2nd Sunday of Advent

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

John the Baptist proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”

Repentance means a change of heart. The first word that Christ uttered at the start of his public ministry was “repent”, and repentance is the theme of Advent, which is a preparation for the coming of Christ.

In fact, Advent is a rehearsal for Christ’s Second Coming. That is why we have these readings on the end of the world, as well as the call to repentance. We are rehearsing, but it is a real rehearsal, unlike a theatrical rehearsal in which the actors prepare for the performance. The difference is that the actors’ hearts have remained unchanged. Each actor is still who he is; he’s just playing a role, and he’s rehearsing to play it well, while remaining who he really is.

But Advent rehearsal involves a real change of heart, an ever-deepening change of heart, and it is a real rehearsal involving conversion, a turning of the heart to Christ.

The reason is that if we do not rehearse, we will not be prepared. If the human heart is too attached to this world, if we are in love with this life, if we allow ourselves to get caught up in dissipation, self-indulgence and the worries of this world, then the Second Coming of Christ will be a source of horror for us. It will be painful for us, a source of fear, not a source of joy. The reason is that Christ, the king of kings, will gaze upon us individually, and he sees the heart, right into the heart of each person, and when he gazes upon us, we know he sees us as we are, and if we don’t like what we see in ourselves, we know that he’s not going to like it either.

There was an article written about two different reactions to the same mural at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. It is a picture of the Last Judgment. To one person, the picture was disturbing, because he saw an angry and vindictive God. But the other person, looking at the same mural, saw the open arms of the Good Shepherd who has come to reward the faithful for their labor and suffering. Objectively, the picture is the same for everyone; the difference is rooted in the two different hearts of the onlookers. So too will it be at the end of time.

Many of us don’t like what we see in ourselves, because sin and selfishness are always ugly. The difficulty is admitting it to ourselves and doing something about it. To come before Christ who will forgive us through the ministry of the priest, to come before him in humility and acknowledge that ugliness and sinfulness, to confess it and ask to be cleaned, is difficult and uncomfortable, like visiting your family doctor for a thorough examination; but that is the only way to freedom, to health, to a clean soul that is weighed down by nothing at all.

The other option, besides Confession, is to convince oneself that sin is not real, or not serious. We can reduce it to simply a mistake, and of course we all make mistakes. No big deal. As a culture, people have been misled into believing that absolute tolerance is a virtue, and that tolerating the sins of others is a loving thing.

The self-esteem movement that began in the 80s, which places a premium on making people feel good all the time, regardless of what they do, has done much to eclipse the need for repentance. That movement even made its way into the Church in North America for a period of time, and it even fooled some priests.

The result was a minimizing of the practice of Confession—or giving it up all together. This had the effect of eroding a sense of the Eucharist as the real presence of Christ, because if the Eucharist really was the Sacrifice of the Cross made present in the here and now, that would require serious preparation, like repentance and continual conversion. So, it was either a return to promoting Confession, or allowing this sense of the Eucharist to dwindle. The result was that many left the priesthood and became social workers, or teachers. They lost a sense of the supernatural quality of their priestly vocation—not all of them, of course, but certainly many of them. And much of it can be traced back to the self-esteem movement. If everybody is so good, and people are just wounded, then who needs a priest? What we really need is a therapist. And yet many therapists are beginning to see the need for Confession.

I know of a priest who received a call one day from a Jewish psychologist who said to him: “Father, we deal with some patients for two or three years, we can’t seem to do anything for them, and because they are Catholic, we send them to you, and after seeing you for an hour, they come out feeling so much better. What is your secret?” He laughed and said: “I have no secret; I just hear their confession.” She said: “You know, there’s something to that Confession thing that you Catholics do. Don’t ever give that up.”

I know of a woman who’d made an appointment with a rather holy priest. She was lamenting that she had such low self-esteem, and she believed that this was the underlying cause of the many difficulties in her life, one of which was her inability to sleep. This priest turned to her and said, “Neither do I have any self-esteem”. “Excuse me?” she said. “I have no self-esteem. Absolutely none. None whatsoever, zero, nada, and I’m happy as a lark”.

And then he began to challenge her to give serious consideration to the Magnificat in which Mary declares her nothingness: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, …for He has looked upon the nothingness of his servant”. The woman found this priest’s remark about his own lack of self-esteem so amusing that she laughed herself to sleep, and she said it was the best sleep she’d had in months.

When you consider who it is in history who had great self-esteem and who lacked it, you have to wonder about its importance. Hitler had very high self-esteem, so too Stalin and Mao. Who had low self-esteem? People like Saint Padre Pio and Saint John Vianney. In fact, St. John Vianney was so odd that his brother priests actually petitioned the bishop not to ordain him; he was seen as an embarrassment in the way he looked and was thought to be unfit for the priesthood; he wasn’t academically brilliant, he found learning very difficult, had a very limited knowledge of math, history, and geography, and he failed his entrance exams to the seminary.

The petition that his brother priests sent out accidentally ended up on his desk. He read it, and actually agreed with it, so he signed it. His was the last signature on the petition. There’s humility. If he had high self-esteem, he’d have been furious to read such a petition.

Advent rehearsal, this real rehearsal, is a preparation to join the company of the saints, and in heaven, all will be revealed. Nothing is hidden; everything is exposed to the gaze of all who are there. There are no secrets. If we are hanging onto any sin, any dark secret, and if we live with that on our soul, we won’t want to enter into the company of the saints, we will have a revulsion to the light of their gaze and attention, as a cockroach flees when the lights are turned on. We’re all sinners, but the greatest among us is the person who has the greatest humility, the lowest self-esteem if you will, as well as the greatest sense of gratitude to God for His generous mercy in forgiving sin.

Let us take advantage of this great gift of the priesthood, the gift of having men who have given up married life in order to be totally available to us, men who have been given the power to absolve sins in the name of Christ and to deliver us from the weight of those sins and to help dispose us so as to be able to stand before Christ without sorrow and without shame, but in a spirit of joy.