John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
A constant criticism of the run up to Christmas is the so-called “Christmas Rush.” That “giant sucking sound” you hear is the whirlwind of activities—Christmas shopping, parties, packing, presents, school plays, holiday preparations—that seems to take up every moment between now and Dec. 25. Likewise, there’s no dearth of preachers who will counsel you to step out of the Christmas Rush and “put Christ back in Christmas.”
I don’t disagree with them. But I do want to get you into the “Advent Rush.”
Indeed, we even pray for it!
The Collect of the First Sunday of Advent sets the tone: “Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming…” The Church wants you to get into an Advent Rush.
The Advent liturgy takes two complementary foci: it opens with a focus on the Second Coming of Christ at the end of history, and only turns back to consider His First Coming starting on Dec. 16, the day our Novena countdown to Christmas begins. Those foci are justified, because Advent is about three comings: Christ’s past Advent in Bethlehem, His future Advent on the Last Day, and His present Advent if you are willing to open the doors of your heart.
The Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent tells us “people will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,” but Christians should “stand erect and raise your heads,” because this is what we say we “look forward to” every week in the Creed.
Man instinctively recognizes his deficit in the face of the Tri-Holy and All-Holy God and, from the days of Adam and Eve, has been “hiding himself” out of fear (Genesis 3:10) because of his sins. But heaven’s refrain—from Gabriel’s salutation to Mary that we hear on Dec. 8 through the Resurrected Jesus’ first words to His disciples locked up out of “fear of the Jews” (John 20:19) is not to be afraid because He brings “Peace.”
That is why I have always been struck by the advice given by St. Josemaría Escrivá who, without downplaying the seriousness of judgment, counseled Christians to prepare for the Last Day by considering how to make their Father God proud: “Does your soul not burn with the desire to make your Father God happy when He has to judge you?” (The Way, 746).
That is, after all, what Luke’s Gospel and the Church’s liturgy are asking us to do: to “run forth to meet your Christ.” We run from people we fear; we run towards people we love. That is why “love has no room for fear” (1 John 4:18).
But let us go back to the Collect. What are we running forth with? We run forth “with righteous deeds.”
Our works are the one thing we will take with us from this life. Everything else stays. Somebody else will get our money. Somebody else will live in our house and drive our car. Our clothes will probably wind up at Goodwill. That something that we looked for with the glorious quest of a Sancho Panza may very well be given away by our relatives as “I don’t know what that is.”
But our goods will follow us. Back in college, I remember reading the 15th-century English morality play, “Everyman.” If you’ve never done so, I recommend it. As “Everyman” is dying, everything else abandons him: his friends and his goods. His good works, weighed down by sin, need Confession to give them strength; once freed from sin, they gladly “accompany” Everyman to God’s Judgment seat, just as his sins were once ready to do.
Karol Wojtyła clearly apprehended this point, which gained prominence in 20th-century Catholic philosophy: the importance of action. Human acts (understood in the technical sense of actus humanus) do not just do things; they make me. What I do becomes part of me.
That is why even the pagan ancients knew that it was better to suffer evil than do it, because enduring wrong was an injustice wrought upon me, whereas doing wrong is an injustice I do. That is why the seriousness of complicity in moral evil, such as in being forced to make abortions available or celebrate homosexual “marriage,” is an issue not just of civil rights but of conscience.
The one thing of this world that will accompany me to God’s Judgment Seat are my works, good or evil. They accompany me, not like a suitcase or a puppy dog, but as a part of me. That is why the Collect prays that we “run forth with righteous deeds.”
Because our relationship with God is one of Love, since He is Love, and Love seeks the true good of the other. Man’s true good cannot lie in death, adultery, theft, lies, or idolatry: man is made in the Image of a God who is Love, and is only truly Himself when he embodies that image.
Judaism, and later Christianity, distinguished themselves from the religions of antiquity precisely because of that moral focus. The “gods” of antiquity were not better than men, only bigger. Olympus was not heaven, just a slightly elevated place for debauchery.
Israel and later the Church broke out of that world by proclaiming that God’s relationship to man is not a matter of magic but of morality. God is not placated by the right incantation, but by right living, because right living inspired by God’s grace makes one into the image of God. In judging us, God merely confirms the truth of whether we look – or don’t look – like Him who made us.
Our Advent Rush is one of urgency to see ourselves as God sees us. And, if we don’t like what we/He sees, Advent is the time to fix it. Because nothing should be of greater priority than that. That’s why Jesus even told parables that seem a bit off morally, like the parable of the dishonest steward (Luke 16:1-13) who cuts corners to ingratiate himself with his master’s debtors to weave himself a post-employment security net. Jesus doesn’t praise his dishonesty, but praises his readiness to do what it takes to ensure his welfare.
And is there anything more important about our welfare than being ready “to rush to meet your Christ with righteous deeds?”