For the first Sunday of Advent, we hear in the Collect: “Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming…” Often when one thinks of Advent and our preparation for Christ’s coming, they think of His coming 2,000 years ago. Many know that in Advent we are also preparing for His second coming. There is also a third coming: His present coming. Jesus Christ with the Father and Holy Spirit is ever-present. His coming to us is not just an event of the past nor one to which we look ahead, but one that is always present. His coming in the past enables us now to welcome Him in His present coming, and His present coming prepares us and leads us along the way to His final coming.
This collect calls us to run forth to meet Christ. We run to His second coming, but we do so by running to His present coming. We cannot come with empty hands. Indeed, it is not possible to run to Him with empty hands. There is a requirement here, a condition: we must run to Him with our hands full of righteous deeds. What are these righteous deeds? The context of Jesus’s second coming calls to mind Matt 25 where we hear of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, etc. However, before running to Him with these righteous deeds there are other righteous deeds with which we must run. Those first called to mind are for our neighbor. However, to truly render those deeds righteous we must exercise righteous deeds to God; this is the virtue of religion. The actions of religion are not enough in themselves. The Psalmist reminds us that God desires a contrite heart. This requires that we exercise righteous deeds toward ourselves.
Before continuing, a few clarifications must be made. First, these three groups of righteous deeds are not mutually exclusive. Life requires that all three are exercised as one rather than as a neat step-by-step progression. Where one is in the spiritual life, though, will determine where the emphasis lies. Second, it is God above all else who is loved in all three. Love for God is obvious, but our love for neighbor is rooted in our love for Him in them, and a proper love of ourselves is rooted in love for Him in us. Third, the working of these righteous deeds is only possible by and in God’s grace. Without a desire for Him and an opening of ourselves to Him, we can do nothing.
Where do we start? With ourselves. What might a righteous deed toward ourselves look like? Purification. Every saint, every spiritual doctor of the Church is unanimous on this. The first stage of the spiritual path is purification. Without it, we cannot enter into true intimacy with the Holy One, the Lover. There are certain practices that are universal in this, namely, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The path of purification, though, is not limited to these three. Not only are there myriad ways and degrees to practice each of these, there are also many other practices one will need to include. Each person is different and each person walks the path of purification differently. For myself, I am an incredibly physical person and I glory in the senses. I am also very intellectual and when I attempt to make progress in the spiritual life it is always greatly characterized by intellection. What I have come to realize is that until I address the physical I will have no progress. The problem is I am terrible at fasting (no surprise, considering how physical/sensual I am). My own first little step into mortification of the flesh is weight training. The immediate goal is for my muscles to hurt. It is my hope that beginning with this little step I will progressively make greater strides in the path of purification.
Having been made ready through purification and died to the world, we are able to render truly righteous deeds to the Lord and enter into intimacy with Him. These deeds are all those that entail the giving of our hearts in devotion to Him. This person runs to God in prayer; it is a search. The person, who is now free of the world, seeks God with urgency. He becomes their sole focus, the Lover of their hearts without whom they cannot rest or have satisfaction. When they come to Him it is only then that they stop and their soul is content.
The person who has rendered righteous deeds to themselves and to God is now capable of rendering them to neighbor. Just as Peter, James, and John had to descend Mt. Tabor, so too must the person who has found rest in God. We descend Mt. Tabor in order to ascend Mt. Calvary. Finding rest and love’s fulfillment, we are prompted by love to hear and answer the cry of those in need. We do not do this alone. When Peter, James, and John descended the mountain, they were led and descended with Jesus Christ. We also are led by Jesus and accompany Him in giving of ourselves to all others.
Almighty God, may we run to Your Christ this Advent and always with hands full of righteous deeds given to ourselves, to You, and to our neighbors. In all things, by Your grace, may we ever live what St. Patrick prayed: Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me. Amen.
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