Sermon: A Different Approach to Advent
You have probably heard it more times than you can count: Advent is supposed to be about preparation for Christmas, not celebrating before it has already happened. You have doubtless been told countless times to save time for Christ during this busy season. You very well might expect and resent the message you expect to hear today. Amidst all the busyness of the season, after buying all the Christmas gifts, attending all the Christmas gatherings, and cooking all the Christmas dinners, I’m also supposed to find time to do some sort of Advent devotional. “Give me a break!”
So I want to be very clear right here at the beginning about what I am not saying: I am not trying to convince you today to add something “spiritual” to your Advent schedule.
A contemporary spiritual author put it this way: “There are many people in the world who cultivate a curious state they call ‘the spiritual life.’ They often complain that they have very little time to devote to ‘the spiritual life.’ The only time they … regard as [having contributed to this ‘spiritual life’] is the time they can devote to pious exercises: praying, reading, meditations, and visiting the church.
“Yet it is really through ordinary life and the things of every hour of every day that union with God comes about” (C. Houselander, The Reed of God, p. 26).
We could draw a similar point from St. Paul in today’s epistle: “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand.” Our salvation lies all around us. Everyday life is constantly presenting us with opportunities to prepare our hearts for Christ.
Christ makes this clear in the Gospel today as well. Many people read this passage as supporting the idea of the “rapture,” that some people will be “left behind” in a post-apocalyptic age. This is not the point that our Lord is making. He is talking about readiness, and also reminding us that He comes within our everyday lives. He comes while men are in the field, while women are grinding at the mill (the typical, everyday tasks of 33 A.D.).
The author I mentioned earlier speaks in a somewhat derogatory fashion about “the spiritual life” because a “spiritual life” that is distinct from the rest of your life is the furthest thing possible from the Gospel. Christ calls us to a life where every moment is infused with and transformed by a loving friendship with Him. If we are to have a friendship with Him, yes, of course it will be necessary to have time set aside for the Lord in prayer. But if those times of prayer, devotion, spiritual reading, etc. – the kinds of things that constitute that “curious state” we usually call “the spiritual life” – are disconnected from the rest of our lives, they are, frankly, almost worthless.
So how do we find Christ amidst everyday life and thus prepare our hearts for His coming? How do we have a relationship with Christ that is not disconnected from our relationships with the people around us. Here is a surprising answer: Emptiness.
Now, when we think of emptiness, we probably think of the modern complaint of an existence without meaning. “Those who complain loudest of emptiness are those whose lives are overcrowded, filled with trivial details, plans, desires, ambitions, unsatisfied cravings for passing pleasures, doubts, anxieties and fears; and these sometimes overlaid with exhausting pleasures which are a futile attempt to forget how pointless such a life is. Those who complain of such an emptiness are usually afraid to allow space or silence or pause in their lives. They dread space, for they want material things crowded together, so that there will always be something to lean on for support. They dread silence, because they do not want to hear their own pulses beating out the second of their life, and to know that each beat is another knock on the door of death. Death seems to them to be only the final void, the darkest, loneliest emptiness. They have no sense of being related to any abiding beauty, to any indestructible life: They are afraid to be alone with their unrelated hearts” (Houselander, p. 22)
This is obviously not the emptiness that prepares our hearts for Christ. That emptiness is entirely different. It is the emptiness of the virginal womb of Mary, preparing to receive her Son and Savior. It is the emptiness of the flute as the flautist raises the instrument to his lips and the entire orchestra pauses, for a fraction of a second that seems an eternity, awaiting the glorious melody to come (like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1965Z6dzig). It is the emptiness of the chalice, waiting to receive the wine of sacrifice.
I used to wonder why Mary had to be a virgin. Would not it have been better, I thought, if Mary had at least not been perpetually a virgin, and She and Joseph had a big family with lots of kids to give Catholic families an example of generosity in welcoming children into the world? Mary’s virginity, it is usually explained, was necessary to show the miraculous nature of Christ’s birth – that He is at once truly man and also truly God. This is true, but there is so much more. Mary’s virginity was a state of perpetually openness, perpetually ready to receive from the Lord. It was a heart with an active emptiness.
Your heart, like Mary’s womb, was made to be empty, to long and yearn for something greater and more beautiful than this life, for a Savior. The problem is that each one of us seems constantly to be filling up that void that ought to be piercing us with the pangs of existential longing with things that never quite satisfy, overlaying space, silence, and pause with exhausting pleasures that drown out the more fundamental yearning for God built into the human heart. That is why an important virtue for the season of Advent is the virtue of temperance.
Now, temperance, like emptiness, is the subject of a lot of misunderstanding. When most of us think of temperance, we are really thinking of abstinence. My grandmother, for example, was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (and doubtless one of its last living members). With all due respect to my grandmother, the temperance of the WCTU (whose members take a pledge never to consume alcohol) is not temperance at all. Temperance is the virtue that helps us to govern our natural appetite for pleasure in accord with right reason.
Temperance helps us to avoid two extremes: puritanism and hedonism. Puritanism (with all due respect to the people who originated last Thursday’s feast) means looking at all physical pleasure with suspicion. Hedonism, its opposite, seeks pleasure as its most important goal without reference to the proper end of the human person. That is, it fails to see the purpose of pleasure. Virtue always lies in the middle between two vices, one of excess (in this case, hedonism) and another of defect (in this case, puritanism). The virtue of temperance helps us to use physical pleasures put into this world by God for our delight without allowing them to become exhausting, without making them such a focus of our lives in such a way that would silence the deep yearning in our hearts that leads us back to their creator.
