First Sunday of Advent, Sermon #1, by Bishop Geremia Bonomelli, D.D.

Advent Wreath; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsBrethren: Knowing the season, that it is now the hour for us to rise from sleep. For now our salvation is nearer than when we believed. The night is passed and the day is at hand. Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk honestly as in the day: not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in its concupiscences. – Romans 13:11-14

This is the first of the four Sundays of Advent, or of that holy season when the Church, like a loving mother, is intent upon disposing her children for the coming of Our Lord and for His holy birth. Holy Church transports us in spirit into the period between Adam and the birth of Christ, and making the language of patriarchs and prophets her own, she is sad and sorrowful, as a bride awaiting the bridegroom and bemoaning his delay, and with prayers and fastings, with abstinence and weeping, with eager yearnings and passionate longings she cries out to Him and implores Him to hasten His coming. None knows human nature better than the Church, and she knows that external objects must be fitted to the internal feelings of the soul. Now, must not Holy Church, in transporting herself during this season of Advent into the centuries that passed before the coming of Christ, necessarily have in her heart those same feelings with which the minds of patriarchs and prophets and of the just were so full? What should those feelings be? They should be feelings of profound sadness and sorrow, mingled with a tranquil resignation; and hence she orders that the organ shall be hushed, that hymns and canticles of joy shall cease, that the altar shall be stripped of flowers, that her churches and her priests shall be clad in mourning, and that the faithful shall fast and abstain. What must have been the feelings of patriarchs and prophets and of the just while anxiously awaiting the coming of the promised Messias? They must have been feelings of living faith, of ardent hope, of humility and prayer. And hence Holy Church puts upon the lips of her priests the words of the prophets and cries out through them: “Come, come, O Lord; delay no longer, loose our fetters, free us from our sins; send the Lamb who will rule the earth.”

It would not be easy to find in all the Letters of Saint Paul a passage which better than the one given above expresses the spirit with which the Church wishes her children to be inspired and which could more efficaciously prepare them profitably to celebrate the mystery of the birth of Christ.

“It is now the hour for us to rise from sleep,” says the Apostle. What sleep is here meant, my friends? There is a sleep of the body and a sleep of the soul. In the physical sleep, or sleep of the body, man remains inert; he has eyes and sees not, ears and hears not; he does not speak with his tongue, nor walk with his feet, nor toil with his hands; and this sleep within proper limits is as necessary as is food to restore the energies of the body. There is also a sleep of the soul, but this is most frequently a guilty sleep. And when, my friends, is this sleep of the soul culpable? When the soul never thinks of God, or very rarely; never thinks of its last end or of its salvation; when, wholly given over to the affairs of the world, it forgets prayer and its other religious duties. Then it abandons itself wholly to a culpable sleep, which is the forerunner of its eternal death. If I cast my eyes about me, up and down, what do I see? Alas, how many souls are asleep while their bodies are feverishly toiling. They rarely or never listen to the word of God, they take no account of the sacraments, of the laws of the Church or even of the divine law. In vain the grace of God passes, like a divine breath, over their souls; like a ray of light it beats upon their eyes to rouse them and start them upon the way of life, but they are buried in sleep. To such souls I cry out with the great apostle: Arise, now is the hour to awake, to look to yourselves, to open your eyes to the light of truth, to shake off the dust of this world and to set out on the way that leads to heaven.

The Apostle goes on to say that it is all the more necessary to awaken from this spiritual slumber because your salvation is nearer than you believe. What does this mean, my friends? There was a time, Saint Paul seems to say, when we, the children of Moses and the disciples of the prophets, looked forward to the coming of the promised Messias; but now He has come, we have seen Him with our own eyes; I have preached Him to you and you have believed in Him; salvation is now nearer, and if our negligence was culpable before the coming of Jesus Christ, it will be doubly culpable, now that we live in the light of His faith and are nearer to the promised reward.

Are not the words of the Apostle strictly true in our case also? Thanks be to God, we have had for years and years the inestimable gift of faith in Jesus Christ and we have walked according to its light. From the day we were able to know and appreciate this great gift down to the present, how many years have gone by? From that day, we have approached nearer and nearer to the end of our lives, and therefore we are daily drawing nearer to that moment in which our salvation will be accomplished and we shall see and possess Jesus Christ. That moment is near at hand; it may be tomorrow or today, and there is no time to be lost. If we are sleeping that dangerous sleep of the soul, of which Saint Paul speaks, let us awake at once. “Arise, thou who sleepest,” cries the Apostle, “and Christ will give thee light.”

“The night is past and the day is at hand.” What night is this and what day, of which the Apostle speaks? It is the dark night of paganism in which the converted Romans had so long wandered; it is the night that had been illuminated by the dawn of the prophets; the night in which the Hebrews, then become Christians, had lived, saluting from afar the longed-for Saviour: the day, that is near at hand, aye present, is the kingdom of Jesus Christ, the Light of the world. The night that is far advanced may also mean the world, or the present life, so full of error, so harassed by trial and passion; and the day that is at hand may mean the everlasting day, the day of that blessed life for which we are all earnestly yearning.

