Second Sunday of Advent

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief,
and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar
and the elements will be dissolved by fire,
and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.
2 Peter 3:10

I think these days about making offerings. Catholic piety can appear to be something of a haggle or a mercenary sacrifice. I see your litany of humility and raise you one heart’s desire, to be dispensed at next paycheck. This isn’t exactly “works righteousness” in the way my evangelical self would have defined it. In some ways, it helps. The degree to which it is externalized in beads, novenas, and the calendar of obligation helps me recognize the depths of this tendency to make deals with God. As a teenager, I sang, “Lord, I give you my heart, I give you my soul; I live for you alone” — which I clearly didn’t — but I wanted to mean it perhaps as sincerely as I want it today when “making a pure intention” at Mass. When it comes to offering up particular desires, it is very hard to cut off all the strings. The Biblical language of reward and recompense reminds me that God condescends to speak to my heart in its own terms. I think it’s safe to say God deals with us, although it’s beyond our scope to deal with (let alone cheat) him. Exchange is at the core of human relationships, and the economy of mercy borrows and transcends this language, rather than abolishing it. The Mass, like the Incarnation and Paschal Mystery, is the very embodiment of this holy exchange where we harvest indescribably more than we ever sowed. And, on a practical level, when some deep root has to be dug out and handed over, I appreciate the dignity of surrender in front of an altar, with incense and a motet to model my heart on. I would like to surrender every moment like I do at Mass. The danger is walking out back into my life having mistaken the rehearsals for the final performance.

The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, and all the deeds of earth will be found out. And when they are found out, when I am found out for the thief that I am, I will wish that I’d taken all these times to empty my pockets.

If I were to give over my stored up treasures, the little honors and praises I keep to warm myself against the cold exposure of reality — how would I do it? It’s one thing to be aware of them, and another to pry them out of my own hands. The heart’s grasp is reflexive as that of an infant: where no loving hand is found, any other object will do. I talk myself into compromise. I know it’s wrong, but it’s provisional. If I really want to quit, I could. I would like to be the thief who, side by side with Him, repents at the acceptable time, but to wait sober and vigilant is to seek that death in every minute.

“Can I have that, please?” he says quietly, teacher-like, into my ear, as I pull that thought again out of my pocket to turn it over and over in my hands. I relish the security of making and controlling my own comfort, my own little patch of honor, even if the extent of my reign is only inside my own head. But the acceptable time is here to imagine that secret suddenly wrenched open, found out. Against that day, have mercy on me.

Today at Mass a woman behind me was crying audibly all through the communion prayers. There is an incredible vulnerability at Mass, protected by the tendency of Catholics not to “pry” or rush to offer comfort during this moment of His intimate self-offering, when He suffers to come close to us, even into our bodies. Hearing her, I couldn’t help but be moved to tears, humbled by her humility, and uniting in my heart our suffering in the Presence of him who keeps account of every tear. At least the liturgy was there to speak. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word…”

When the old world drew on toward night,
Thou camest, not in splendor bright
as monarch, but the humble child of Mary,
blameless mother mild.
At thy great name, O Jesu, now all knees must bend
all hearts must bow; and things celestial Thee shall own,
and things terrestrial, Lord alone.
Come in thy holy might, we pray;
redeem us for eternal day
from every power of darkness,
when Thou judgest all the sons of men.