First Sunday of Advent – December 1, 2019
Saint Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122:1-9; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44
Beginning Advent, we all start getting really hyped for Christmas. I mean, right after Thanksgiving it became “socially acceptable” to start listening to Christmas music. A lot of people get their decorations out for Christmas on Thanksgiving. Advent is that time where everything becomes focused on preparing for Christmas and getting ready for it. But sometimes we need to take a step back, and remind ourselves what we’re really celebrating. Yes, Christmas is when we celebrate Jesus’ birth, the day that God was born as a little baby. But that really cheapens it. Because God didn’t become man because he wanted to hang-out with us. It’s deeper.
I was hanging out with some friends this past week, and I had this really interesting conversation with one of them. Now, he’s been a Catholic his whole life. And he wanted some advice on how to talk to people about the Catholic faith, about why Catholicism is “right.” And I told him one thing: “You have to make them look at their experience.” And he just smiled and was like, “Oh, yeah. Ok……..What does that mean? What do you mean, ‘Make them look at their experience’?” And I told him, “Well, there isn’t one argument you can make that is going to ‘convince someone’ that the Catholic Church is the right Church. That’s not how people work.” And we all know this. I mean, just because someone makes an argument for something, doesn’t mean that you buy it. For example, “If God exists, then I cannot be free. But I am free. Therefore, God does not exists” (Jean Paul Sartre). Are you all convinced that God doesn’t exist? No! Even though the argument is logically sound, you don’t accept it; it doesn’t change your mind. And so I told him again, “You have to make them look at their experience. When someone is trying to determine whether something is true, it takes much more than just words or reasons to change their mind. It takes the totality of their experience! What you are proposing has to correspond to all of their experience.”
And he smiled, confused still, and so I showed him. I asked him, “What do you want in life?” And he said, “To be happy.” “Great. People have said that for millennium. I mean, even Plato and Aristotle talked about happiness being the goal. So what makes you happy?” And so we went through it. (1) There are certain foods that make you happy, movies, books, you name it. A lot of instant gratification. And that’s good, those are real kinds of happiness. But you have to call them what they are: it’s instant gratification; it’s not going to make you happy in the long-run. And some kinds of instant gratification are harmful in the long run. (2) But then there is the happiness of being successful, having a good job and a good life, having people respect you, having people compliment you. And again, that’s a real kind of happiness. It’s like you work on a project for a long time, put in hard work, and then finally have the satisfaction of seeing it complete. That’s a real kind of happiness. But it’s very egocentric, it’s very focused on yourself. But everyone agrees that it’s a lot more long-lasting than simple instant-gratification. (3) Then there’s an even greater kind of happiness: the happiness of living for others. I had a high school student fill out their reflection for the service hours they had to do, and all it said was, “I didn’t realize how happy you feel when you do something nice for others.” Or think of a young person that falls head-over-heels in love with someone, or think back to that moment yourself: you realize that life is a lot happier when you have them around. And you start to realize that life is more full, more rich, much better, much happier around that person. That person is the most beautiful person in the world. Every day seems like a new day with them. That is happiness! Much better than having some chocolate ice cream, right? (4) But then think (and this is what people like Plato and Aristotle thought): what if there was something even better than that? What if you could be even happier than that? And we try! We think, “Well, if all of those little things, those instant gratifications make me happy; if doing well at my job and having all of these egocentric things make me happy; if living my life for other people and being in love with the perfect person makes me happy—well then I’ll just trying to have all of those things all of the time and then I’ll be perfectly happy!” We try to be happier by trying to infinitely multiply all of these partial happinesses. But people like Plato and Aristotle said that isn’t the answer. Look at your own experience, you know that’s not the answer! The answer would not just be to have a beautiful spouse, but to have Beauty itself. The answer would not be to have a lot of good things, but to have Goodness itself. We don’t just want the truth, we want Truth itself. Not just people doing the right thing and people getting what they deserve; we want Justice itself.