Here Saint Paul, still continuing the beautiful figure of day and night, lifts his thoughts on high to the truths of faith and in language full of strength and virile eloquence exclaims: “Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” We have come out from the night of paganism; we have left behind us the shadows of the Mosaic law; let us walk in the light of the doctrine brought on earth by Christ; let us pass boldly through this perverse world; we are already near the day when we shall see God face to face; away, then, with the works of darkness, the works of paganism, the works of the Mosaic law, the works of this world in which we live; and let us put on the armor of light, the works of faith and the works of Jesus Christ Himself. Here armor, as is clear from its connection with the preceding clause, signifies works.

Why does Saint Paul call good works an armor of light! Because good works are the arms by which we defend ourselves against the enemy when he attacks us; and because as arms are an ornament to him who bears them, so are good works an ornament and a glory to him who does them. Saint Paul here certainly means by the works of night or of darkness, wicked and sinful works; and by the works of day or of light, good and holy works. And why so? The inspired writings, accommodating themselves to our nature, lead us on to a knowledge of invisible and spiritual things by means of the visible and material; in the visible and material order, not only is light the most beautiful of all things, but it gives an added beauty and grace to everything that is beautiful and gracious, and where light does not shine there is no beauty and all is ugliness and deformity. And hence in Scripture language beautiful and holy works are called the works of light, and wicked works are called the works of darkness. According to our way of thinking there is the same relation between light and virtue that there is between vice and darkness; and hence virtue loves light and flees darkness, whereas vice hates the light and seeks darkness and hides itself within it. “The murderer riseth at the very break of day, he killeth the needy and the poor man, but in the night he will be as a thief. The eye of the adulterer observeth darkness, saying: No eye shall see me, and he will cover his face. He diggeth through the houses in the dark, as in the day they had appointed for themselves . . . and the morning is to them the shadow of death.” Darkness and crime are allies; night and sin are friends, because night banishes shame and takes away fear. Saint Paul properly brands wicked deeds as the works of darkness, saying: “Let us cast off the works of darkness;” and he bids us do the works of light; “Put on the armor of light.”

The great apostle goes on, still using the image of light and darkness: “Let us walk honestly as in the day.” If at midday you should walk through the most frequented streets of the city, certain that all would observe you, what would you dot You would assuredly be careful to walk with dignity and suitable gravity, to have your clothes clean and becoming; and you would scrupulously avoid whatever might expose you to unfavorable comment or to the derision of the passersby. Very well, Saint Paul says: “Christians, walk in the sight of men, and, what is more important still, in the sight of God, and in the full light of day; do nothing, either in word or deed, that may be unworthy of you; let your whole external conduct be dignified and becoming, so that no one can point the finger of reproach at you. As you have the light of faith, so also do the works of faith.” “Children of light,” the Apostle says in another place, “walk, that is, do works that become the children of light.” It is a phrase full of dignity and strength, of poetry and luminous meaning: “Walk as the children of light.” You have nothing to hide, because you have nothing to be ashamed of; let every one see your works and let them glorify your Father for whom they are done; glorify God who is the Light and in whom there is no darkness.

And here, my friends, I beg you to consider the exquisite art with which the Apostle has expressed and arranged these few phrases. He speaks of sleep, of night, and of the works of darkness; of the necessity of waking up, of day, of light, and of the works of light. You will readily see that these expressions – sleep, night, and the works of darkness, and again, the necessity of waking up, the idea of day, of light, and of the works of light – are so closely interwoven that they coalesce and form but one thought; and hence, when the Apostle condemns the sleep of the soul and night, he at the same time condemns the works of darkness or wicked deeds; and, on the contrary, when he admonishes us to bestir ourselves and to wake up, and goes on to speak of the day and of light, and warns us to walk as in the day, he clearly exhorts us to the practice of good and righteous deeds, such as become a Christian. Hence the entire teaching of these five verses may be summarized in these two phrases: Shun evil, do good.

And which precisely are the evil works which we should shun and the good works which we should do! The Apostle tells us at once. “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences.” Of course, as you will understand, it was not the intention of the Apostle that the few disorders he here enumerates should comprise all the evil deeds or works of darkness against which a Christian should especially be on his guard; he wished only to call to mind those which seemed at once the most heinous and the most common, and to which, I think, he knew the Christians to whom he was writing were most addicted. Excess in eating and drinking, incontinence and sins of the flesh, quarreling and strife, hatred and envy, and whatever wounds and destroys brotherly love, are works of darkness and should not even be named among Christians.