Let’s take two examples. I cannot escape the irony of preaching about the virtue of temperance on Thanksgiving weekend. One appetite that the virtue of temperance regulates is the appetite for food. As always, there are two extremes to be avoided: The vice of defect here – not taking enough pleasure in eating – we can continue calling puritanism. It would say that food is merely for staying alive and we should not try to take pleasure in it. There is probably not much risk of us falling into this vice, but the people who ate that first Thanksgiving feast might have been tempted. We are probably more likely to fall into the vice of gluttony (or at least I am, especially this weekend!). Gluttony seeks the pleasure of eating as its own end apart from what food is really meant for: Promoting our health.
The act of eating is pleasurable in order to motivate us to perform an act essential for our own survival. We can also see a motive beyond this evolutionary meaning of the pleasure of eating, though. A good meal has the power to bring people together and to promote harmony in the family and in society. Truly good food has the power to break down barriers between people. Hopefully you saw some of that happen this weekend!
Temperance seeks the mean, the amount that is good for each person. Let’s go back to the example of alcohol. One person might be able to consume several alcoholic beverages without becoming intoxicated. Another might know that she needs to limit herself to just one or two drinks. Yet another might realize that he should abstain entirely because consuming any alcohol might prompt him to relapse into destructive behaviors. The mean is different for each person. It could also be affected by the other people in our company. The person who could have several alcoholic beverages such probably refrain from doing so in the company of those who should not consume so much or at all, lest he become an occasion of sin to others. For myself, if I realize that I am in an environment where alcohol is being used unhealthily, I prefer to abstain entirely so as not to give tacit approval to others’ excesses. So in some cases, temperance does mean abstinence, just not in the way that the WCTU would have it.
The highest act of the virtue of temperance is fasting. By fasting, we choose to forego something that is legitimately good in order to obtain an even higher good. By fasting, we can tame our appetites and more easily be in control of ourselves. In this way, the temperate person finds greater freedom through self-denial because she is governed by her reason instead of her passions. Fasting doesn’t just help us moderate our appetite for food, though.
Another appetite that the virtue of temperance helps to regulate is the sexual appetite. This is the virtue of chastity, which is one of the forms of temperance. Once again, we are talking about an inherently good part of the human person. God made the marital embrace pleasurable to encourage the propagation of the human race, and also to promote the unity of the married couple (these are, after all, the two natural ends of marriage). Modern science shows us how the hormone oxytocin creates a bond between two people who enjoy marital intimacy, promoting that permanent bond. (We can see here how science supports the Christian teaching that marriage is permanent.) This is why when a couple has not had a chaste dating relationship their breakups are usually so nasty. They are fighting against the chemistry of their bodies, which have been reprogramed to believe that they will be together forever.
Oxytocin doesn’t discriminate, though. It can also create a bond with your computer or phone screen, which is why people frequently need help to quit their internet-based sexual intemperance. It doesn’t mean you’re weak or that you’re a bad person – it means that you are fighting against your body’s chemistry and you need help.
Temperance helps quiet these and other appetites. It keeps us from filling up that good emptiness that we should foster in our hearts this Advent. Temperance is not sufficient, though. We also need something else – we need mystery. Mystery is an essential element of a life well-lived. Our tendency to satisfying all of our physical appetites, though, leads us not to appreciate mystery. A heart without an appreciation for mystery will not long and yearn for the coming of Christ with that virginal openness modeled by the Blessed Virgin.
This is why the way that we worship is so important. Making mystery a greater part of our experience of Holy Mass builds that good emptiness in our hearts. This is why we sing the ordinary of the Mass in Latin during Advent and Lent – not because Latin is a penance, but because it is good for us not always to understand everything right away so that we can recapture some of that sense of mystery that ought to infuse our lives as Christians. Latin can be difficult, but only if we see the goal of worship as to understand everything that happens right away. If, instead, we see Holy Mass as an encounter with the greatest mystery of all – the Paschal Mystery: the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ – then having part of Mass be a little more mysterious makes sense. The presence of mystery within our worship widens out that good empty space in our hearts and gives us a sense of longing for something greater than ourselves.
So this Advent, don’t just do something more. Instead, create some good emptiness in your heart. Create good emptiness by cultivating the virtue of temperance, especially through acts of fasting. Create good emptiness by cultivating a greater appreciation of mystery in your life. My Advent challenge to you is this: Cultivate an appreciation of mystery by replacing something ugly in your life with something beautiful. Turn off the sentimental radio Christmas music, and listen to Handel’s Messiah (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71NCzuDNUcg). Forgo buying more Christmas lights or garland and spend the money on a beautiful sacred image for your home. Skip the store-bought seasonal goodies and fill your home with the beautiful scents of a roast or cookies in the oven.
“We need to be reminded that every second of our survival does really mean that we are new from God’s fingers, so that it requires no more than the miracle which we never notice to restore to us our virgin-heart at any moment we like to choose.
“Our own effort will consist in sifting and sorting out everything that is not essential and that fills up space and silence in us and in discovering what sort of shape this emptiness in us, is” (Houselander, p. 24).
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
I Sunday in Advent, A.D. MMXIX
Find Houselander’s The Reed of God here: https://www.avemariapress.com/product/0-87061-240-9/The-Reed-of-God/
Image: The Annunciation by Fra Angelico (1395-1455)