Rorate Caeli

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent

From the Gospel:  “Men fainting for fear and for the expectations of the things that are coming on the world.  For the powers of heaven will be shaken.”  (Luke 21:26)

What do Catholic people think when they hear these words of our Lord on this first Sunday in Advent?  “Signs in the sun and moon and stars, distress of nations.”  Some might think about Black Friday, a day that looms large in our consciousness at this time of year, which may, if we think about it, may signal the end of our civilization and the ushering in the of the end times.  But perhaps there are those who are more pious and think about the frequent natural disasters like hurricanes and tornados and tsunamis that kill hundreds if not thousands of people.  But also violent human conflicts like the rioting in the streets of Hong Kong and Iraq.  Or the violent and seemingly unending mass murders in schools, in shopping malls, at concerts, and other public places where one assumes safety. All this gives pious folk some pause and wonder whether these words of Jesus may have some relevance to us at this time.  But just a small pause, for most of us were not brought up on the presence of the Dies Irae that was sung at every funeral for well over a thousand years. We have become unfamiliar with the very thought of the end of all things and the Second Coming.  And so we have become complacent and spiritually lazy, and if we have any slight queasiness about what is to come, it is only about our own death. But that queasiness is easily dispelled by a dose of the “everyone goes-to-heaven” pill dispensed by Father Feelgood.

And yet at the beginning of the season of Advent we are confronted with the urgency of not only Jesus’ clear words about the end time but also the urgency of St Paul about the present time:  “For now is the hour for us to rise from sleep, for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed.”  For most of us, Advent is the season before Christmas in which we wait for Christmas to come.  And for most of us this waiting is a passive waiting like waiting in traffic, or passing time in the doctor’s office before our appointment by reading a trashy magazine:  we wait by killing time.  But this is the opposite of advent waiting. Advent waiting never commits temporicide, never waits by killing time.  Advent waiting watches constantly, Advent waiting means living one’s life on tip-toes, constantly paying attention to the signs of the times, continually singing the responsory for Matins:  Aspiciens a longe, ecce video Dei pontentiam venientem; “ I look from afar: and lo, I see the power of God coming, and a cloud covering the whole earth!  Stir up thy strength, O Lord, and come.”  Advent waiting rejoices in the passing of time, for with every moment that passes we come closer to what we most long for:  our salvation and the salvation of all that exists.  Advent is the season of those wonderful readings from the prophet Isaiah: “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God. Speak comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.”  But the arrow of time in these prophets also points forward and backward at the same time:  “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son. And his name shall be called Emmanuel.”  But this should not surprise us for these words echo to us from eternity, and they can do so because our God entered time and space in the finite womb of the Virgin Mary and so concentrated time itself into one point, the true singularity point, from which all else radiates: past, present and future.  And yet in Christ, time is not destroyed.  It becomes itself sacramental, for now time itself is no longer something to be endured, or to be measured, or to be killed in impatience.  Time itself is pregnant with the advent of the consummation of all things in Christ, time itself is fraught with hope, even in the midst, or especially in the midst, of earthquakes and storms and distress among the nations, the banner of the Word of God stretches always forth and on, sweeping all towards that day of wrath, that day of unimaginable joy, sweeping not only those who believe, but all humankind, all those made in the image of God, and no matter how marred that image, no matter the radical denial of that image and the radical denial of God,  none can escape that last birth by which time will cease in the act  giving birth to the eternity of God. And for some that birth will be eternal death.  And for those who believe, that birth will be eternal life.

These are heady things, not something to talk about over brunch after Mass.  These things are not tame, they cannot be contained in some sort of religious system that one happens to be born into.  These things should cause a sense of unease in those who believe in them, and unease that makes it difficult for them to totally fit into this world, an unease that induces sadness in the face of a world that sees the independent self as center of all things, and what the self can get and amass.  But these things, the last things, in those who believe, break the heart, swell the heart, these things constantly surprise with a joy, a joy that comes from somewhere else and catches one off-guard.

And so it is so important for those who are called Catholics to learn how to wait, not only in Advent, but also in life.  To learn how to wait in the knowledge that the Savior has come and yet to wait in the silence of the now that already partakes of that eternity that has broken into this world and signals the fearful and loving end of this world of space and time.  And what better place to learn this waiting and all that it means, what better time to experience the kissing of eternity and time in this world than at this Mass that is the distillation of two millennia of waiting for and remembering when. It is here that we learn as a people to wait with urgency and joy.  For it is here that we learn the difference between mere words and the Word. It is here that we learn that the heart of worship of God is the giving of the self over to the Sacrifice that is at the heart of Catholic worship in the Mass. It is here at the Traditional Roman Mass that we receive the antidote to the poison of self-worship and self-love. It is here that we encounter the beauty of music, of ceremonial, of sacramentals that point to the pregnancy of time that erupts into eternity at this very altar.  And it is here above all that we learn the central importance of silence in Christian waiting, the silence of expectation, the silence of longing, and ultimately the silence of love. The second verse of the Christmas Carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” says this so beautifully.

How silently, how silently, the Wondrous Gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessing of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.

What do I do, who I am in this time of waiting that is our lives? This time  that is the life of the world: this time that determines whether I will be one of those in the field who are taken or one of those grounding meal: one will be taken, one will be left.  Everything depends on how I wait: either killing time by focusing on the world’s illusion that there is always time to do what has to be done, that time will go on into the future, and believing this will seal my fate—for the way of the world is a dead end. Or whether I wait facing the East where the dawn is rising and whose light defines all time and my future and the future of the world and by those rays I live my life, those rays which are the life cord to my heart, as I move onward towards the end, fearing never the night of Advent, but always turned with my fact to the light, to the star, to the glory.

We wait for thy loving kindness, O Lord. Much is at state. The night is far spent. The day is at hand. Christmas, that great and glorious feast, so full of sweetness and light and hope will indeed come—and go.  And what then will we wait for?  For next Christmas?  Or—for the Day of Salvation.

From T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”

A people without history
Is not redeemed form time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.  So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
With the drawing of this Love and the voices of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla