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Sunday, December 4, Second Sunday of Advent

Romans, Chapter 15, verse 1-6:
1 We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves; 2 let each of us please our neighbor for the good, for building up. 3 For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you fall upon me.” 4 For whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, 6 that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

St. Barbara, one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, is the patron saint of artillerymen, miners, and a happy death. Though her feast on December 4 obviously belongs to the cycle of saints and not to the temporal cycle of Advent, there is a custom observed in her honor that ties into the meaning of the Advent season. A Barbara branch is the name given to a twig that is broken from a fruit tree (especially cherry), placed in a bowl of water, and kept in a warm, well-lit part of the house, such as the kitchen. According to legend, if the Barbara branch blooms on or before Christmas Day, good luck will come to the person whose branch it is. Aside from this harmless superstition, Barbara branches are reminiscent of the image from Isaiah of Christ as a Flower from the root of Jesse (Is. 11.2; the Epistle for Advent Ember Friday); they can thus be instructive in teaching children the meaning of Advent and Christmas. They are also used as the Saint's tribute to the Christ Child in the manger, lovingly placed in the crèche when they have blossomed.[1]

Christ proposes a vision of happiness which is the exact opposite of what everyone in the post-Christian West assumes to be the sources of the greatest happiness in life.

The fifth and sixth beatitudes[2]

Blessed are the Merciful

Fifth, we want our rights. That's why, if we are moral, we work for justice, for others' rights. We are practicing the Golden Rule, the Categorical Imperative. This is justice. Christ does not condemn it, but he does not call this "blessed". Because that is only a minimum, not a maximum; that is only the beginning, not the end; the foundation, not the house. It is not enough. 

Justice alone cannot ensure peace in the world, in the family, or in friendships. Only mercy can.

Our hope should not be that we will get justice — my goodness, what would become of us if we did? Our hope is "under the mercy". It was mercy that created us. How could we justly deserve the gift's existence if we didn't even exist? It was mercy that redeemed us from the justice that we deserved by our sins. And it is mercy that will gratuitously and graciously raise us higher than the angels in uniting us with the divine nature. Christ did not become an angel, and no angel will ever become hypostatically united with God. We are told by one who always meant exactly what he said that "it is more blessed to give than to receive." The mere act of giving is necessarily best, including the act of giving mercy. We do not give mercy in order to obtain mercy; that is justice, not mercy. We give mercy in order that the other may get mercy. And only thus, only by giving without the intention of getting mercy, do we get mercy — not from the human we give it to but from God, who started this chain of mercy givers by the mercy of creation, and ends it with the mercy of redemption and glorification. The Book of Revelation should not be called The Last Judgment, but The Last Mercy. It ends there: "Let him who wills come and take the water of life without price." That's the Gospel.

Blessed are the Pure in Heart

Sixth, when we hear the word 'purity' in the beatitude "Blessed are the pure in heart," we immediately think of sexual purity. Perhaps Christ had that primarily in mind, perhaps not; but our reaction tells us something significant about us, namely that sex is, quite simply, our society's new god, our new absolute. Anything is done, tolerated, sacrificed, justified, sanctified, or glorified for this god. A third of our mothers murder their own unborn babies in sacrifice to this god. Of course abortion is about sex; the only reason for abortion is to have sex without babies. Abortion is backup contraception. Or look at the acceptance of divorce. Families, the one absolutely necessary building block of all societies, are destroyed for this god. Half of all America's citizens commit suicide for this god, for divorce is the suicide of the "one flesh" that love had created. No one justifies lying, cheating, betraying, promise-breaking, or devastating and harming strangers; but we justify, we expect, we tolerate, doing this to the one person we promise most seriously to be faithful to forever. We justify divorce. No one justifies child abuse, except for sex. Divorce is child abuse for the sake of sex. Even all the churches justify divorce, except one, the one that does not claim the authority to correct Christ — and she is accused of being 'authoritarian'. Why is purity of heart blessed? It doesn't seem to be. Well, because lust gives such an immediate thrill of delight, Christ's beatitude that blesses purity of heart, that is, purity of desire, strikes us a paradox. But anything that is natural is happier and more blessed in its pure and natural condition. St. Thomas Aquinas deduces from this principle that sexual pleasure was far greater before the fall. When Christ specifies the reward as "seeing God", he does not mean merely in the next life. He does not mean merely that we will get box seats instead of bleachers in heaven's stadium as a just reward for paying more for the tickets here on earth. The reward can be experienced in this life. St. Thomas himself exemplified it. His wonderful clarity of mind came partly from his purity of heart, a gift which was supernaturally given to him at one specific point in his life, when he resisted his brothers' attempt to seduce him out of the Dominican order by a prostitute. So his mind became free from his passions, free for the high vocation God planned for him. Most modern readers are very surprised to find all the great Doctors of the Church, including St. Augustine, St. Thomas and St. John of the Cross, locating the chief harm of lust in its blinding of the reason, a remarkable narrowing and skewering of vision, of perspective. Surely there is an intimate connection between the impurity of the desires of most modern students and the impurity of their motivation for education; between the decline of the sexual love of the other for the other, and of the intellectual love of the truth for the truth; a connection between the contemplative wonder and respect towards the body's mate, and the contemplative wonder and respect towards the mind's mate, truth. To love truth primarily for itself is one thing; to love it primarily for your own sake, for some further utilitarian, instrumental, pragmatic, personal end, is another thing. That is a form of impurity of heart, a sort of intellectual prostitution. And it has cursed modern philosophy ever since Bacon. The blessing Christ promises here is verifiable in this life, in experience, though perfected only in the next. How many theologians fail to see God, to understand purely, because of impure desires? Almost all theological 'dissent' in our age — we used to call it heresy — astonishingly focuses on sexual morality. It looks suspiciously like addicts obsessing about their drug and not really caring about much else. Is that why most homilies are so bland and why we never hear a homily on sexual morality, even though that is the single most controversial and divisive issue in our Church and in our culture today? Could it be that the reason we lack the blessing of understanding God, and that our children suffer an incredible absence of basic theological education, is because the educators, the writers of those stunningly dull CCD and RCIA textbooks, have not the pure desire for truth that Christ specifies as the virtue that draws to itself that reward. If we analyzed the blood that their hearts pump into their brains, might we find it mixed with fluids from their lower organs? Could it be that our liturgical language, and especially our liturgical music, is so fascinatingly dull and brilliantly dumbed down and passionately wimpy because our liturgists' passions are disordered?