Look at your experience! Do you want a couple things that make you happy, a lot of things that make you happy? Or do you want Happiness itself? Obviously, we want it all! We want Happiness itself, Beauty itself, Goodness itself, Truth itself. We want it all! But at the same time, we know we can’t get it. We know that there is some insurmountable gap between us and what we truly want. When we look at our experience, that is what we find.
We want so much, but we’re able to get so little. Even with all of this great new technology, even though we have houses, even though we have grocery stores and refrigerators so we don’t have to forage for food every day, even though we live in relative safety from nature that is constantly trying to take us out, even though we have hospitals to keep us healthy and we aren’t wiped out by plagues, even though travel isn’t as dangerous as it was when you had to walk everywhere, even though we have all of this technology that makes life so amazing—we’re still not happy. We’re living in the most prosperous and “rich” time in the history of the world—but sadness and loneliness and depression, all of these are on the rise. Why? Because we can’t create the happiness we seek. We can’t. No matter what we do, we cannot give ourselves the perfection we seek. Ask anyone: this is a universal experience. No matter what, we can’t create for ourselves or give to ourselves the happiness and fullness we seek.
This is where the Judeo-Christian story begins to make sense. When people say they don’t believe in God, or they say that don’t need to go to Church, or when they say they don’t really understand religion—usually it just means they’re not paying attention to their experience of life, because the Judeo-Christian story responds precisely to this experience, this fundamental human experience. The Bible starts off with the creation of mankind, and mankind lived in friendship with God, “walked with God” in the Garden. But almost immediately things fall apart. Almost immediately there is disobedience, violence (brother killing brother) and the people are scattered and thrown into confusion (Tower of Babel). But then, beginning with Abraham, God begins to form a family; and then a tribe, and then a people. When they leave Egypt, this people has become a nation. They live in a new land and establish a king in David who will rule not only this nation but all the nations. Israel is meant to be a great beacon, gathering all of creation back. But Israel can’t do it. And so the prophets begin to teach people to look forward to “Salvation.”
This reading from Isaiah today—and we’ll read from him all throughout Advent—Isaiah speaks of “all nations” going to Jerusalem, to the Temple. Why? “That [the LORD] might instruct us in his ways and we may walk in his paths.” Isaiah envisions a time when God will again rule over all people, and just like in the Garden of Eden, we will walk in friendship with Him once again. When this happens, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” In other words, violence and disorder will cease! There will be a new reign of peace, a kingdom of peace. Again, how does all of this happen? It happens when people listen to the word of God, to His teaching, to His Law. In other words, everything will get fixed, all of our problems will be solved, the happiness and fulfillment we truly seek will come—this new “Kingdom” will be established “in the days to come.” Isaiah predicts a day.
As we’ll see over the coming Sundays, Isaiah will get more and more specific. Next week, Isaiah will point to a day on which a person will come, “a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. And The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him” (Isaiah 11). The week after that Isaiah says that signs will accompany this person: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing” (Isaiah 35). And finally, Isaiah speaks of a sign: “The virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel (God-with-us)” (Isaiah 7). This figure will establish the Kingdom of peace and order! This figure will give us what we have never been able to give ourselves! This figure will give us salvation! And this figure—this figure is God himself.
Do you see the point? The Judeo-Christian story, our story, is not the story of a random guy that showed-up and taught us good rules that if only we followed everything would be perfect. It’s not the story of God wanting to spend time with us. The story is that God became man. God comes as a man, and gives us what we could never give ourselves—to give us access to Happiness itself, Beauty itself, Truth itself, Love itself.
Advent is a time “to awake from sleep” (Rom 13:11), to “stay awake” (Mt 24:42), and to “be prepared” (Mt 24:44). Life is about much more than “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” (Mt 24:38). What happens after the big Thanksgiving meal, eating and drinking? What happens after a long wedding reception? You sleep! And again, eating, drinking, marriage—those are good things, and they do give us a kind of happiness. But Advent is a time to remember and to recommit ourselves to the fact that the happiness we truly seek, Happiness itself—that is given to us, it can only be given to us. So be prepared, stay awake.