Looking for comfort and consolation as the “holiday season” begins? Looking forward to some R&R during the Christmas break? I know I am! ’Tis the season of warm and fuzzy sentiments, creature comforts, of eating, drinking and being merry!
And yet the liturgical readings for the start of Advent are like a bucket of cold water in the face:
“Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left.
“Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left.
Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come” (Mt 24:40-42).
Wait a second! This is not the message of comfort that we want to hear as we finish our shopping lists, hang our decorations and listen to our favorite Christmas tunes. God will come like a thief in the night? Yikes!
Despite the very best efforts of our culture to defang the Gospel, the Church commences the season of Advent with a call to vigilance, and a stark reminder of our own mortality. Are we ready to meet Jesus at the end of our own lives? Are we prepared spiritually for our own final judgment? How will I account for the gifts I have been given? How will I account for what I have done, and what I haven’t? These questions are far more important than our endless lists of preparations for Christmas parties and celebrations. During Advent, Jesus challenges us with a spiritual and moral call to arms!
In practical terms, what does this vigilance require of me? In chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus shows us how. The chapter starts with the Parable of the Ten Virgins and another striking call to spiritual vigilance. Matthew then continues with Parable of the Talents, where Jesus reminds us: “For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Mt. 25: 29). Like it or not, the basis of our personal judgment will be based on what we did with the gifts that God gave us. Did we cultivate our gifts and grow them? Did we put our God-given gifts at the service of God and humanity, or did we use them to serve ourselves? Sometimes the easiest and most comfortable thing to do when times get tough is to simply do nothing. Sorry, but according to Jesus, this is simply not an option if we are to be vigilant about our salvation.
In chapter 25, Matthew’s Gospel turns to the Judgment of Nations, in which Jesus teaches us that our salvation will depend on whether we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned. Our personal judgment, and the final judgment of the world, will be based on whether we care for the least of our brothers and sisters, in whom God’s divine life is vividly present. What we call the “Corporal Works of Mercy” are meant to be a lifestyle for Christians, not merely boxes to be checked or service hours to be counted. God gives us gifts precisely in order to care for and about the least of our brothers and sisters, and makes it clear in no uncertain terms that this reality will be the basis for our own judgment. If we are not vigilant about caring those on the margins, we are not vigilant about our own salvation.
No matter how disconcerting this focus on vigilance and judgment may be, or how contrary to our culture this may run, we simply can’t escape this undeniable truth of the Gospel. While there is nothing wrong with comfort and security, our culture tends to make these realities the goal of our life. And yet, focusing on these realities, rather than eternal ones, makes a god of the material world. On the contrary, we are made for the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. We are made to be awake and alive. Allowing ourselves to be desensitized by a culture focused on the avoidance of pain and suffering is simply not how God made us. Being anesthetized by a culture focused on entertainment and comfort is contrary to our nature and leads us to a false sense of spiritual security.
Therefore, throughout this season of Advent, let us truly be comforted by Christ’s stark and jarring reminder of our true purpose and destiny. Let us truly prepare for this Christmas by recognizing and serving Christ in the least of our brothers and sisters, and as St. Paul extols us:
“Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh” (Rom 13:14).
Anchor columnist Peter Shaughnessy is a parishioner of St. Francis Xavier parish in Acushnet.