“Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way. I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean. But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died… For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence. It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.”
Once again St. Paul instructs the Church in the transformation that the Second Advent of our Lord is sure to bring upon creation when charity shall reign, a transformation that has already been lived out to the fullest in the life of Christ and a transformation that is being lived out in the Church though not as perfectly as in the Messiah. Advent season opens up with Paul instructing the Church to snap out of the empirical slumber that has come upon the world when he wrote:
“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.”
The Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent is the story of our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem where his first piece of business was to purify the Temple. The Gospel for the Second Sunday in Advent told the story of the end of the world from his own lips and he describes it as a time when the material creation even outside this planet, the cosmos itself, will be restructured at its core in such a manner that Christ says ,“the powers of heaven and earth shall be shaken.” I submit to you that just as he came into Jerusalem and began holy week by cleansing the Temple, so his second coming will commence with the cleaning and sanctifying of what we know as the space-time continuum, the whole cosmos, to reconstruct it as the Cathedral for the worship of God the Blessed Trinity. Once Jesus the Messiah shakes the powers of the cosmos, he will begin the process of subduing all of creation to himself. The dead will rise, he will subject all of God’s enemies to himself and that includes death, fallen angles will be judged by the resurrected children of Abraham, and finally we will participate in the most spectacular event one can imagine when Jesus Christ leads all his resurrected siblings in the worship of God the Father at which time Jesus himself will apparently visibly submit himself to the Father, to the end, as Paul puts it, “that God (the Father) may be all in all.” All of that has either been laid before us in the Advent story, or it has been implied until today when the Gospel is all about a very specific man, John the Baptist, who was about to be executed by another man who thought that he had the power of life and death in his hands. The Baptist turns to Jesus to give his life and death meaning which he did when he declared that John was greater than any prophet: he was both God’s official herald the Messiah and the living sign of the coming of Messiah.
Over the last several weeks I have wanted to explore with you how we who are baptized into Christ now participate in the incarnate life of God the Son. This is a sacramental participation, born of the sacrament of baptism and sustained and nurtured through the other sacraments but especially through the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. And I should emphasize that this reality is something no prophet, no not even John himself could participate in.
“Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Matthew 11:11
I have discussed how we Christians are made Christian by being baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and how baptism, as by an instrument, engrafts us into the very life of Christ and thus we are said to participate in his life. That is our beginning and through that beginning we are equipped with the heavenly virtues of faith, hope, and love. We have also explored how living as Christians is a matter of intentionally entering into the horizon of Jesus the Messiah. Our entry into Jesus’ horizon is a gift from God; yes it is a growing and maturing grasp of seeing the world of men and things the way Jesus sees the world, of valuing what Jesus values, making his ultimate concern our ultimate concern, which includes behaving the way he wants us to behave, and all that comes about through ever deepening conversions, conversions that are made possible through our baptism into Christ and thus our regeneration which is a pure gift. Besides looking at the new reality of our life in Christ through the sacrament of Holy Baptism, through the metaphor of being grafted into God’s olive tree, of becoming children of Abraham and thus making Abraham’s story our story, we have also explored how Jesus’ narrative as the Seed of the Promise, the New Israel, has become the most important narrative of our life and how our personal stories have entered into the narrative of the resurrected Son of God.
The life story of Jesus the Messiah enfolds the life story of every single human being who has ever existed or every will exist and that inclusion in Jesus’ life story bestows ultimate meaning upon each person, as well as bestowing ultimate meaning to whole of humanity. Furthermore the life story of Jesus the Messiah enfolds the life of the whole cosmos and he means to bring the power of his divine life to bear in such a way that he says, “the powers of heaven and earth shall be shaken.” And here is where I want to make a point. Since the life of Jesus the Messiah enfolds the existence of the whole cosmos, our life in Christ and our life together has cosmic meaning and purpose and I submit to you that purpose is realized and fulfilled through our worship of Jesus the Messiah and our love for one another. What could be more antithetical than the life of being human set next to the explosive powers of heaven and earth? Being human is at least about valuing, interpreting, and meaningfulness, while the cosmos seems to be utterly and no more than material.
With his brilliant film The Tree of Life, Terrance Malick explores the manner in which the stories of ordinary people have become part of the story of the cosmos. How could personality possibly emerge from impersonal material; what has this value ladened, self-conscious creature Man to do with the quite unconscious material universe? May it be that somehow God uses human beings to infuse meaning into the universe? Malick is lovingly attentive to the members of an unremarkable family of four, two brothers, a mother, and a father; the O’Briens, who live on everyman’s street, in Waco, Texas in the 1950s. Like all our families the O’Briens grow and sometimes fail to grow into a larger life. The whole story is about the death of one of the sons when he was about 18 year-old and how the grief and sorrow of each member of the family is their attempt to love and honor the dead child and also to understand the meaning of his life and death.
Flannery O’Connor wrote, “The (fiction) writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem,” O’Connor wrote, “is to find that location.” Malick searches the whole universe for that spot and finally locates the intersection of time, place, and eternity by shifting time and place in what we might call the life story of the cosmos. It is a life story that he places before us in the terrible beauty of the birth and evolution of the cosmos as elemental substance is violently sculpted into stars, stellar residue, dark matter, and planets swimming together in a myriad of galaxies in interstellar space. And in particular Malick draws down on this planet’s birth and formation sometimes evoking a sense of awe and sacredness while other scenes of fang and claw are disgusting and without any apparent pity or purpose. Not only does life evolve here but at least one planet, one that looks much like our own, is swept clean of any life by something that looks like a solar tsunami. What could be more devoid of meaning than that? What could be more nihilistic? And that enormity placed next to a family like our own evokes not just wonder, but as the old philosophers of a previous generation would say, it evokes fear and nausea. And because man’s life is but a span, beauty consumes away like a moth, and all of it withers, decays, dies and rots, and all because of that people live in the fear of death their whole life. And yet as we witness this beautiful, but death-dealing cosmological wonder it is the voice of sorrow, the sorrow of one mother whose plea for mercy and absolution begins with her lost son but now is seen to enfold the whole universe.
If through ever deepening conversions to Christ we see the world of men and things the way Jesus sees the world, if we value what Jesus values, if we make his ultimate concern our ultimate concern, and if we behave the way he wants us to behave then we try to live the way Jesus wants us to live.
I suppose it is because of the enormity of human sorrow that swaddles the universe and that placed next to the reality of the Second Advent of Christ that our treatment of one another strikes me as so overwhelmingly important. Even in the midst of the powers of heaven and earth shaking and maybe shattering, Paul insists that it is our true charity for one another that is redemptive.
“Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way… But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died…”
The sure and certain future of this world is the Second Advent of Christ our God and St. Paul declares that the knowledge of this future converts us to live sensibly as Christ would have us live in this present day, looking for the appearing of our great God and savior Jesus Christ. Furthermore that end is inescapable. As I said a few weeks ago, very single probability that is emerging in every single human life is inevitably folding into the narrative of Jesus the Messiah and all that has, is, or will be in the universe is moving to a finality, a goal, a purpose which is the life story of Jesus the Messiah. Everyone who has ever lived, believer as well as unbeliever, faithful or unfaithful, Caesar, slave, saint and sinner will be defined and given its ultimate meaning in the life story of Jesus Christ. That is the reality of our world:
“Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died…”