Readying our hearts for Advent
Facing our need for a savior
As the season of Advent ushers in a new liturgical year, and a tumultuous year comes to a close in the Church, it may be a fitting time to revisit three Advent homilies given by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) in 1964. Ratzinger’s consistently prophetic voice feels like he is speaking directly to us today, as he poignantly addresses many of the issues we are grappling with in the Church right now.
The three sermons, compiled into a small book titled What It Means to Be a Christian, are so apropos that they are worth considering at length. I offer these reflections as a form of Advent preparation, which is first and foremost, according to Ratzinger, meant to be a time where we take our own spiritual inventory, asking the hard questions about the extent to which our hearts are still unredeemed and in need of the coming of Christ. As a Church, we are corporately and individually being invited to honestly assess the condition of our hearts at this moment in time, and to remember that it is always and only deeper conversion to Jesus Christ that will set us free from sin.
Ratzinger begins with a homily called “Are We Saved? Or, Job Talks with God.” In this cleverly titled sermon, the then-priest and professor of theology insists that we cannot divide people or history or even ourselves neatly or nostalgically into categories of “saved and unsaved,” “redeemed and unredeemed.” There is never a moment in ourselves or in the Church where we can check the “saved” box, and thus see sin, death, and vice completely eradicated. At the same time, however, these ongoing human realities are never outside the merciful, loving gaze of God. As Ratzinger says, “There is one, indivisible history, and it is characterized as a whole by the weakness and wretchedness of man, and as a whole it stands beneath the merciful love of God, who constantly surrounds and supports this history.”
The reality of man’s “weakness and wretchedness,” of which we have been reminded far too often lately, can bring us to the point of questioning the power and potency of the Christian faith itself. Ratzinger elaborates:
I believe the real temptation for someone who is a Christian, as we experience it today, does not just consist in the theoretical question of whether God exists; or even the question of whether he is three in one; or even the question of whether Christ is God and man in one person. What really torments us today, what bothers us much more is the inefficacy of Christianity: after 2,000 years of Christian history, we can see nothing that might be a new reality in the world; rather, we find it sunk in the same old horrors, the same despair, and the same hopes as ever. And in our lives, too, we inevitably experience time and time again how Christian reality is powerless against all the other forces that influence us and make demands on us.
Job talks with God
I don’t know about you, but I have personally asked God many times this year: Why does Christianity seem so impotent to effect real change in the world, the Church, my family, and even in myself? If the Christian faith transforms us, elevates us to the divine life, and makes us new creatures in Christ, why are we stuck in the same old muck?
In addition to grieving over the scandals that have been exposed in the Church in 2018, I’ve agonizingly watched my own beloved son endure a serious life crisis that I would have previously judged as a “worse than death” scenario. Further, I’ve listened to clients — faithful Catholics, all — share their struggles in my counseling chair as they’ve confronted their own alcoholism, failing marriages, sexual sins, children on drugs, and a myriad of other grave issues that have knocked them to their knees. My life and my office seem to be a microcosm of the Church-at-large as we wrestle with vices, humiliations, setbacks, disappointments, and the temptation to despair.
And what, dear God, is the answer to all of this?
Ratzinger suggests that Advent is the perfect time to take these real, raw questions and issues to God, just as Job did, even if we, like Job, have no answers:
Observing Advent simply means talking with God the way Job did. It means just seeing the whole reality and burden of our Christian life without fear and bringing it before the face of God as judge and savior, even if, like Job, we have no answer to give about it all, and the only thing left is to leave it to God himself to answer.
God has indeed given his answer, and his answer is a sign of contradiction: “an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). In all honesty, many of us would prefer a different kind of answer, including those of us who wish that the King of Kings would just eradicate evil from our lives and from the world in one marvelous display of power. But instead of a show of might, God chooses the sign of “hiddenness,” which Ratzinger insists is the only sign through which we can truly find him in this world.
The real sign that (God) chose is hiddenness, from the wretched people of Israel to the child at Bethlehem to the man who died on the cross with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). The sign of hiddenness points us toward the fact that the reality of truth and love, the actual reality of God, is not to be met within the world of quantities but can only be found if we rise above that to a new order … the order of love.
While we humans tend to want to “measure” God’s power operating in our lives in terms of outcomes, success, and even quantifiable holiness, God insists that we find his immeasurable power and love in the places we would least expect it … in the utterly vulnerable baby in the manger, in the seemingly powerless man on the cross, in the weaknesses and imperfections of ourselves and the body of Christ. Why? Because God’s ways are paradoxical, and in earnestly seeking his ways, we learn that it is in our deficits that we find his superabundant love, in our weakness that we access his infinite strength, in our inability to pull things together and make them right that we discover that our cry for help and subsequent surrender to God’s grace is enough. St. Paul said it best: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Furthermore, the messy state of our affairs and our deficiencies in love, both individually and corporately, remind us again that we stand in need of God’s saving help. In fact, a healthy confrontation with our “weaknesses and wretchedness” can bring us to the point where our confidence in our own capabilities ends and real faith begins — its essential content being that God must do for us what we can’t do for ourselves.
In one of my favorite passages from What It Means to Be a Christian, Ratzinger expounds on this point, and it is worth quoting liberally:
For what faith basically means is just that the shortfall that we have in our love is made up by the surplus of Jesus Christ’s love, acting on our behalf. He simply tells us that God himself has poured out among us a superabundance of his love, and that he has thus made good in advance all our deficiency. Ultimately, faith means nothing other than admitting that we have this kind of shortfall; it means opening our hand and accepting a gift. In its simplest and most innermost form, faith is nothing but reaching that point in love at which we recognize that we, too, need to be given something. Faith … consists of overcoming the complacency and self-satisfaction of the person who says, “I have done everything. I don’t need any further help.” It is only in “faith” like this that selfishness, the opposite of love, comes to an end … (faith) simply represents that impulse in love which leads to finding it’s true self: the openness of someone who does not insist on his own capabilities, but is aware of receiving something as a gift and standing in need of it. [Emphasis mine]
Perhaps the gift that God wants to offer us this Advent is an invitation to open our hands to prepare to receive anew the only gift that truly matters: “someone who can fill our hands with the grace of forgiveness.” Maybe this year’s exposure of the darkness in our lives and in the Church will call us to “admit the extent of being unredeemed, which is not something that lay over the world at one time, and perhaps somewhere still does, but is a fact in our own lives and in the midst of the Church.”
It is Advent. We are compelled to face our need for a savior by admitting that what Ratzinger calls “the borderline between ‘before Christ’ and ‘after Christ’” runs not through them and us, not through then and now, but instead, “right through our own hearts.”
So the questions we must ask this Advent might include: How much of my heart truly belongs to Christ? How have I been self-sufficient instead of asking for and surrendering to God’s grace? Where in my life do I need God to enter my “weakness and wretchedness” and transform it with his strength?
There is no better time than Advent to open our hands and let God come to save us. Will we let ourselves be saved?
EDITOR’S NOTE: Quotations used in this article are from What It Means to Be a Christian by Joseph Ratzinger (Ignatius Press, 2006).