1st Sunday of Advent
“you know the time in which we are living; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness [and] put on the armor of light” Romans 13:11ff
Today the Church begins yet another new liturgical year. For two thousand years the Church has been renewing the cycle of her seasons and feasts, beginning with Advent and now, in our day, ending with the Feast of Christ the King. For two thousand years the Church has been preaching the message of Advent that we heard today in the Letter to the Romans and St. Matthew’s Gospel: that we are to wake up, stay awake and be prepared to meet the Lord, for we do not know when the Lord will return to judge our lives and settle out eternal fate.
What could possibly be more important for any of us than to be prepared for that final judgement, and yet how many people through the centuries have heard this warning and have remained indifferent, continuing their daily lives as if Christ were never coming to render judgement on their lives.
Moreover, Jesus knew this would be the case, sad to say, that very few people would be ready to meet Him when He returns in glory:
For as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In [those] days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be [also] at the coming of the Son of Man. Matt. 24:37-39
Of course, Jesus here is speaking precisely about His second coming in glory to judge the living and the dead, and he foretells that most people living then will not be ready to render an account of their lives; that they will be like the people in Noah’s day who were totally unprepared for the flood, to render an account of their lives to God, and they were swept away by the judgement of the flood. So it will be at the end of time, says Jesus, that many, perhaps most people will be totally unprepared to meet the judgement which will determine their fate for all eternity.
So today’s gospel challenges each of us personally. Are we really prepared to meet the Lord, should he come this very day? Are we even concerned about preparing ourselves for judgement by God, for, as Jesus warns, he will surely come at a time we do not expect “for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”
St. Paul also speaks of our salvation ever drawing nearer. This is a simple statement of fact since every day we live, this is one day closer to the day when Christ will return in glory to judge the living and the dead, and one day nearer to the day we will leave this world and render an account of ourselves before God. Paul warns us that salvation will be ours only if we have actually thrown off “the works of darkness” and “put on the armor of light,” that is, have “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” and made ‘no provision for the desires of the flesh.” In short we must always be ready, to render an account to Christ of our lives of faith or salvation will not be ours.
But for each of us, whether we are alive at the second coming or not, we must be ready every day. We must not fall asleep because the day of Christ’s return seems delayed, for each of us will one day die, and that will be our personal day of judgement, even if the world we leave behind continues to await that awful day of judgement when Christ will return in glory to judge all mankind. When we die, our judgement, our day of rendering an account will not be delayed till the end of time, the day of judgement that Christ speaks about in today’s gospel.
Catholic doctrine teaches us that each and every person will be judged instantly when he or she passes from this world, and that moment could be as sudden and unexpected as the second coming of Christ itself. We do not know the day or the hour either of the final judgement or our own personal rendering of an account of our lives. So we are challenged by these readings today – are we really living our lives in preparation for that moment when we shall stand before our creator and our judge?
Why are most people, including most Christians so unconcerned and therefore so uninterested in preparing for their judgement? There are several reasons I can think of in our day. There is the loss of the sense of sin today, a phenomenon which has been noticed even by some psychiatrists. Fewer and fewer people are conscious of the sinfulness of their lives and actions, no matter how grave, and are less capable of appreciating the gravity of their situation before God. Thus it does not enter their minds to prepare for their judgement.
Another reason may be the false presumption that pervades our society and even our churches, that God does not really care about our sins since Jesus died for them, and that God will not punish anyone in the end. In short our society and even many Christians believe that everyone is going to heaven regardless of how they live in this world. So once again, why be concerned about a judgement when everyone will be ultimately judged worthy of Heaven?
And, finally, there may be this lack of concern simply because of the tendency of our human nature to put off till tomorrow what should be done today. Even people who do not deny sin’s reality and who do not think God is simply going to judge everyone worthy of heaven still tend to put off to tomorrow any serious effort to make ready to meet the Lord when he comes. Here it is not a case of false presumption regarding God’s ignoring sin and justice; here it is a false presumption regarding how much time we have in this world. In the former cases, the majority, people will be totally unprepared as in the day of Noah; in the latter case, the minority of people, they will be prepared, but not as well as they might have been had they not wasted so much time in their lives doing nothing about strengthening their spiritual life to be better prepared to meet the Lord.
The first two roots of this lack of preparedness I believe are seriously deranged. The fact that Jesus died for our sins should not lead to radical ideas like universal salvation. Indeed, that fact of Jesus’ self-sacrifice for our sins should make us realize that our continuing to live in sin is the graver insult to God’s love and generosity than sin before that act of Christ. If anything, sins after the sacrifice of Calvary are more serious for the simple fact that they show gross ingratitude to the Father and the Son, the Father who gave up his son for our salvation and the Son who surrendered himself for our salvation. That was the thought of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and it should not lead us to a presumptuousness like universal salvation
However, it seems to me that most Church-goers at least are in that third category of people, those who take sin and the judgement somewhat seriously, but who tend to procrastinate or put off getting really serious about eternity. We do not pray enough; we do not practice enough self denial, we do not do enough penance for our past sins. We do only what is strictly necessary to be in the state of Grace, to be minimally ready for the judgement, but we do not do much more than the minimum. It’s as if we were saying, we are satisfied to be mediocre in our spiritual life, to do just enough to get into Heaven, but not much more.
Advent is great season of spiritual awakening. Advent tries to rouse us from our slumber, our spiritual laziness, to prepare ourselves not just for Christmas, His first coming, but even more importantly for Christ’s final coming and for our personal judgement, for the moment in which our place in God’s Kingdom will be set for all eternity. St Paul speaks positively when he says “our salvation is closer than we first accepted the faith.” Surely our salvation is what we are living for if we are believers, even if weak believers. Surely salvation is our genuine hope if we believe in Christ and are truly grateful for His death on our behalf! Yet we run a risk of falling away from that promise if we are willing to do only the minimum to hold on to it. How often Christ said that from those who are willing to do the minimum, like the man who buried the one talent in the parable, we may lose it all, that the little we have may be taken away from us.
There is no more serious business than the salvation of our immortal souls. Advent is a beautiful cry from God to stop dawdling and get prepared to meet Christ, which means to begin to strengthen our spiritual life through prayer and self-denial and penance for our sins. We must not presume that God’s justice will be overlooked in the final judgement, that God does not care about our sins. His Son died a terrible death for our sins, and that should warn us how much God cares about sin! And there is simply no basis at all in the Scriptures, including the words of Christ in the Gospels, for thinking that the final judgement will not separate the sheep from the goats. That is why for two thousand years the Church has begun her year in Advent with this appeal to wake up and get prepared. Who of us here in this Church knows for sure whether we will hear this appeal another time? Now is the time of our salvation. Now is the time to make a healthy Church new year’s resolution. I will put my soul’s health first in my concerns, and be better prepared to meet Christ upon his return.