Bottom line: We are not victims, but free - in Christ.
Today is the First Sunday of Advent. I begin this homily with an observation about the Ten Commandments. Some wit said, "As Moses found out, the easy part is getting the Commandments written down and communicated to the people. The hard part is the implementation."
We all have a sense of what we should do, but we find it difficult to do it. The hard part is the implementation. We see that in today's readings: St. Paul talks about putting into practice the "instructions" we have received. Jesus warns about becoming "drowsy" and allowing anxieties to keep us from what we know we should do. "Be vigilant at all times," he says, "and pray."
To implement Jesus' teaching (the commandments, what we know we should do) we need to recognize the freedom God has given us. It's sometimes hard to believe we are truly free. Often we feel more like victims.
Let me illustrate. Suppose I am driving and I see "golden arches." I start thinking about all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions - and that sesame seed bun. I pull in and order a Big Mac and fries. I ask for a Diet Coke and feel good about limiting calories - so I super-size the meal. Afterward, I have heart burn and start kicking myself for eating junk food.
What happened? Was I simply the victim of clever advertising and strong inner urges? Or at some level, did I make a free choice? In other words, is my life pre-determined or do I have true freedom? Am I a victim or am I free?
I'd like to tell you about a guy who faced that question in a much bigger way. As a child he noticed that he had different feelings and attractions than other boys. He felt bad about them, but as he grew up, people told him that was simply the way he was - and that he should act on those feelings.
At first he had a sense of liberation - that he was not alone. As he got deeper in his new lifestyle, however, he noticed that it often involved other things: alcohol, mind-numbing drugs, pornography, and anonymous encounters. He also observed that those who got old and less beautiful were, as he said, "tossed on the trash heap." He felt miserable, although he did not think he could do anything about it. But something else was at work. He began to think about his childhood faith. He was brought up Catholic. He met a guy who had a similar history who invited him to a group called, "Courage."
It was at that point that I met this remarkable young man. His name was Steve.* Now, Steve had no easy time with this new way of living. There were dark nights, set-backs and old "friends" who told him he was deluding himself, he could never change. But after every fall, Steve kept coming back. Instead of beating up on himself, he recognized that he needed to rely less on himself - and more on the Lord. His Courage companions talked about three essential steps: prayer, sound friendships and accountability: opening his heart to another human, particularly in the Sacrament of Confession. As he relied more on the Lord, he began to experience peace, purpose and joy.
Steve realized that - when all is said and done - he had to face a choice: holiness or hell. What Steve saw so clearly, the rest of us only see dimly. But in the end, it does come down to the same: holiness or hell. Give yourself to God or play the eternal victim.**
Jesus says it without equivocation. "Be viligant and pray." We are not victims, but free - in Christ. The hard part, of course, is the implementation - living our freedom. For that we need to begin each day with prayer - to rely on the Lord, not on our own puny power. Today's Psalm contains a good prayer,"Your ways, O Lord, make known to me; teach me your paths. Then it adds, "Good and upright is the Lord; thus he shows sinners the way." Amen.
*Note to fellow homilists: To use this illustration, move "His name was Steve," to the preceding paragraph, right after "a guy who faced that question in a much bigger way." I use the past tense because Steve died in 2003.
Regarding the "I" in the McDonald's example, I was following St. Paul's usage in Romans 7:13-25. The "I" represents fallen humanity - so feel free to use the illustration as is. Even if you have never had a "Big Mac attack," you surely know - from your own experience - what it represents.
**As we saw last Sunday, Jesus delights in our smallest step, but ultimately wants our entire being: All or nothing. On this point, we need to understand a paradox: Jesus was a willing victim for us - and he calls priests (and all Christians) to follow that example. A wonderful book on this is: The Priest Is Not His Own by Bishop Fulton Sheen.
From Archives (Homily for First Sunday of Advent, Year C):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
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