You Are What You Will
Homily for the First Sunday of Advent

Douglas P. McManaman
November 30, 2015
Reproduced with Permission

There are two parts to this gospel; the first deals with the signs of the Second Coming. To attempt to figure out whether we are near the end or not would be conjecture on my part, and Jesus says in another part of the gospel that no one knows the day or the hour. So, instead I'd like to focus on the second half of this gospel reading: "Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy, from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, that the day catch you by surprise like a trap. That day is coming for everyone."

In Scripture, the heart refers to the will. Christ exhorts us to pay attention to what the heart is focused on. He said: "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." The heart describes what we love with our entire self. St. Theresa of Lisieux always said that you are what you will; you are what you love. You are not what you think, and you are not what you feel; but you are what you will, that is, what you ultimately love.

I remember telling that to a mental health patient whom I visited years ago; he struggled all his life with a mental illness. I had no idea that the notion that 'you are what you will' would make such an impact on him. It is a crucial point for moral philosophy and theology, because we determine our moral identity, our character, by the moral choices that we make. And so you are what you choose, because you will what you choose. If I choose to lie to you, I become a liar; that's my identity, my character, the kind of person that I am, namely one who would lie to you for whatever reason; if I choose to steal from you--even if I do not get caught--, I become a thief; that is my moral identity (at least in part), the kind of person I have chosen to become. But it was good news to him that you are not what you think, and you are not what you feel. If I can't help but think that I am nothing, that I am deficient, that I am not even fully human, that I am unlovable, perhaps because of circumstances in the past, perhaps you had a father who just would not love you or affirm you in any way and you just cannot get it out of your mind that you are unlovable and good for nothing, well some patients find great consolation in knowing that you are not necessarily what you think you are--especially if you suffer from psychotic episodes at times and really think you are something else entirely.

And if you feel deficient, if you feel like you are absolutely nothing, worthless, that you are the slime of the earth, etc., that is certainly difficult thing to live with and some people can't seem to change that, but you can be assured that you are not necessarily what you feel. But you are what you will, and what you will to be is, through God's grace, within our power. What matters in the end and what determines who we are ultimately is the heart, what we ultimately want--what we ultimately love. The converse is also true: I might think I am wonderful and feel great about myself, but I am not what I think and I am not what I feel. I am what I love, and some of the most devious human beings think very highly of and feel very good about themselves. What they ultimately love, however, is themselves.

This first gospel reading of Advent, which is a preparation for the coming of Christ, focuses our attention on the heart. This season is a microcosmic reflection of our life. Our entire life is really an Advent, a preparation for the coming of Christ, his Second Coming, and so this life is about the formation of character, our moral identity, that is, it is about the formation of the heart. Those for whom life is not an Advent, not a preparation for eternity, couldn't care less about their character or moral identity, which is why feeling good, not beautiful character, is the motivating principle of their actions.

The interesting thing about the liturgical year is that it repeats itself; every year, we relive the liturgical year. It reminds me of that movie Groundhog Day. This is a comedy produced in the early 90s starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. Murray plays the part of Phil Connors, who is an arrogant weatherman. His assignment is to cover the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, but he finds himself caught in a time loop, and he is forced to relive the same day, day after day. Every morning he wakes up to the same song on the radio, and every morning the radio announces that it is groundhog day. He alone is aware that he's lived this day before, and he will continue to live that same day repeatedly. It takes him quite a while to realize what the meaning of this time loup is, but before he learns its meaning, he tries everything from a life of total hedonism to suicide. His suicide attempt doesn't work; he still finds himself in bed the next morning, forced to re-live that day. But eventually he begins to reflect upon his life and what is really important, and when he finally lives out the day as he ought to, that is, when he finally discovers that life has something to do with loving others for their sake, not for his own sake, he is ready to move on, and he is released from the time loup. He is overjoyed when he wakes up the following morning to a different song and a new day.

The liturgical year can be looked upon as a kind of time loup. We're called to live and relive that liturgical year, to walk with Christ and in Christ, to accompany him every year at his birth in order to learn what it means to be a child again--since he calls us to change and become as little children. And we accompany him every year on the road to Calvary, in order to really learn what is the meaning of human suffering and human love. And it takes a lifetime to learn how to live that liturgical year as we ought to live it. But hopefully we get better every year. That happens when we carefully reflect on where we go wrong and what needs to be done differently.

The first message of the year is that this life will come to an end, and that this life is about preparing for a Second Coming. And we are warned: the end will come for all of us, and so beware that your hearts do not become drowsy. When we are drowsy, we begin to fall asleep, and when we sleep, we take a posture identical to that which is ours when we are dead. Sleep is a metaphor for spiritual death. Jesus is exhorting us to stay awake, to stay alive, and it is divine grace that is the principle that makes us spiritually alive, and it is the decision to give ourselves over to sin that kills the grace of God within the soul; and the result is we die spiritually. The image of the life of sin in this gospel is "Carousing and drunkenness and disordered anxiety about our life". It is the life that makes the self the center around which my life revolves. This life is about learning to place Christ at the center. That takes a lifetime, because sin is easy, virtue is difficult.

But every year is to be a renewed effort to repent of choices that are inconsistent with a life in the Person of Christ, and a renewed effort to make those choices that Christ demands of us. The rich man asked Jesus what must I do to enter into eternal life, and he said: you know the commandments: you shall not steal, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not kill, honor your father and mother, etc. He said this because heaven isn't a club med vacation that we will be rewarded with if we keep the commandments. Rather, our choices determine our moral identity, and in heaven, we will wear our identity like clothing. In this world, our clothing conceals us, in heaven, our clothing reveals our deepest moral identity, who we are. It will be either beautiful clothing that reveals a beautiful moral identity, or it will be not so beautiful clothing, in which case we will flee from the gaze of God and the communion of saints in shame. This life is short, we're just passing through. Let us pray that when persecution becomes more vehement, which it might before we are finished here, that the Lord gives us the grace of courage to endure whatever we need to endure for love of him.