“Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day…” Romans 13: 8-13
Our study of the Fourth Gospel is in abeyance till the Epiphany season and yet I can assure you that we will find some of John’s themes and narratives peeking at us through the Advent lectionary. Our text today contains two great themes; the first theme reiterates Christian behavior inside and outside the Body of Christ as “love fulfilling the law.” Love, contrary to the popularly held opinion amongst many Christians, is not only willing the good of the other person or even acting for the good of the other — that would be the popular take on “agape” — but love also includes our desires, our affections, as well as our will, so that words like devotion, passion, yearning, charity, pursuit, sweetness, delight, trust, worship, and esteem, to name only a few, may be predicated of what the Apostle calls “love.” One may, in order to distinguish it, call such love, “strong love,” or better yet the traditional word, “charity.” Strong love, or charity, is what the Apostle means when he writes, “Therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” And I submit to you that we human beings are made for charity, and though it is natural, though it is appropriate, congruent, and in accord with human nature, we cannot achieve charity without the supernatural assistance of the Holy Spirit.
Of course Paul never addresses people with such high expectations except they be baptized in the strong Name of the Blessed Trinity and thus have received the Heavenly Virtues of faith, hope, and charity — the very supernatural gifts that are necessary for us to achieve our natural end. And by end I mean our finality, our reason for being created in the first place, in short God’s will for our life individually and collectively. The second half of the text is a call to conversion in light of the Second Advent of Christ. By virtue of our baptism into Christ we are emancipated from the dominion of sin — yes we are — because we have died and we have been buried with Christ in his death. And yet, as Paul writes, we have also been raised, from the death of sin, with Christ in his resurrection, we are equipped to live the common life within the Body of Christ that is marked by patience, charity, kindness, prayerfulness, putting one another first, and looking out for one another, as well as forgiving one another any trespasses just as each of us has been forgiven by God the Father for the sake of his Son Jesus the Messiah. What makes our life a common life, as in common prayer, is that we all share to some degree the horizon of Jesus the Messiah as a gift bestowed to us in baptism.
What do I mean by horizon? Literally a horizon is the limit of one’s vision from a specific point of reference. What is inside your horizon has meaning for you. On the other hand, what is outside your horizon you could not care less because you do not know about it. Your personal horizon is the limit of your experience, your knowledge, your understanding, your judgments, your loving, your caring and your valuing from a specific point of reference, that point of reference being you. It is after all your horizon and it includes not only what you believe, Whom you worship and how you live, it also includes what you reject as unbelievable, what you discard as wrong worship, behaviors you work to avoid because they are errors in life, as well as behaviors you wish to make habitual because they are virtuous, wholesome and lovely. Thus one’s personal horizon includes definite judgments about what is true, good and beautiful in worship, in what you believe and in the way you live. That is your horizon. Christians have a common share in Jesus’ horizon and we spend our life individually and corporately appropriating it. This is where Christian conversion comes in. We frequently of think of conversion as conversion from not being a Christian to being a Christian. But St. Paul thinks of conversion as a natural movement within the Christian life:
“And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.”
Before conversion, even for a Christian, one’s personal standpoint has a feeling permanency, of infallibility, of being unrevisable. But as we appropriate the means of grace in the Church, our personal standpoints are challenged by our growing, maturing awareness of Jesus’ horizon. The thought of discarding one’s personal standpoint or even adding new elements to one’s personal standpoint is offensive and sometimes frightful. This is a form of the slumber Paul writes about. But life intrudes upon our slumber and our sense of permanency begins to waver. Besides our own sins and failures, people we love and believe in, those we once regarded as true companions along the way go away; they die, or sometimes they turn out not to be whom we thought them to be. And it is certain that others regard us in that manner as well. In addition to relationships, the vicissitudes of life such as disease, weather, bad fortune, good luck, economics, or own bad decisions crowd in upon us. At some point we come to see that the most important aspects in our life and the life of those we love are far more complex than we thought and not under control. To continue trying to control people and things is like being in the dark. It is the very opposite of walking honestly. To continue in one’s delusion of control is a sort of deep sleep that keeps one from facing reality. But our share in and our responsible appropriation of Jesus’ horizon will not permit us to continue living a lie.
