“Insincerity was an evil which sprang up within the Church from the first,” wrote Blessed John Henry Newman in 1839. “Ananias and Simon were not open opposers of the Apostles, but false brethren.”
Any of us, he said, can affect a certain kind of religiosity without sincerity; any of us can be tempted to put on the trappings of faith without the interior disposition. Any of us can be tempted to give the appearance of love when, in truth, we do not love.
Real faith grows when we have the humility and the honesty to profess what we really believe, to speak what we really know, and to stand before God and one another as we really are.
Jesus transforms us, Newman taught, when we come before him as we are.
That lesson resonates with many Catholics this year. The past six months have proven difficult. The Church faces a crisis that does not need ongoing enumeration. But it is a crisis in which sincerity has come into question, in which trust has been eroded, and in which many Catholics are no longer certain who they can believe and what they can trust.
And, for at least some Catholics, it has occasioned a crisis of faith itself.
Advent is the spiritual remedy to that crisis.
Advent, Pope Benedict XVI taught, is an invitation to return “to the heart of our faith, which is the mystery of Christ, the Messiah who was expected for long centuries and was born in poverty, in Bethlehem.”
Christ came into the world because sin is real and because he sets us free from sin. This Advent, we need to remember that.
“In coming among us, he brought us and continues to offer us the gift of his love and his salvation,” Benedict said.
Because Christ is present, Benedict said, we “may speak to him, presenting to him the suffering that afflicts us, our impatience, the questions that well up in our hearts. We may be sure that he always listens to us! And if Jesus is present ... we may continue to hope, even when others can no longer assure us of any support, even when the present becomes trying.”
That we are marred by sin should be no surprise. Advent reminds us that sin is defeated in the Messiah who came into the world at Christmas and who will come again.
In fact, the trying afflictions of the present moment are exactly why Jesus has come: because sin exists in the world, even among members of the Church. It is Christ in whom we can place our trust — because Christ is the one who came into the world to defeat sin and death through his own passion.
Advent also reminds us that the Church, the Body of Christ, is human and divine, just as Christ himself is; that the holiness of the Church does not depend on the holiness of her members or ministers; that even as she must follow a path of penance and renewal, she is more than what we can see and especially more than the headlines of recent months.
There is a danger, amid the scandal of the moment, that we might reduce our vision of the Church to the sociological, that we might see only the scandal and not the grace. Christ is present to us in and through his Church — even if actions undertaken in the Church’s own name, set amid the disordering chaos of sin, are the source of our pain, or even of our despair. That is the scandalous proposition of the Gospel.
Advent reminds us that the Church is Christ’s Mystical Body and that even as her fallen humanity is on full display, she is nonetheless the sacrament of our salvation. The Church, the Body of Christ, is a source of grace, even as she is in need of grace.
Jesus has come into the world, and he is coming again. He is present, even in our great difficulty. He loves as we are, and he wishes to transform us. Advent is here.
Come, Lord Jesus, come.