Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Second Sunday of Advent, 2018.
We reflected last Sunday, the first of Advent, on the fact that there is a certain tension to Advent—the tension of already and not yet. The Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ is already here—Jesus and His kingdom with His Rule, with His saving pattern of life He demands of His disciples has indeed come, has been revealed to us, our baptized bodies within the Body of Christ are temples of His Holy Spirit, and through the saving pattern He taught—daily prayer in the Offices, the Eucharist, and devotion to the Sacred Humanity according to the Bible and the gifts we each are given—the Church perpetuates His mission, perpetuates His kingdom, perpetuates Him. All this is true of the here and now.
And it is true that the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ has not yet reached the end of its manifestation. Jesus, as we say in our Creeds, will come again to judge the quick and the dead. “Will come again” adds a dimension to our whole way of thought: the dimension of time and of God’s action deferred until some point in the future (or, at least, oursense of future, because it appears that to God, past, present, and future are seen by Him in a single glance. So this tension of already and not yet in fact is the air we breathe, the world of God’s action that we inhabit. As baptized people, who by God’s gift of baptism, have died to sin that we rise with Christ Crucified in His resurrection, the baptismal life itself inhabits the tension of Advent, at all times. Advent is the air that the baptized breathe every day.
The preaching of Saint John the Baptist captured the tension of Advent. Through him, the people of God began to breathe Advent air, in this sense of it being ordered to Christ, Who for John the Baptist had both come already (remember, in the womb of his mother, John the Baptist leapt after hearing Blessed Mary speak—the sound of her words, and the words themselves,undoubtedly full of grace with the presence of God Who Himself was in her womb),and Jesus had yet to come. The hymn “Joy to the World” which we sang last week and will sing again next week, is roughly analogous to the overall content of John’s preaching. In the hymn, fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, repeat the sounding joy. For John, “Prepare the way of the Lord . . . Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth.” It is the same imagery, it is the same action of God, And it was in Baruch, as well: “God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground.” Why? “So that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.” So that we may delight in His will and walk in His ways. In John the Baptist, in Isaiah, in Baruch: it is the same Gospel, the same Good News. The same action of God.
What is, then, this action? The Christian term for this is judgement. The making low of mountains and hills, the filling up of valleys, the straightening of the crooked, the transformation of the things of our reality—fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, and everything else—from mere objects observed into occasions of God’s transcendent presence which means wonder and joy to the world—this is the action of God’s judgment.
Too often we think of the word “judgement” and think “sentence of condemnation.” We get this from the secular meanings of judgment, whether in a court of law or in the court of public opinion, or the opinion of even a small group of people—who judge a person and pronounce upon that person in a way that reduces their standing, manifests a sense of inferiority, and all in all is a negative thing: “don’t judge me, man,” is the cliché that pulls all of that together neatly.
Now, as is so often the case of vocabulary used both by the secular world and the Christian Church, the Christian understanding of judgement expands upon the secular meanings, not erasing the secular meaning but uncovering a more profound depth of revelation. Yes, in the case of sins committed, particularly sins of malice which are deliberate, premeditated, and committed consciously contrary to God’s will, God’s judgement is severe and unbending—left unconfessed, the consequence of that sin upon a person is a live lived in hell, both in this phase of life and into the next. Perhaps not permanently, but hell nonetheless until his or her examined conscience through the grace of God calls to contrition and confession.
But God’s judgement, in the fullest sense, is much more than this. And the best way I think to understand is through an experiential example. Imagine, in your own main area of interest—say a hobby or activity you do—that you find yourself in the presence of the person or persons whose performance in that activity reaches the highest level of accomplishment. So, if you are a golfer, imagine being in the presence of Arnold Palmer. If you are a painter or artist, imagine being in the presence of Michelangelo. Or even being in the presence of a true and genuine teacher, of music or some other subject, or simple a teacher of life.
When we are in the actual, tangible presence of such mastery, our own weaknesses or lack of skill within that activity are made quite manifest, but it is hardly a completely negative experience. In fact, it can be a very positive—humbling, but positive—experience. Being in the mere presence of greatness, to say nothing if we receive any kind of guidance or advice or teaching from such a master, somehow has the effect of improving our own skills, or if not that, at least opening up new horizons for us, that will time and effort your skills would improve. You might have to practice that tip on putting you heard from Arnold Palmer for years before you get it, but after you do—well, all of this is analogous to God’s judgement. Held up to the light of light, standing before the light that knows no darkness, being Moses on the mountain—yes, we see our shadows the closer we are to the light, but we are also closer to the light—closer to the joy of our salvation, closer to such beauty and such truth that, like Moses, we begin to glow, and become light to the world.