4th Sunday of Advent
In the traditional liturgy of the Church there are two thoughts that are never separated: the first coming of Christ in the lowliness of our flesh to save; His second coming in the glory of His reign to judge. The two comings are sharply contrasted in Christian art. The faithful who enter the cathedral of Amiens in France, for example, are welcomed by the gentle image of Christ the Good Shepherd, but just above, they can perceive the fierce image of Christ the Judge at the end of times. St Teresa of Avila in the Interior Castle, relating the ineffable sweetness of the face of Christ that she saw in contemplation, makes an observation that we might find helpful. She says that the soul who has been favoured with such a vision cannot fear the fires of hell. The reason? The eternal torture of hell pales in comparison with the thought of that sweet, gentle gaze of Christ turning into a fierce, condemnatory reproach on the last day. In other words, the worst thing about condemnation to hell for the damned soul is to see the merciful eyes of Christ turn against it into wrathful condemnation, as Our Lord Himself tells us will happen, at the end of chapter 25 in St Matthew: Then he shall say to them also that shall be on his left hand: Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels… And these shall go into everlasting punishment (Mt 25:41 and 46).
A striking example of this inseparability of the two comings in the mind of the Church is the epistle of yesterday’s Mass of Ember Saturday. We were there given to read the second chapter of St Paul’s second epistle to the Thessalonians, in which the apostle tells of the rebellion of the latter days which will lead into the reign of the anti-Christ, the son of perdition, who will exalt himself and take seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. St Paul assures us that the Lord Jesus will come and destroy him with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of His coming.
The apostle writes some mysterious words in this passage: you know what is now restraining him. This “restrainer” (katechon in Greek) is variously interpreted, but the most useful way to understand it is this: what restrains the anti-Christ from coming is the fervour of faith of believers, and that faith was historically sustained by the Roman Empire which, once converted to the faith, became a major restrainer of evil and a promoter of the true faith and moral life, favouring the spreading of the Gospel. That empire and its various heirs ceased to have any serious influence in the world over two centuries ago. Since then, we have been on a slippery slope on which at the moment it would seem that all the restrainers have vanished from the scene, opening the way for the anti-christ. Tragically, the most alarming sign in our days is that many prelates of the Church themselves, by watering down the faith and assuring everyone that we are all going to heaven in spite of how we live, seem now to have become servants of the antichrist or at least are playing his game. St Paul urges us to play our role to restrain him and the way to do that is to keep the faith alive and live truly Christian lives. Imagine yourself in a very cold and dark winter night, one by one the great fires are extinguished, but you still have your fire, your candle, and as long as there is just one burning, a conflagration can come from it. By holding firm to the true faith, by living truly Christian lives, we can serve as restrainers for the appearance of the son of perdition. Believe me, you do not want to be alive in the days of the anti-Christ.
One of the most obvious signs of the demise, not only of Christianity, but of any belief in God, paving the way for the anti-Christ, is what many today call the primacy of conscience. In the same breath, pastors and theologians will condemn something as sinful, and then say that in the end the individual has to make up their own mind. This was typified in the response of many bishops and theologians to the encyclical Humanae Vitae of Paul VI on the intrinsic evil of contraceptive practices. It is taken a step further today when we hear with repeated insistence that politicians who support abortion are supporting the murder of babies, but that we should respect their consciences and not refuse them access to the most precious gift of the Church, namely Holy Communion. In other words, the Church is seen to be in communion with baby-murderers.
What is this attitude if it is not for man to sit in the temple of God showing himself as if he were God? (Cf. 2 Th 2:4). What does it mean to say: “this is evil, but you need to make up your own mind about it, and we will respect your choice and pretend you are ok” if not to allow man to take the place of God? This is no doubt why in today’s epistle, from 1 Corinthians, St Paul tells us: I am not conscious to myself of anything: yet am I not hereby justified, but He that judges me is the Lord. Indeed, it is not because my conscience does not reproach me that I am justified before God. God’s law is objective, it is knowable, anyone of good faith can find it out. If it is true in the civil order that no one is deemed to be ignorant of the law – and you can be legitimately fined for not obeying a law you were unaware of – how much more for God’s law? St Paul concludes the passage: Therefore judge not before the time, until the Lord come: Who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise from God. Indeed, all the filth hidden in hearts that have preferred the darkness to the light will be made manifest. But so will the virtue and courage of those who speak clearly of God and His commandments, who are often scorned by the world and even by worldly prelates; the counsels of their hearts will be praised by God.
This is also why Holy Church is attentive to making sure we have the means of truly hearing the voice of our conscience and not confusing it with the voice of our egotistic desires. She puts before us in the last days before Christmas the preaching of St John Baptist. In today’s account by St Luke, we are given four prophecies which convey four graces of the Messianic times: Every valley shall be filled: and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways plain. The valleys to be filled are the lowliness of humble souls who will be filled with the grace and light of God; the mountains and hills are the proud who, in spite of their foolish dreams will be brought low and forced to acknowledge their stupidity in thinking they could stand up to God; the crooked are those who, while acknowledging God and His Church, distort her teachings in such a way as to make them bend to the whims of their sensuality, leading to the substitution of man for God as we saw earlier; the rough are those who, while just and holy, need to be rubbed and polished by means of many trials, to get rid of the dross that takes away from their lustre before God and allow themselves to be carved into true saints for the kingdom. Acceptable men are tried in the furnace of humiliation (cf. Eccli 2:5).
In all this, Mother Church continually reminds us of the one who is inseparable from Jesus, namely Mary Immaculate. If the two comings of Our Lord are constantly brought together by the liturgy, so are Mary and Jesus. Let us, too, in this last week before the new nativity of Our Blessed Saviour, turn our minds and hearts to the gentle, pure Virgin of Nazareth. Let us ask her for the grace to be ever open to God’s workings in our soul, to humble ourselves before Him, to live according to His commandments, to not fool ourselves into thinking that we are “ok” simply because we have succeeded in persuading ourselves for whatever reason that we are an exception to the Law, that the world and God owe us something because of things we have suffered in the past. All this is just a copout, a way of justifying ourselves, but as we saw, it is also a way of making sure we stay in the dark. Let us ask Mary Immaculate to straighten out all that is crooked in us, all that is distorted, and that leads us away from the true path of salvation. Finally, let us ask that sweet Mother to teach us her gentle ways, to even out all that is rough and uneven in our temperament, in our words, in our actions. In this way, our sweet Jesus, the Divine Babe, who is meek and humble of heart, will recognise us as His when He comes to us on Christmas night.