I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (Matt 3:11-12)It is part of our liturgical praxis to hear the words of St. John the Baptizer, who receives far too little due these days in the Latin Church, on the Second Sunday of Advent. Are we ready for the Lord, or do we want to skip all that and get to the party?
One can make a pretty strong argument these days, especially given our proclivity to practically blow off the season of preparation in order to just get to the Christmas party, that most Christian spirituality, at least in the United States, has its foundation, not in prayer, fasting, and alms-giving (i.e., watching and waiting, readying ourselves for the day He returns), but in a kind of lazy presumption concerning God's mercy (i.e., "Whoops, there it is"). It's as if in the minds of many, God's gracious mercy cancels justice out entirely. Implicit in this view is a failure to grasp God's irreproachable holiness and the harm even our small sins do to the order of grace God seeks to establish through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Following the axiom of lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi (Latin shorthand for- how you pray forms what you believe, which, in turn, shapes how you live), this failure too, in my view, arises in large proportion from how we worship God in the Holy Mass.
In his far-too-little read and discussed encyclical on the theological virtue of hope (hope, which we must be careful not to conflate with mere wishing, is the focus of Advent, both prior to the "turn" that occurs on Gaudete Sunday, as well as afterwards), Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI addressed this in his remarkably cogent and clear way. I know I have cited this a few times before, but due largely to my own weakness and forgetfulness, I need to be reminded:
To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful. A world without God is a world without hope (cf. Eph 2:12). Only God can create justice. And faith gives us the certainty that he does so. The image of the Last Judgement is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hope. Is it not also a frightening image? I would say: it is an image that evokes responsibility, an image, therefore, of that fear of which Saint Hilary spoke when he said that all our fear has its place in love. God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace. This we know by turning our gaze to the crucified and risen Christ. Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened (par. 44)Last year when posting my annual series on the O Antiphons, it struck me that Johnny Cash's song "The Wanderer" is very appropriate for these (still) early days of Advent, capturing its "spirit" well:
St. John the Baptist, seal of the prophets, clearer of the way of the Messiah, of whom the Lord Himself said "among those born of women there has arisen no one greater" (Matt 11:11), pray for us.