You cannot build a better life


At no time of year is there a greater divergence between what is happening inside and outside of the Church than at Advent. Outside, it’s red and green with jingle bells and Christmas lights. Inside, we are draped in penitent purple. Outside, every radio station has gone full tilt into the Fa la las. Inside, we are singing
O Come, O Come Emmanuel if you are lucky (and a bunch of dreary hymns you have never heard of before if you are not). Everything happening outside is about getting ready for twenty minutes of fun opening over-priced packages on Christmas morning, while inside we are preparing for the end of the world.

Love or hate the sixteenth century reformer Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, it is hard to deny that the man could turn a phrase. Whether weaving together bits of ancient liturgies or composing his own prayers, Cranmer’s skill at crafting liturgical English remains unparalleled. His Advent collects are a prime example, especially the first one which the Book of Common Prayer required to be prayed not only on the first Sunday in Advent but also on all the subsequent Sundays as a second collect. Today this prayer is offered not only in Anglican churches but in all the parishes and communities of the Catholic Ordinariates as well:

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

It is a stark, direct prayer that draws a line between whatever is happening out there and what most needs to happen inside of us. The real preparation that needs to take place this time of year has nothing to do with trimming the tree, organizing dinner and travel plans, or ordering a whole bunch of knick knacks online. Christmas, as great as it is, is almost an afterthought. The real action comes not in remembering the Lord’s first coming but in being ready for His second coming. At any moment, Jesus will return, and the world will be flipped upside down when He does. All that’s wrong will be set right. Good will be blessed and evil will be expelled. It sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s true. He is coming. It is immanent. We need to be ready.

This attitude sharply contrasts with the dominant motif of our age: the soundbyte, the snap, the tik tok, the life lived in bite size bits, the only purpose of which is to make us happy for as long as we can distract ourselves from the silence of death. Despite the best efforts of materialist atheism, we do still believe in the transcendent, but we no longer believe that it comes to us from the outside, through the actions of a Divine Other who enters the world by choice to pull us out of the mire. Now we think that all transcendence bubbles up from within ourselves, producing an awe at the majesty of our own capacity to make meaning. “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion from the landmark 1992 Supreme Court case Casey vs. Planned Parenthood. He could not have realized how prescient he was being, considering the smorgasbord of options now available for us to express our personal, inner truth. We mesh our preferences together into a pastiche of ourselves that we then present to the world for validation through social media. Somewhere in the midst of the memes and the re-tweets, we assume a deeper sense of meaning will emerge.

Meanwhile, modern Christianity has bought into a different kind of navel-gazing transcendence, pointing us outward but only as a means of escape. This tends to take one of two forms. The kind that gets labeled “Fundamentalist”–regardless of whether it meets the historical definition of fundamentalism or not– which awaits a fictitious event called “the Rapture” in which true believers will get taken up out of this mean, old world before any of the real effects of the damage we have done to it can touch us. There are lesser forms of this ideology, but it all pivots upon the same false premise, that we can avoid facing ourselves.

The second form this takes in modern Christianity is that of the social transformation warrior. Not social justice, which is a venerable concept and one that has roots in the Bible and Catholic teaching, but social transformation, in which we pin our hopes on our ability to remake the world in our own righteous image. It is neither a liberal nor conservative thing, but rather takes on whatever cause seems closest to the aims of our particular political tribe. Social transformation theology also allows us to avoid looking squarely at our own sin, brokenness, and weakness, keeping out attention always on the Utopian dream of the perfect Christian society which the other kind of Christians do not want us to achieve.

Cranmer’s collect lets the air out of all of these falsehoods. As we pray it, we are forced to accept at face value that Jesus will return and that we must be ready. There is a judgment coming. There is a great renewal that will take place. Good will defeat evil. It is not theoretical. It is a known fact. Jesus will be returning to reclaim the world. The only question is whether or not we will be aligned with good or saturated with evil when He arrives.

Advent is good news, but it is good news that befuddles the secularist and the modern Christian alike. It means letting go of the notion that we can build better lives for ourselves. Transcendence will not come from some unexplored corner of our inner selves, nor will it be built out of the raw material of the world. The transcendence we seek comes only from union with Jesus, offered by Him in mercy and forgiveness when we repent of our sins and seek the good that flows from His Sacred Heart. It is good news that we will be judged because the judgement of Jesus is like a fire that lights up our hearts even as it burns away the idols to which we attach ourselves. Advent is the sure hope that the current state of this world and the current state of our lives is not final. We are preparing for something greater.

This post is part of a series on English Catholic Spirituality. To read the introduction to the series, click here. To see all the posts in this series, click here.

Light makes the darkness look stupid

This time of year always reminds me of the snow-covered Narnia of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” a place that is in a state of perpetual winter but where Christmas never comes thanks to the rule of the White Witch.

It sometimes feels like there is a perpetual winter in my life. There are so many things to be stressed about and so many ways in which it seems that the devil is always nipping at my heels. I don’t think I’m alone in that. There’s a lot of darkness in our world today. We live in an age of chaos and confusion. And I recognize that I’m luckier than most, being born into the middle class of a first world nation.

But tonight is different. Tonight Christmas arrives.

There is a lot of fluff that surrounds this holiday. There is so much commercialization. There are stupid, endless debates about how we should greet each other this time of year and with what words. There are folks who will have their Christmas trees denuded and out on the front lawn for the garbage man by noon on Christmas day, instead of celebrating all the way to at least Epiphany (if not all the way to the Baptism of Our Lord or even the Presentation).

There are also people for whom this is a difficult time of year. There are people hurting and in pain. There are people who are alone or in mourning. There are people struggling to cope with addiction, depression, anxiety, or any number of other things. There are so many ways in which this season can be a horror that swallows us whole.

And yet Christmas is here. The Lord has come. And in His wake, all shall be made well.

It is hard to believe that sometimes. It was probably hard to believe that on the first Christmas, as Mary bundled her son while Joseph undoubtedly contemplated just how they were going to get back home. Not long after would come the murder of so many innocent babies by Herod, a spectacle of cruelty against children rivaled only in our own day by the cruelty of abortion, abuse, and human trafficking.

But there was more to it. There’s always more to it.

Tonight I will celebrate Christmas Mass. The Lord will show up. He will enter this cruel, calloused world and shake loose the branches that have covered us in our misery. He will thaw the ice that has formed in our hearts and reignite our spirits. He will make all things new, all by being born, helpless and cold, clinging to life in His mother’s arms.

The White Witch cannot have this world. Our winter under her has seemed endless, but it is not. Christmas has arrived. There is no power of darkness that this world has ever seen that can muster even a moment’s worth of battle against the baby in the manger. Heaven and nature sing with joy. The lion lays down with the lamb. The child plays over the asp’s den.

The calendar says that winter has just begun. But rejoice, friends. Rejoice! Christmas is here. There is a light burning in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it. There is a crackle of fire that burns now in the Bethlehem of our hearts – and its heat shall burn away the darkness forever and blaze a trail of light that can never be exhausted.

Light makes the darkness look stupid. All those things that we are so afraid of in this long darkness that we have suffered, the monsters that we worry will climb out from under our beds and eat us as we sleep, they all get shown for what they are at Christmas: powerless, toothless, completely unable to destroy us.

“Behold, I make all things new,” Jesus will say. And the world will scoff and say, “Prove it.”

And that’s when we get to smile and look at Him and say, “Watch this.”