Caught between the two comings of Christ, we receive light from the past and the coming of Christ into human history, as well as light from the future at His second coming. We need both past and the future – to guide us in the present.
St. Athanasius says of the first coming of Christ to the human race that, “by such grace perceiving the Image, that is, the Word of the Father, they may be able through Him to get an idea of the Father, and knowing their Maker, live the happy and truly blessed life.” Christ, then, brings us a new state of life.
How does this idea translate into daily existence? In Christ’s own words: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:34-36)
That’s the translation of Catholicism into daily life. Christ has died for our sins, freed us from the reign of sin, and so we are now free to live the kind of life where we actually feed the hungry, welcome strangers, and all the rest. We heard this on the Solemnity of Christ the King, the celebration of the second coming of Christ when he will finally return to rule over all.
Christ has opened up the possibilities of being a real human being by his death and resurrection. In the Hobbesian world in which we normally find ourselves, however, as the pope has observed: “On the one hand every person knows that he must do good and intimately wants to do it. Yet at the same time he also feels the other impulse to do the contrary, to follow the path of selfishness and violence, to do only what pleases him, while also knowing that in this way he is acting against the good, against God, and against his neighbor.”
As a consequence of this evil power in our souls, a murky river developed and flows through time, which poisons the landscape of human history. Blaise Pascal, the great French thinker, spoke of a “second nature” superimposed on our original, good nature. This “second nature” makes evil “appear normal to man.” (Benedict XVI)
That image of the “murky river” rightly captures the ongoing historical horrors. The examples are too many to count, but consider just one, the historian Jay Winik’s comment on the end of the eighteenth century: “America tragically retained slavery, thus sullying its beginnings and inexorably sowing the seed for a terrible civil war.”
Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, mosaic at Sant’Apollinare Nuovo,
Ravenna, Italy, c. 500
That’s Pascal’s “second nature” writ into the origins of the nation and the subsequent deaths of half a million people. The sin produced a horror sixty years after an otherwise remarkable founding. What whirlwind will the present three thousand abortions a day reap, a body count already 100 times as great as the American Civil War produced?
But the “second nature” can be seen virtually everywhere. It’s hardly rare, even in the Church, to find today formation houses in Catholic religious congregations that might as well be affiliates of an American political party known for its passionate defense of abortion. They have much better things to teach and learn, yet reduce much of the faith to politicized banality.
Then, Pascal’s “second nature” can be seen among clergy who live a regal life style. Or it surfaces among laity who choose to ignore Church teaching in order not to be too inconvenienced. The poison finds many ways to seep in.
The readings for today’s Mass for the First Sunday in Advent echo the problem in the bitterest terms. Isaiah says: “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.” (64:5) The prophet knows that in fact regardless of the fog of sin that we ourselves have created, “we are the clay and you the potter.” There is just no getting past it. God is master of the universe. Denial does not make it any less true.
With the psalmist we sing: “give us new life, and we will call upon your name.” The psalmist also knows that only God can make this right. We sing: “Lord, make us turn to you.” We have to acknowledge that any change will come from God.
And in fact, in Christ, that new life has come. Paul tells the Corinthians: “in him you were enriched in every way, with all discourse and all knowledge, as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you, so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In his usual superabundant way, God has graced us so that there is no upper limit to what we can do in his grace. (I Corinthians 1:5-7) That’s why Jesus can exhort us in the Gospel to “Watch.” Otherwise the subtle poison will work itself among us, either in our doing evil or in avoiding good.
The beginning of Advent means we start to anticipate that great feast when Christ came among us. But to come properly to that joyful day, we must watch even as we wait.
That is the spirit of Advent.