man in Jesus Christ and is with us, and continues to be with us. He has not gone off to heaven leaving us alone in what can seem to be a desert. Recall that the apostles returned from Olivet – the mount of the Ascension – rejoicing. He continued to be with them invisibly in much the same way that He was with the two disciples – unrecognized - on the road to Emmaus.

   In an early sermon (1964), Benedict explained that because of the discrepancy between Christ’s announcement that “the time is accomplished: the kingdom of God has arrived,”[1] and the apparent failure of said arrival, “Christian theology… turned the kingdom of God into a kingdom of heaven that is beyond this mortal life; the well-being of men became a salvation of souls, which again comes to pass beyond this life, after death.”[2] In a word, the expectation of the kingdom of God taking place on this earth was put aside and vaulted out of reach into the beyond of space and time. Heaven is “up there” and beyond the “now.” The presence of Christ on earth is put on hold and stored. It now made sense that He would not be recognized since He was not here now.
                Even when physically present, He also seemed not to be recognized by John the Baptist. From jail, John sent out messengers asking Christ if He was really the Messiah or “shall we look for another?”[3] Christ responds: “Go and tell John what it is that you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.”[4] Of course, John identified Christ at the Baptism when He heard the voice of the Father and saw the Dove; yet he himself testified twice “And I did not know Him” (Jn. 1, 31, 33). Puzzling! He sees, hears, gives testimony with a burning triumphalism that He, the Messiah,“ will clean out his threshing floor” and “the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire” (Lk. 3, 17). And so, John knows, but doesn’t know.

                And so it is with Advent. Benedict describes it with a kind of short hand: “already,” “not yet.”[5] That is, Christ is present already but not fully so yet. What does this mean?

                First consider the remarks of St. Josemaria Escriva concerning the locution he received during Mass on August 7, 1931: “At the moment of elevating the Sacred Host, without losing proper recollection, without being distracted… there came to my mind, with extraordinary force and clarity, the phrase of Scripture ‘et si exaltatus fuero a terra, Omnia/omnes traham ad me ipsum” [And I , if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all things/men to myself] (Jn. 12, 32). Ordinarily, in the face of the supernatural, I am afraid. Afterward comes the ne timeas [do not be afraid], it is I. And I understood that it would be the men and women of God who would lift the Cross with the doctrines of Christ over the pinnacle of all human activity… And I saw Christ our Lord triumph, drawing all things to himself.
                “Despite feeling  empty of virtue and knowledge (humility is truth…, without beating around the bush), I wanted to write books of fire that would run through the world like a living flame, filling mean with their light and warmth, converting poor hearts into read-hot coals, to offer them to Jesus as rubies of his royal crown” [see ftn. #6 below]

                Coverdale continues, “Reflecting years later on this experience, Escriva said that he understood our Lord to be saying those words to him ‘not in the sense in which the Scripture says them. I say it to you in the sense that you are to raise me up in all human activities, in the sense that all over the world there should be Christians with a personal and most free dedication, that they be other Christs[6] (emphasis mine).

                Recently, to my astonishment because of its identity with this locution of Escriva, I discovered Chapter VII of Vatican II’s “Lumen Gentium” #48 to read: “Christ, having been lifted up from the earth has drawn all men to Himself. Rising from the dead He sent His life-giving Spirit upon His disciples and through Him has established His Body which is the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation. Sitting at the right hand of the Father [this is not a place but the locus of supreme power], He is continually active in the world that He might lead men to the Church and through it join them to Himself and that He might make them partakers of His glorious life by nourishing them with His own Body and Blood. Therefore the promised restoration which we are awaiting has already begun in Christ, is carried forward in the mission of the Holy Spirit and through Him continues in the Church…” (emphasis mine).

 And the next paragraph begins with “Already the final age of the world is with us (cf. a Cor. 10, 11) and the renewal of the world is irrevocably under way;’ it is even now anticipated in a certain real way, for the Church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real though imperfect.” This “sanctity… real though imperfect” is explained in the next paragraph with “we are truly called and indeed are children of God (cf. 1 Jn.  3, 1) though we have not yet appeared with Christ in glory (cf. Col. 3, 4) in which we will be like to God, for we will see him as he is (cf. 1 Jn. 3, 2).  This ultimately means that to see God as He is, we must be like God since only God knows God.[7] That is, since there is only one one Son of God, to be children of God we must all become other Christs.

