Advent At the Starting Blocks
Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God,
the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ
with righteous deeds at his coming,
so that, gathered at his right hand,
they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Before meditating on the readings for this Sunday, we can first allow the Collect to set the tone as we begin Advent. When I was a senior in high school, my friend convinced me to go out for track.The first event that I ran was the 800 meter race, which is somewhere between a sprint and a distance event. I had never run in competitions before, but I knew that pacing oneself was important. So I dutifully set out, conserving my energy by running at a moderate clip. Coming around to the last quarter of the race, I suddenly realized that had a great deal of energy left. So I sprinted toward the finish line, very proud of myself. But my coach looked at me disapprovingly, knowing that, if I had that much energy left at the end of the race, I didn’t give everything I had for the first three quarters. “Leave it all on the track,” he said.
Beginning Advent should bring the same feeling that we have in the moments before a big race or other contest: The energy, the nervous thrill, the anticipation, and the fear that we may not give it our all.”The days are coming, says the LORD…” these are the words that precede the gunshot. Standing at the starting line, looking down the track, we should hear the Lord’s words: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy
from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.”
In a very real sense, the race has already begun. The Day of the Lord has arrived. As Christians we celebrate the Eighth Day, the footstep into eternity, which began with Christ’s resurrection. But since we are still engaged in combat with sin and evil within ourselves, we are called to pour our energy into this combat and race to the finish line, to the end of the struggle. This is literally a race for our lives, and if we waver or hold back our energy, we risk losing the victory and being eternally separated from our ultimate goal and desire: The presence of God.
The recognition of our own fallen state and our evil tendencies should be what spur us to action, propelling us off of the starting blocks. Unfortunately, they often have the opposite effect: We are so daunted by our unworthiness, so in love with our comfortable earthly attachments, and so untrusting of Christ’s power, that we fail to start the race. Or, if we do start, we begin it halfheartedly, running drowsily and distractedly, not really setting our eyes on the finish line.
In his great work Spiritual Combat, Lorenzo Scupoli speaks to those who are in this state:
THOSE WHO ARE COGNIZANT of the diseased character of their souls and desire to cure them are often deluded by the devil. He endeavors to persuade them that they have a long time to live, and consequently may safely defer their conversion. He insinuates the impression that some business affair or difficulty must be cleared up before they can devote themselves sufficiently to the spiritual life and fulfill its duties without disturbance. This snare has entangled and daily does entangle many. But its success is directly attributable to their own supine neglect of a matter in which the glory of God and their own salvation should be the only considerations. Let persons of this type say: “Now! Now!”instead of “Tomorrow! Tomorrow!”Why tomorrow? How can I be sure of living until it comes? And even if I were, would I really be trying to save my soul if I delayed my repentance? Would it look as though I sought victory if I exposed myself to fresh wounds?
If holiness is the first vocation, then this type of lackadaisical delay can be applied not simply to our conversion, but also to embracing our particular call in life. The technical term in vocations circle for a person who fails to move forward in discernment, despite a sensible call from God, is a “fence sitter.” We also refer to these people (again, using technical language) as having “picket marks on their rear end.”
God may not have revealed their vocation, but he has shown them the next step that they are to take, and he has revealed it with an adequate degree of certainty. But instead of running forward with zeal, they hem and haw. They analyze. They ask for signs. They explain to God and those around them that such-and-such an experience (going to college or grad school, getting a job, dating) will help them discern God’s will. They focus on their own unworthiness, or they question whether God is actually calling them.
There are many, of course, who are genuinely confused about the next step that Christ is calling them to. They aren’t lazy or selfish, but sincerely desire to take the correct next step. So how does one distinguish between the two? By the presence of peace and joy in the soul. Or, negatively, by the presence of fear or unrest.
The fence-sitter lacks peace, because Christ is the King of Peace, and he has called them to take a practical step toward him. By remaining at the starting blocks, they are remaining away from the will of Christ (though he is still present in their souls if they are in a state of grace). They can examine their souls and find a genuine fear, or movement away from the will of God. The source of this movement is not the Spirit of God, but either a human spirit or an evil one. And the reaction should be to move toward Jesus, the King of Peace and source of our consolation.
If however, a person honestly examines their soul through prayer and speaking with an objective spiritual person and they still don’t discover fear or unrest in response to a particular life choice, then that person can be reasonably confident that they are following God’s will.
The point is not that we are ever 100%, mathematically certain of Christ’s will for us. The point is that we are willing to run the race with trust, not getting caught up in our own insecurities. Because if our attention is exclusively fixed on our insecurities, or on the things of the world, then it isn’t fixed on Jesus Christ. We’ve lost sight of our goal: The glory of God and the salvation of souls.
Advent is a time to put that goal back in front of us, and to simplify our lives by eliminating distractions. Advent is the opportunity to regain that excitement that one feels at the beginning of a race, and to pour ourselves more wholeheartedly into prayer and silent contemplation of the presence of God. It is the time, like Mary, to “make haste,” to “run and not grow weary.”
What distractions or attachments zap your spiritual energy? How will you eliminate them from your life this Advent? What makes you excited about the presence of God and doing his will? How will you re-focus on those things? Victory is yours if you begin running, taking the steps the Jesus has laid out for you. Don’t wait. Leave it all on the track.