Faith versus Fatalism
(Readings: Isaiah 63:16-17, 64: 1, 3-8; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37)
Introduction to Mass
The Season of Advent begins again this Sunday: a time of preparation for God's coming and a time to think about the extent to which we're receptive to the influence God has on us. In the gospel passage Jesus uses urgent and even threatening language as a way of trying to persuade people to turn to God and embrace the call to holiness.
A Prayer over the Advent Wreath
O God, by whose Word all things are sanctified, pour forth Your blessing upon this wreath and grant that we who use it may prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ and may receive from You abundant graces. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Whatever else he was, Jesus was someone who lived in constant contact with God, someone who was continually open to God's influence. That meant he was someone who was filled with the holiness and love, the passion for truth and justice, which are the heart of God's own character.
Like so many of the holymen and prophets who came before him, and so many of the mystics and saints who came after him, Jesus looked around at his own society and his overwhelming impression was that most people - even the conventionally religious people - had not been genuinely touched by God.
Despite their professions of religious devotion, and despite a widespread belief in all kinds of superstition, many of the people at the time of Jesus' ministry were closed to the real God. Far from eagerly pursuing holiness, love, justice and so on, the reality was that their lives were filled with other purposes and goals, often trivial and self-seeking.
In the face of these obstacles Jesus felt a sense of urgency in proclaiming God to people and in summoning them to place their lives under God's reign, to use his own preferred image. And the sense of urgency Christ felt often came out in the kind of threatening language and menacing images that we find in the parable in today's gospel.
The assumption behind these images is that every human being without exception is intended to live in communion with God and to become like God. That's the basic vocation that we all share. But the other assumption Jesus makes here is that life is short and the time we have to turn to God is limited. To go through life - and maybe reach the end of our life - without making contact with God is a catastrophe as far as Jesus is concerned.
In this particular parable, with its image of servants being caught asleep on the job, we're not supposed to draw the conclusion that God is some sort of sadistic master who takes pleasure in throwing his subordinates into panic and confusion. The scene is certainly meant to symbolise the end of time, or the end of each person's life and their meeting with God, but the point of the parable isn't to make people fear God's approach.
Jesus' real point here is, as it often was: don't waste any more time. God's Kingdom has already arrived, so now is the hour of decision. Don't wait until it's too late to turn to God and embrace his call to holiness.
Well the truth is that, for all Jesus' sense of urgency, the number of people who actually respond to that kind of appeal, both in his time and in ours, is probably quite small. Even among Christians and people who say they believe in God there can there can be a lack of passion and a half-heartedness about "the call to holiness".
I don't mean that people are necessarily lazy or indifferent about their spiritual life or their relationship with God. The more basic problem seems to be a sort of defeatism or a low level of aspiration morally and spiritually.
There's a strain of thinking in our present-day culture, which comes out in films or television drama and sometimes in the "ironic" humour of modern comedians and chat show pundits, which sees human nature as selfish, weak-willed, hardly any more than a collection of appetites which dictate our attitudes and behaviour.
It's a type of fatalism. Human beings, the argument goes, are powerless to effect any radical change or improvement in their moral character. Some individuals even seem to think they should be congratulated for their "ruthless honesty" because they own up candidly to their fundamental selfishness. To believe that human beings are anything else, they imply, is to fall into illusion and self-deception.
Of course these are rationalisations and excuses. Faced with our own personal sinfulness and with the innumerable forms of exploitation and suffering in the world, it's easy to take refuge in pseudo-profundities about human nature being hopelessly corrupt. These kinds of statement absolve us from any sense of responsibility and relieve us from the practical task of doing something about these problems. They justify our numbness.
The gospel, on the other hand, takes issue with every kind of defeatist and fatalistic tendency. The root supposition of Jesus' message is: we can aim higher. We are more than the sum of our appetites. Holiness is possible. We're not obliged to just accept the forces of cruelty, selfishness and oppression, within ourselves or in the world around us. The alternative is that we can turn to God and open ourselves to his transforming grace.
This is the message of the other two readings this Sunday. The prophet Isaiah is under no illusions about the selfishness and malice human nature is capable of: "our sins blew us away like the wind", he says. And yet, he goes on, "you, Lord, are our Father, we are the clay, you are the potter, we are the work of your hands". When we're in genuine contact with God the bonds of sin are dissolved and we're moulded and shaped according to his image and pattern.
St. Paul's message in the second reading is similar: it's only when we open ourselves to God's grace and the influence of his Spirit that we overcome our various self-seeking inclinations and begin the ascent to holiness.
So when we take these three Scripture readings together we can see that they're very appropriate for the start of Advent.
The symbolism of Advent is the symbolism of preparing ourselves for the imminent arrival of God: not only his entry into human history, commemorated at Christmas, but also the impact he would have on our lives now, if we made ready to welcome him or indeed, in the case of many of us, reawakened our desire for God which we've managed to bury under a pile of other preoccupations.
As Christ says, when God comes he must not find us asleep! This is what the season of Advent encourages us to think about, and act upon.