Before I continue let me say this about our Lord’s horizon: We share as much as we can of Jesus’ horizon and that knits us together and fosters our growth corporately and individually. We will never out grow his horizon. Why not? This is why: when we speak of Jesus’ horizon we are speaking of God’s horizon. But the only way that phrase — God’s horizon — make any sense at all is because of the Incarnation. God has no horizon since there is no limit to his knowledge and understanding, no limit to his loving, his begetting, his self-giving. The phrase “God’s horizon” is simply nonsense. However, because Jesus the Messiah is truly man as well as truly God we may speak of the horizon of Jesus the Son of God.
With regard to those inside or outside the Church Paul encourages us to incarnate the Incarnation, which would be to become Imitators of Christ. The love of God that has been shed abroad in our hearts works through us as we imitate Jesus. Those who have by the grace of God entered into the horizon of Jesus the Messiah are able, like him, to suspend self-regard and truly care for the other person, even the enemy. Only self-regard and self-pity keeps us from such love.
Because having a share in Jesus’ horizon is a pure gift from God, it is not a human achievement, not in the sense that we have intelligently and successfully chosen the best of all options open to us. We are drawn to his life and we want to grow and mature and see the world of men and things the way Jesus sees the world, we want to value what Jesus values, make his ultimate concern our ultimate concern, which includes behaving the way he wants us to behave, and all that lures us into ever deepening conversions as we freely receive his gifts. I think the Catholic way of life is delighting in conversion and how right it is that Advent Sunday, the first day of the new Church year, begins with a call:
“And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.” Romans 13:11
Jesus’ horizon is made graphically available to us in his life story. Through baptism and the loving care and teaching of the Church we have entered into Jesus’ life story. Your narrative has become part of his narrative. Your autobiography has been assumed into Jesus’ autobiography. And today’s Epistle declare that Jesus’ story is coming to its end — by “end,” I mean Jesus’ narrative is coming to its consummation, its finalization, it is about to be entirely resolved. “The day is at hand,” writes St. Paul.
We seem always vulnerable to the distractions of a naive empirical world of meaning, the world that most folk believe is the really real world. It seems that the real world is out there, all around us, material, tangible, empirical, practical, and felt and known in our bodies. You have seen this in our study of the Fourth Gospel, how people are always misunderstanding Jesus because they are so empirical, literalistic, and utilitarian. What I am calling the empirical world of meaning, St. Paul frequently referred to as the way of all flesh which is mere utility, the merely literal, the merely empirical. But that life is short. And that take on life is short sighted. Beauty is consumed by the moth, the worm, and rust; the empirical always withers, decays, and dies; therefore the naive empiricists live in the fear of death their whole life and they do all they can to put it out of mind, to avoid it, to deny it. His only happiness is bitter and found only in forgetfulness because he truly believe that this literal, historical, empirical life is the only reality there is and the only heaven that is, is right here, right now. And of course death will take it all sooner or later. But what Paul is saying is that it is not a matter of my death, or your death, it is not a matter of some fading splendor we may wish to forget, what matters most of all is the really real and the really real is the Second Advent of Jesus Christ when our Lord’s horizon will be manifested as the truth that sets us free; death will vanish like an old gloomy dream, nature, all of creation, will be perfected by the grace of the risen Christ, and the kingdoms of this world, delivered from sin and death, will be returned to his Father by the Son:
“For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive… Christ the first-fruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father…”
I Corinthians 15:22-24
That is the sure and certain future of this world — that is what is really real — and St. Paul declares that the knowledge of this future should shake us from our empirical slumber and enable us to sort out what really matters in life. Furthermore that end is inescapable. I have said this frequently: Every single probability that is emerging or every has emerged in the whole universe is moving to its finality, its goal, its purpose which is Jesus’ life story. And everyone who has ever lived, believer as well as unbeliever, faithful or unfaithful, Caesar, saint or slave will be defined and given its ultimate meaning in the life story of Jesus the Messiah.