Sunday, November 27, 2011

Year B First Sunday of Advent

Readings: Isa 63:16b-17.19b.64:2-7; Ps. 80:2-3.15-16.18-19; 1 Cor. 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37

Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the day we start a new year of grace. As our Gospel and our reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians make plain, the season of Advent is a season of waiting in joyful hope for the Lord’s return and not just a commemoration of His birth in Bethlehem. We are all familiar with expectation from our cultural observance of the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when we wait with great excitement and expectation for Christmas morning when we hope to find everything we asked for under the tree. One feature of Christmas I remember, even from when I was pretty small, is how anti-climactic it all became once all the presents were open. Looking back, this seems to me an object lesson in not placing my hopes in things that, while not bad in and of themselves, will not ultimately satisfy the longing of my heart, which remains oriented to the infinite, to what is ultimately satisfying.

The word “Advent” refers to the coming or arrival of something, or someone extremely important. For Christians Advent is the season that shows us that our very lives are an advent, positioned as we are between the already and the not-yet. In one aspect, Advent points us backwards to the Incarnation of the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, in the Roman province of Palestine more than 2,000 years ago. In another aspect, the one made clear to us today in our reading of God’s word, it directs our attention to that day when Christ will return in glory to judge the living and the dead.

This season of joyful expectation, which certainly includes a penitential dimension, prompts us to ask, “How do I live the tension of existence between Jesus Christ’s Incarnation and His Second Coming?” The prophet Isaiah, even though he wrote before Christ’s Incarnation, indicates the urgency of our lives even while highlighting our tendency to forget, to become impatient and start to live our lives as if we have no ultimate purpose: “There is none who calls upon your name,” the prophet laments, “who rouses himself to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt” (Isa. 64:6). The good news, even then, is that God is our father, ever faithful, shaping and molding us, as a potter shapes and molds wet clay (Isa. 64:7).

Marcello Mastroianni as Rubini in La Dolce Vita

Our deepest desire, the desire of every human heart, is to be happy. Hence, the most important question becomes, “What is happiness?” The seventeenth century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, in his monumental work Leviathan, sought to overturn what moral philosophers before him had laid out, namely that human happiness consisted of “resting” the will in the acquisition of an ultimate good, a Finis ultimus, culminating in the Summum Bonum. Hobbes, who also asserted that human life is “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short,” insisted that “there is no such Finis ultimus (utmost aim) nor Summum Bonum (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.” Rather, Hobbes claimed, happiness “is a continual progress of desire, from one object to another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter.”

Dominican Brother John Sica is correct to point out that, at least in light of what had come before, “the true radicality of [Hobbes’] claim is shocking.” Sadly, it is not so shocking to us now, awash as we are in our consumeristic culture, which entices us to seek happiness in precisely the way Hobbes insisted human happiness must sought, through the endless acquisition of finite goods. According to this mode of living, we desire, appropriate, consume and discard, pursuing fulfillment simply by repeating this cycle.

Hobbes was correct in noting that our hearts are restless in our pursuit of happiness, of complete and total satisfaction. In the words of Bruce Springsteen, “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.” The answer to Hobbes’ contention that happiness consists of acquiring one thing after another was given by St. Augustine more than a millennium before Hobbes made his shocking claim. St. Augustine noted that our tireless pursuit of imperfect worldly goods results in what he termed “lassitude,” more commonly called boredom, that anti-climax we experience after all the excitement is over. Pushed to its extreme lassitude leads to hopelessness, to what Br. John terms “an existential malaise,” like that experienced by Marcello Rubini, the main character in Frederico Fellini’s ironically-named film La Dolce Vita, meaning “the sweet, or good, life,” which is a story about a week in Marcello’s life spent in Rome searching for both happiness and love that will never come.

It is not too much to say that by pursuing finite goods, we really choose ourselves as our own last end, instead of God, whose benevolence becomes measured by how easily we attain everything we want. Such a pursuit typically ends in disgust, not happiness. Our gift-giving is not in vain as long we exchange gifts as a way of recognizing our having received the greatest gift of all, Jesus Christ. So, on this first day of the season of Advent, amidst all the hustle and bustle, with the Psalmist, let us pray with all our hearts, “Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.”

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