Friday in the 2nd Week of Advent: Isaiah 48:17-19, Matthew 11:16-19.
Today’s readings put an exclamation mark on yesterday’s message about being enflamed with the passion of God’s transformative love and seizing the Kingdom of Heaven offered to us. God promises much to us if we listen to His Redeemer, His Son. Yet we find Jesus in the gospel reading lamenting over the fact that the people of that generation are lukewarm, cynical, and do not listen to His teaching.
The first thing we hear from Isaiah is a recognition that Jesus Christ, who he calls “the Redeemer” and “the Holy One of Israel,” is the very same “I, the LORD, your God,” who speaks to His People. This is remarkable, affirming the divinity of Christ some 750 years before His birth unto Mary. What’s more, Isaiah foresees that He will be present on earth to guide and teach His People. He will “teach you what is for your good, and lead you on the way you should go.” Again, as we’ve seen throughout Advent, Isaiah affirms that God’s promise for overabundant life, grace, and the escape of death is tied to the Redeemer’s coming: “If you would hearken to my commandments, your prosperity would be like a river, and your vindication like the waves of the sea.” In this way, the New Covenant of Christ is a clear extension and perfection of the Old Covenant under which Isaiah and the Jewish people were tied to God.
It’s no secret that the Jews in power did not listen to Christ and follow His teachings, as the Passion and Crucifixion attest. But Jesus laments a more general inattention to His teaching from the entire generation: “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children who sit in marketplaces and call to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance, we sang a dirge but you did not mourn.’” Jesus seems to be referencing the refrain from a children’s game. This is an ingenious analogy. In one sense, the “we” of the refrain could be Jesus and John, who called to one another through their mothers’ wombs, John singing the dirge of repentance and Jesus playing the flute of salvation. In another, more overt sense, the children are the people who hear these calls and do not respond. Further, they are the ones who sit and pantomime the whole scene, calling it out to one another as if bystanders who just observe from afar. This is the ultimate picture of indifference, of being lukewarm. And as we explored yesterday, the transformative love of God inherently calls us to be passionate, to violently break through our indifference and sin to seize the Kingdom being offered to us.
Jesus then points out a deep cynicism and skepticism at the heart of the people who do not respond to these divine calls. “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” These are the words of people who are comfortable with a type of restrained piety (how many of these have we all seen in our lifetimes!). They like a certain amount of propriety with their piety. John’s wild appearance and extreme fasting was too much for them — they accused him of being possessed. Jesus’s overflowing majesty and generosity, on the other hand, causes them to brand him a glutton and drunkard (not to mention impure by association with tax collectors and sinners). Jesus has little patience for this type of piety, which betrays that a person has not accepted God’s transformative love into their hearts. They are not filled with the passionate love of God. And the deep sin here is that they hold onto their own sense of “knowing” what’s real, what’s worthwhile, how the world should work. They choose their own comfort zone over God. This is what I mean by skepticism. It is their own sense of how they want to see the world that makes them disparage John and Jesus. They are skeptical of John and Jesus’s claims because they haven’t opened themselves up to be transformed by god’s love.
Yesterday’s second reading in the Office of the Readings does a lovely job of portraying the love that Jesus sees is absent from “this generation.” Saint Peter Chrysologus, the bishop of Ravenna from 433-450AD was known for his short, simple, but inspired sermons. He says:
But in all the events we have recalled, the flame of God’s love set human hearts on fire and intoxicated human senses. Wounded by love, men longed to see God with their bodily eyes. How could our narrow human vision perceive one whom the whole world cannot contain? What will be, what ought to be, what can be – the law of love does not care about these things. Love does not have judgement, reason, strategy. Love refuses to be consoled when its goal proves impossible, refuses to be cured if its goal is difficult to achieve. Love destroys the lover if he cannot obtain what he loves. It goes where it is led, not where it ought to go. Love gives birth to desire, it bursts into flame and that fire draws it to seek forbidden things. What more is there to say? Love cannot accept not seeing the thing that it loves.
We can see how Jesus laments for these people — they show none of the signs of loving God. Are we any better? Are we “wounded by love” so that we long to see God? Do we allow love to transform us so that we do not have judgement, reason, or strategy? This is true abandonment of ourselves to God!
But I’m making this all seem like it’s a fair and open choice to make when in fact it’s not. We owe ourselves to God. Let’s take some instruction from Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, a French Dominican priest who lived from 1877-1964. Karol Wojtyla (later Pope St. John Paul II) specifically traveled to Rome to seek out the personal instruction of the faculty’s most famous professor, none other than Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange. He has been called “one of the greatest philosophers and theologians of the 20th century” (by Fr. Timothy Draper in the foreword to the book cited below). In the short book Knowing the Love of God, a collection of his retreat talks, Garrigou reminds us that as our Creator God “has the right of possession over our mind and our heart, and this right, more absolute than any of our property rights, remains binding even if we forget it” (21).
Rightly, this entire discussion of being indifferent and not inflaming our hearts in longing for God belongs in the realm of sin. As I stated above, the sins of pride and self-centeredness are what lead us to disparage others (John and Jesus, nonetheless!) and not follow God’s commandments, not give Him our hearts. Of course, talking about sin is about as out-of-fashion as offering someone a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. Garrigou-Lagrange doesn’t hesitate to go there, however. And I find him compelling. He starts by reminding us how we got here: “For the world the true evils are diseases, tuberculosis, paralysis, infirmities of every kind, poverty, and ruin. Pride, on the contrary, is not an evil in the eyes of the world; rather, it is even necessary for attaining success. A life given over to pleasure or laziness is not an evil for those rich enough to lead this type of existence” (16). He reminds us just how reasonable pride, pleasure, and laziness seem to us. But he shows how this cascades into something more serious: “We place our childish whim in opposition to the will of God and it conquers. Is this not without doubt foolishness? It is the foolishness of an instant but it can become habitual and then produce a darkening or complete blinding of the spirit” (18).
Given God’s proper sovereignty over our mind and heart, consider well what he then says about sin: “Sin is not only a foolishness and vileness, but considered in relation to God it is also the blackest ingratitude, the greatest injustice, and the gravest outrage” (21). These are serious statements, and it might shock you to learn that he’s talking about venial sins! I, for one, try not to berate myself for small sins, but reading this in the light of the past two days’ readings, I wonder if I’ve been letting myself off a little too easy. If I was inflamed with the passionate, transformative love of God, then I would shun even small sins with passion because they take me away from God.
Garrigou-Lagrange speaks to the seriousness of even small moments of venial sin: “It does not kill the soul, but it leaves it without force and energy for the good. It diminishes the fervor of divine love, darkens the eyes of the soul and obscures the vision of God” (23). Not only does this remind me of my own life, it reminds me of today’s gospel reading. Here we have venial sinners, like kids calling out to one another in a certain callous sing-song of inactivity. They are diminished people, “without force and energy for the good.”
Let us keep this in mind this Advent as we prepare the way for the Lord and await our Savior to be born (and come again). Can we overcome the diversions of sin, clear out the roadblocks of laziness and indifference? Let’s end with this thought from Garrigou-Lagrange:
What diverts us from our ultimate end is sin. Fittingly we ask ourselves: do we have the divine hatred of sin? Do we try our utmost to understand that such a hatred, which has created hell, proceeds necessarily from the love owed God, and that such a hatred must be profound, intense, and without limits as is this love itself?