Advent and the Curse of Midas

The Opening Prayer for the First Sunday of Advent, which will be this weekend, asks that we might “take the Lord’s coming seriously.” To speak of the coming of the Lord in such a way means that he is not already here in this specific form. He is outside of us. Now, if we are to take something from outside of us seriously then we cannot already be complete and self-sufficient. As the great modern theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar noted: “the subject that already contained the whole reservoir of its truth in itself would be struck with the curse of Midas.” He goes on to explain: “wherever it turned, it could find only itself and its own truth.”

We already have here the first glimmerings of what we understand as Hell. In the ancient story, Midas turned everything he touched into the gold that he coveted. The Catholic who operates in this way cannot receive anything from outside of himself. He believes that he is already self-sufficient and has all truth. Looking at the Church, for example, he would only see his own truth. There cannot be something new, something that he had not thought of or perceived before, something to be learned from the teaching of the Church.

Advent means recognizing that we do not have it all together on our own. We are indeed waiting for the truth to come from outside. Hence the Advent calls to conversion.

Practically speaking, are Jesus Christ and his Church products that we peddle or are they our very life? As long as the truth of Jesus and his Church remains outside us, we are only seeing ourselves in a mirror when we speak of the Church. Avoiding issues such as abortion, divorce, and other intrinsically evil acts, or when we get together with other Catholics and discuss anything but Jesus Christ and his Church, we hold the reality of Christ at arm’s length. Jesus Christ is a wonder who wants to speak, but he cannot if he is shut out. When the material preparations for a wedding, for example, get a hundred times more attention and effort than the spiritual preparations, we are just seeing ourselves in the mirror of events. The same, sadly, often happens with ordinations. Such marriages and ordinations seem to be about affirming ourselves rather than encountering the vast spiritual realities that accompany our meager actions.

The Midas phenomenon is cultural as well. There are university professors who still dream of American universities providing an alternative magisterium that reflects American liberal culture rather than theological absolutes. But as Joseph Ratzinger has observed, “a faith one makes up for oneself is not a faith at all.” It lacks the openness to the other outside myself, in this case, to the Magisterium of the Church of Jesus Christ. Then there are bishops who do not want to correct priests out of a misplaced sense of tolerance or, worse, out of an anxiety about their next appointment. There are religious who turn religious vocation into a life of travel and ease instead of prayer and service. The self just keeps coming to the fore, as if we are already perfect, as if we are already complete, as if we do not need correction.

      The self just keeps coming to the fore . . .

The Midas touch lies behind using political labels – liberal and conservative – for doctrinal matters. The individual is mirrored in the labels he uses and remains safely sheltered and unchallenged.  Political labels suggest, incorrectly, that the content of doctrines can be modified. Changing a doctrine one way makes one a liberal and in another way makes one a conservative. But at the heart of the matter, what’s needed is honesty and a recognition that dogmas that can change put in doubt their very truth.

There is a reason for the application of political terms to discussions about the Church. In politics, if a majority holds something then it is considered right. To illustrate: most Catholics in America are pro-abortion.  Calling this position “liberal” lets them off the hook, at least in their own minds. They are in a large company on this issue and take comfort in that. Nevertheless, in the real world, something is true if it is true. It does not matter how many people hold a certain view or the opposite. The truth simply stands – if necessary, in judgment. Whether people wish it were not true, or are more comfortable if it is not true, does not enter into the real point a wit. The truth is still the truth. What is true does not arise out of the selfishness of individuals or their need to avoid changing their minds.

The story of Midas does not end there. He starved because the food he touched turned to gold. The gold of self-sufficiency, of imagining that what one thinks is automatically unchallengeable, means a life starved of truth. There is no space for the real Christ or his Church. Time for conversion. Time for Advent.