                It means that Christ is present in the world here and now insofar as you and I have become “other Christs.” It does not refer to an objectified institution - an “It” - such as Christendom. It refers to the transformation of “I’s” into the “I Am” of the burning bush[8] - subjects into the Subject -  Jesus Christ as face and name of God. St. Paul speaks about a growth of Christ in the world by a transformation of persons into Christ. It is not simply a following of Christ or an imitation of Christ. John Paul II quotes St. Augustine saying to the baptized: “Let us rejoice and give thanks for we have become not only Christians, but Christ (…) Marvel and rejoice: we have become Christ!”[9] Christ becomes progressively present in the world by the transformation of Christians – and others - into Christ.

                Emphasis should be put on the words “in the world” since this most personal and intimate encounter with Christ can take place in the exercise of ordinary work and family life. Did not Vatican II emphasize that the laity seek the kingdom of God – which is the Person of Christ Himself[10] - by engaging in temporal affairs.[11] And did not John Paul II emphasize that this becoming Christ by working in the world is the meaning of “secularity” as the “characteristic” of the laity?[12]

                And is not the whole point of the Year of Faith the recovery of the enthusiasm for having the Lord with us? Doesn’t Benedict XVI see the present state of affairs – without and within the Church - as a practical atheism that is like the chosen people in the desert? At one point in his “Eschatology,” Ratzinger quipped “However did we arrive at that tedious and tedium-laden Christianity which we moderns observe and, indeed, know from our own experience?”[13] The task before us is similar to the People of God who had traversed the desert with Moses and was on the point of taking the Promised Land. At the negative report of the scouts who had been sent to reconnoiter it, the people, turned back on themselves and counting only on their own strength, grumbled against the Lord and against Moses. Caleb and Joshua alone trusted in the Lord with faith: “The country which we went through and explored is a fine, rich land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us in and give us that land, a land flowing with milk and honey. But do not rebel against the Lord! You need not be afraid of the people of that land… Their defense has left them, but the Lord is with us. Therefore, do not be afraid of them.”[14]

                “It is Advent… The first thing we have to accept is, ever and again, this reality of an enduring Advent. If we do that, we shall begin to realize that the borderline between ‘before Christ’ and ‘after Christ’ does not run through historical time, in an outward sense, and cannot be drawn on any map; it runs through our own hearts. Insofar as we are living on a basis of selfishness, of egoism, then even today we are ‘before Christ.’ But in this time of Advent, let us ask the Lord to grant that we may live less and less ‘before Christ,’ and certainly not ‘after Christ,’ but truly with Christ and in Christ; with him who is indeed Christ yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13, 8). Amen.”[15]

[1] J. Ratzinger, “What It Means to Be a Christian,” Ignatius (2006)28.
[2] Ibid
[3] Lk. 7, 19.
[5] J. Ratzinger, “Dogma and Preaching,” Franciscan Herald Press (1985) 71-77.
[6] J. Coverdale, “Uncommon Faith,” Scepter (2002) 89-90.
[7] “No one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and him to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Mt. 11, 27).
[8] Exodus 3, 14.
[9] John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor #21.
[10] “The kingdom of God is not a concept, a doctrine or a program subject to free interpretation, but it is before all else a person with the face and name of Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the invisible God;” John Paul II, “Redemptoris Missio” #18.
[11] “By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will. They live in the world, that is, they are engaged in each and every work and business of the earth and in the ordinary circumstances of social and family life which, as it were, constitute their very existence. There they are called by God that , being led by the spirit to the Gospel, they may contribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties;” LG #31.
[12] John Paul II “Christifideles Laici” #15.
[13] J. Ratzinger, “Eschatology,” CUA (1988) 8.
[14] Numbers 14. 8-9.
[15] J. Ratzinger, “What It Means To be a Christian,” op. cit. 40.

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