Populus Sion, ecce Dominus veniet ad salvandas gentes…Qui reges Israel, intende: qui deducis, velut ove, Ioseph.
The last few weeks of Ordinary Time made heavy use of readings taken from Mark’s Gospel, particularly those verses concerning judgment and the End Times.
But, aren’t we supposed to put that away for a few weeks as we approach the Christmas Season? The Christmas Season is a happy, joyous time, centered on gift-giving and merry-making with friends and family. Such an understanding of the Christmas Season completely misses the point of the Christmas Season, and of the true nature of spiritual joy.
In the readings for last week  – the Second Sunday in Advent – the starting point is not the people of God rejoicing, but the people of God battered, beaten and in a state of despair. The first reading is taken from the Book of the Prophet Baruch, chapter 5, verses 1-9. This text claims to have been written by a Jewish man named Baruch, a scribe and a disciple of the Prophet Jeremiah. It was written to the Israelites while they were in captivity in Babylon. Even though this is the context and the starting point, this reading is not entirely bleak: in fact, the entire reading is centered on the hope of future salvation. The text begins by saying:
Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever: wrapped in the cloak of justice from God, bear on your head the mitre that displays the glory of the eternal name. For God will show all the earth your splendor: you will be named by God forever the peace of justice, the glory of God’s worship. Up, Jerusalem! Stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered east to west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God. (Baruch 5:1-5)
The Israelites were an oppressed people, robbed of their inheritance, an inheritance granted to them by God. Yet, the Israelites are called to no longer be in misery, but to rejoice in God, for the time is approaching in which God will show His mercy upon the people of Israel, by gathering all of the people of Israel and have them return to the Promised Land.
But, note what this rejoicing consisted of: the people of Israel must be “cloaked in the justice of God” – that is, a people among whom peace and justice will rein forevermore, and this peace and justice exists precisely because they acknowledge and worship the One True God.  It was believed that misfortune struck the people of Israel as a punishment for their sins and infidelity. So note, true rejoicing in the saving power of God requires conversion. We must not only rejoice that God has offered us a way out of our sin; we must, of necessity, turn from our sin in order to reap the fruits of God’s salvific plan.
To connect this to the New Testament and the life of the Church, we see this, firstly, in the soul of each individual Christian. The Promised Land represents heaven, while the Babylonian Exile represents our separation from God by sin. How does God free us from the Babylonian captivity of sin? This, too, is indicated in a symbolic way in the Old Testament: King Cyrus of Persia invaded the conquered Babylon, and many of the other races and nations conquered by Babylon were freed from their Babylonian oppressors by a decree of King Cyrus. King Cyrus was given by the Jews the title of “messiah,” which means “anointed one.” He was one chosen by God, set apart by God, to liberate God’s chosen people. Likewise, there will be one set aside by God to liberate us, not from political oppression, but from the spiritual oppression of sin. That one was Jesus.
Humans should never underestimate their own depravity brought about by sin. The extent of our depravity is shown by the extent to which God had to go in order to save us. God had to save us by way of the self-emptying or self-abasing of the Incarnation, which led to the self-emptying of the Cross. Yet, the extent to which God went to save us also shows the extent of God’s mercy. Thus, conversion includes sorrow for sins, but this sorrow for sins is distinct from the sense of existential dread associated with scrupulosity or despair. A sense of sorrow for one’s sins leads to a change of one’s ways for the better and is intimately tied with a sense of hope in God’s salvific plan, and the joy that results from this. We are ashamed of our sin, but we know that if we are willing to turn from our sin, God had provided us a way out, and thus we are not consumed by sorrow. Despair is the mark of one who lacks hope due to their separation from God; that was the state from which God saves us.
This self-emptying of Christ in the Incarnation, which we celebrate this Christmas season, brought about a union between God and man. This union between God and man is what makes it possible for Christ to work within us for the sake of bringing about salvation. Here, I think Fr. Khaled Anatolios, commenting on St. Athanasius’s view of grace, sheds much light on this: Jesus has already done all of the work in defeating the devil. Humans must accept and cooperate with God’s grace, but human moral efforts do not take place within a vacuum, but rather take place within the context of Christ’s prior victory of the forces of evil. Our moral victories are in fact Christ’s victories within us. 
There is, in a sense, a dialectical relationship between human moral effort and Divine action wherein the former is derivative of the latter. Nonetheless, this does not render human moral effort merely illusory. It is for this reason that St. Paul writes in the Epistle reading:
I am confident of this, that the One Who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Jesus Christ. … And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:6, 8-11)
So, our salvation is the work of God within us. As a result of the work of God within us, we become pure, discerning or prudent, righteous, and blameless, and thus we produce spiritual fruit. Yet, WE produce spiritual fruit; WE are discerning; WE are righteous and pure, in the sense that our righteousness, our discernment, our purity, and the spiritual fruit we produce is not merely illusory. It is a righteousness or purity that we truly have. Nonetheless, it is a righteousness, purity or discernment that “comes through Jesus Christ,” and is thus derivative in nature.
There needs to be a trust in Jesus, but this trust in Jesus goes hand-in-hand with human moral responsibility. It is for this reason that the Gospel reading we read was chosen: taken from Luke 3:1-6, this is the text that describes St. John the Baptist with the words of the Prophet Isaiah – “A voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His paths.'” (Luke 3:4) Humans, for there to be true spiritual joy, must ask themselves, “Are there any obstacles to union between me and God? What do I need to fix, with God’s help, to get closer to the Lord?”
The same is true on a corporate or communal level. Based on the Old Testament precedent or backdrop which laid the basis for the New Testament, the notion of being “of God” was not seen merely in personal terms, but also in covenantal terms. The covenant relationship with God included all those who were members of the people of Israel, either by birth (being descended from Abraham) or by conversion to the Jewish religion. Thus, in the Old Testament, calls for conversion were just as frequently (if not more frequently) made in response to periods of political corruption, social instability and widespread decline in religious devotion as they were responses to personal sin.
Just as God punished and rewarded the People of Israel – God’s chosen people in the Old Testament – likewise God does the same with the Church – His chosen people in the New Testament. Due to the recent controversies afflicting the Church, many people have either left the Church or have refused to come into it. Many who have remained true to the Church have had their faith tested and shaken to the core. The Church today is akin to Israel in Babylon in Biblical times. The Church must currently go through a period of tribulation, during which those who let the Church get to the state it is now will be chastised. But, just as the Old Covenant can and will never be revoked (granted that it has been fulfilled and deepened by Christ), likewise Jesus’ promise to the Church in Matthew 28:20 will never pass away. Those within the Church must do penance, but it will never be abandoned by God, and just as Israel, upon conversion, was renewed and glorified by God, likewise, when the members of the Church – both the clergy and the laity, the leadership structure and the average Catholic in the pews – stop with their moral complacency, the Church will be renewed and glorified by God.
- To read the readings from last week in full, click on the following link: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/120918.cfm
- Aloysius Fitzgerald, “Baruch,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Fr. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Fr. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., and Fr. Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm. (Upper Saddle Hill: Prentice Hall, 1990), pg. 566
- Fr. Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought (New York: Routledge, 1998), pg. 164-203 (see especially pgs. 178-184)