The Apostle is truly admirable in his Letters. Now he treats of the most sublime doctrines, drawing aside the hem of the veil of faith, and with a few rapid touches reveals to us the blinding light in which they are enshrined; and then he suddenly comes down into the vast field of practical life and in a few short sentences condenses the most important moral truths and sets them before us in words full of life and energy. So also here he cries out against rioting and drunkenness, against impurity, contention, and envy, which are the most common vices and against which he warns the faithful.

My friends, let us take a look at this parish; let each family examine its history and life, and let each individual do the same. Are we clean of the deeds of shame enumerated by Saint Paul? Have we not indulged in the vice of intemperance and gluttony? Have we not yielded to the wicked suggestions of sense and to the desires of the flesh? Have we not by word and wish and deed severed the bonds of fraternal charity and sown the seeds of strife? If unhappily such has been the case, we are not of the number of those who walk in the light, who walk honestly as in the day; but rather are we of those who seek the cover of darkness to hide their shame. What, then, should we do? End at once and forever these works of darkness; “put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences.”

And do you know what is meant by putting on the Lord Jesus Christ? This is a strong and sublime phrase often found in Saint Paul’s Letters and the meaning of which should be well understood.

Jesus Christ is our Head and supreme Teacher; He is the sovereignly perfect pattern of every virtue; the whole desire of a Christian, if he understands himself, should be to copy Jesus Christ into his life, so that he can say: “I am another Christ.”

A Christian should in word and thought, in affection and action, in his inner and outer life, so copy Jesus Christ into himself, as to be a living and faithful portrait of Him; and just as our body is covered and adorned with raiment, so should our soul, and in a sense our body also, be covered and adorned with the works of Jesus Christ. This is what is meant by “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Apostle concludes with these words: “Make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences;” that is, do not caress the flesh by yielding to its sinful cravings. In these words Saint Paul emphasizes a fundamental Christian truth, of which we have already spoken, namely, that we must at all times and with all our strength make war on those passions which lie latent in our flesh and blood, and which through the seductions of pleasure lead us on to eternal perdition.

When I read these last sentences of Saint Paul which I have just explained, one of the most extraordinary and touching facts recorded in ecclesiastical history comes spontaneously to my mind. It is vividly portrayed and eloquently and feelingly described by him who was the subject of it. It is as follows:

In the second half of the fourth century there lived a young man of noble sentiments and magnanimous heart; possibly the world has never seen a more acute and a greater intellect than his. Leaving the home of his mother he went from Carthage to Rome and from Rome to Milan in pursuit of knowledge. He gave himself up to the gratification of the most ignoble passions; he spumed the Faith that he had drank in as an infant in the arms of a saintly mother who worshiped him and followed him wherever he went, and he became a heretic and a skeptic. The first ray of light dawned upon this generous soul, thirsting for truth and a slave to error and the sins of the flesh, while reading the works of Cicero and Plato and listening to words full of love spoken by a holy bishop. Little by little he came to know the truth, the whole truth, as only he, an eagle among intellects, could know it; but the miserable man could not break the chain with which his passions had him bound; he wished to go back to God, but he was powerless; he wept and lamented, but all to no purpose. I think it would be difficult to find pages truer or more eloquent than those in which this impetuous young man of thirty describes the trials, the bitterness, the conflicts, the struggles, the sorrows, and the unspeakable distress of his soul; and none knew better than he how to write the story of the human heart or to penetrate into the deepest recesses of the spirit and reveal its workings. One can not read those pages without grieving and weeping with him who wrote them. One day, unable longer to stifle the cry of his conscience, which tormented him, or to break with his passions, which enslaved him, he rose hastily and quitting the friends by whom he was surrounded rushed from the room, and going into the adjoining garden threw himself at the base of a tree and covering his face with his hands burst into tears. “I wept bitterly,” he says, “over my shameful excesses and yet I could not make up my mind to give them up.” Just then he heard a voice, as of a child, coming from a nearby house, and saying over and over again: “Take and read – Take and read.” He listened, rose to his feet, wiped away his tears, entered the room he had just left, seized the first book that came to hand, opened it at hazard, and read the first words upon which his eyes fell. The book was the Epistles of Saint Paul and the words were these: “Not in rioting and drunkenness; not in chambering and impurities; not in contention and envy; put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences.” Having finished reading he closed the book; a ray of serene and tranquil light illuminated his mind; the tempest in his heart was stilled; his doubts disappeared; a new strength came into his whole being; an inexpressible sweetness filled his soul; and instantly he felt himself changed into another man; the disbelieving young man was wholly transformed and converted; the simple words of Saint Paul, which we have explained and together meditated upon, had wrought a stupendous miracle. Would you know who that young man was, who, being an unbeliever and a slave to passion and lust, was in an instant transformed into a believer and a saint? He was the son of Saint Monica, the great Augustine.

Marvelous is the power of the Word of God and His grace on the one hand, and of the will of man on the other.