Hope and Serenity Among the Thorns
These days, there is one question that I can’t escape: “Why are you still a Catholic?” Scandal grips the ecclesial hierarchy, and many called to represent the Christian standard at the penultimate level have ceded their moral authority to an immoral majority. Why am I still Catholic? Why haven’t I despondently abandoned the structure that has seemingly abandoned me? The answer is really quite simple, and illuminates the hope and peace of the Advent season.
The Advent Season: Back to Basics
Advent is elemental; it is about getting back to the basics of Faith. In it, we contemplate the beginning of the redemptive life of Christ, what it means, and what it calls us to be. It is a time to reflect more deeply on our relationship to Christ, and to put all human relationships in proper perspective.
As Catholics, we believe that the Catholic Church today is the same Church that was founded by Christ two thousand years ago. The Scriptural and historical arguments in support of this belief are fueled by a further conviction: that God, in His perfect love, would desire to create a vehicle through which His truth could be clearly expressed. This is indispensable in a world where fallen nature makes the unadulterated transmission of Truth extremely difficult. These beliefs allow us to look past (while not excusing) the imperfections and evils of many members of the Church hierarchy, and see the beauty of the teachings of Christ. In life we seek out the transcendent to identify those things that have enduring quality, those items that from which we won’t regret taking inspiration and guidance. Christ’s teachings, clarified by the Church’s careful pronouncements on matters of Faith and Morals, stand alone as a beacon to those who are world weary, encouraging us to put our faith not in man, but in God.
This can be difficult to remember in our present time. Daily we can hear about bishops who have abused their responsibilities, to the detriment of those entrusted to their care. We can read their denials, as they seek to undermine the credibility and holiness of those who cry out, like voices in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord!”
Advent and the Mission of Christ
Therefore, it is perhaps with a greater sense of appreciation that I examine the meaning of Advent at the dawning of this Liturgical Year. The “perfect irony” of all human history is the Incarnation. This is because in order to communicate Himself to us, to give His essence to us in a perfect manner, God chose to become that which we cannot look to for redemption: a man. And though I often forget it, no greater joy in life can be found than in contemplating this amazing mystery. God became one of us in all things but sin.
Reflecting on the birth of Christ leads us intimately into His passion, death, and triumphant resurrection. It is a reality that Christ became man for the primary purpose of dying to redeem us, so inescapably that we can almost see the cross reflected in the pupil of the infant Jesus’ eye. “What wondrous love is this—that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul?” I can hardly think of more appropriate words to express this sublime mystery. This is the message of Advent. As we prepare to receive the Christ Child, so also we prepare to receive our Crucified Jesus, who was born to be king, and was crucified like a common criminal.
Just as there is no separating the Incarnation and birth of our Lord from His Passion, there is no separating the Passion from the Resurrection and Ascension into Glory. Perhaps this is why the Church has named the Sunday prior to Advent the Feast of Christ the King. Christ’s kingship on earth was represented with a crown of thorns, the Suffering Servant who was King of Creation.
Through Our Suffering We Give Birth to Christ
The Advent season offers a special time of the year to reflect on the basis of our Faith. We are not to put our faith in man, but in Christ and in the process perhaps suffer the inhumanities of man, even inhumanities committed by those who are assigned to be our spiritual leaders. This is a difficult task, requiring heart wrenching patience and deep interior humility.
It is indeed difficult, and frightening, to embrace Christ Crucified. It is wonderful, therefore, that we may welcome Him into our hearts as a newborn babe. It gives us new birth in our own hearts, enabling us to look past the trials of this world where we suffer with Christ, so that we can rise with Him to eternal glory.
Necessary though the clergy is, and as invaluable as they can be, we must take care not to place our Faith in their faithfulness. We are implored by Christ to remember that the kingdom of Christ is not of this world, but in the next. Are we the members of the Church in agony? Yes, we are in agony! Do some of us wear the crown that Christ wore on earth, one of thorns rather than gold? Certainly.
Advent is the perfect time to put our earthly sufferings into context. Just as Advent culminates in the birth of our Savior, our own struggles here on earth will bear the sweetest fruit. St. Francis de Sales put it eloquently when he wrote that good souls labor with great agony, but when at long last we give birth, we welcome none other but Christ into our lives and into the world. And who would not desire to have such a Son?
The reason we can find hope and serenity this Advent, as well as confidence in our Faith, lies not merely in the fact that Christ founded the Church — but also that He came as an infant for the redemption of our sins. This recognition permits us to be peacefully vulnerable to His grace in a world that has heightened our defensiveness; it allows us to hope, even if we might wear a crown of thorns, for the crown of the saints in heaven.
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