"Owe no man anything, but to love one another
Once more, the season of Advent is upon us. In
some ways, it is a solemn, even a sombre season. As the world around us
prepares for holiday, and brings out all the trappings of festivity, the
Church calls us to thoughtful repentance, and utters dire prophecies about
the end of earthly joys. We exchange the green vestments symbolic of growth
for the solemn purple of penitence.
And yet, Advent is a strangely thrilling season. As nature prepares
herself for the long and frozen sleep of winter, the Church calls the spirit
to awake. As the days grow darker, and the light fails, the Church calls
us to open our eyes to the rising of a new and glorious sun. "The night
is far spent, the day is at hand." (Romans 13.12)
Wake, O Wake, for night is flying,
The watchmen on the heights are crying,
Awake, Jerusalem, arise.
Sion hears the watchmen singing,
Her heart with deep delight is springing,
She wakes, she rises from her gloom.
Forth her bridegroom comes, all glorious,
In grace arrayed, by truth victorious,
Her star is risen, her light is come.
"The night is far spent, the day is at hand." "Tell ye the daughter of
Sion; Behold thy King cometh unto thee." (Matthew 21.5)
(Hymn by P. Nicolai 1556-1608)
The Epistle for today echoes precisely the spirit of the season, with
its urgent and simple prescription: "Owe no man anything, but to love one
another. Cast off the works of darkness," - all the confusion of perverse
desires, and worldly calculation and compromise. Judgement is upon us:
"walk honestly, as in the clear light of day; not in rioting and drunkenness,
not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye
on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil
the lusts thereof." "Owe no man anything, but to love one another."
It's a clear and urgent and simple prescription: nothing but love. And
surely it's a prescription which must strike a chord in the heart of every
one of us. Wouldn't it be a wonderful world if we could all just love one
another? A great idea, certainly, but what is it except naive idealism
and wishful thinking? We have trouble enough loving our friends, let alone
our enemies, and all those hoards of anonymous people we know nothing about.
Even within the community of the Church, there are plenty of perverse and
wrong-headed people, difficult, and sometimes even malicious, and how can
we love them? Even within our own families, and sometimes perhaps especially
there, it seems altogether improbable.
Nothing but love, says St. Paul, and all the world must applaud his
marvelous idealism. If only we could ignore the rigmarole of doctrine and
laws and regulations and social structures, and just express our feelings,
unbothered by all those restrictions, then maybe we'd be better off. But
do you really think that's so? The modern world, after all, has done quite
a lot of experimenting in that direction: in education, in the arts, in
social relations, and so on. All is self-expression, and it turns out that
our feelings are not always what we might have hoped, and that the value
of self-expression depends largely on the quality of the self being expressed.
All too often, it turns out that what we express is not so much love as
it is what St. Paul calls the works of darkness and the lusts of the flesh.
But when St. Paul prescribes love, he's not talking about the free expression
of our feelings. "Love," he says, "is the fulfilling of the law," and "worketh
no ill to his neighbour". He's not talking about feelings, about likes
and dislikes; our feelings are often against God's law, and all too often
they do work ill to our neighbour. When he speaks of love, he's not talking
about those feelings; he's talking about willing the good: willing the
good as revealed in Jesus Christ. And to love one another means to will
the good of one another in those terms. It's not a question of superficial
feelings; it's a question of steadfast will. It's not a matter of self-expression;
it's a matter of learning and knowing what the good is, and disciplining
our intentions according to that knowledge.
St. Paul is no naive idealist, and what he urges upon us is profoundly
practical. We can, and to some extent we do, know what the good is. The
divine law instructs us in the good; and in Jesus Christ, we see that good
incarnate in human life. By the grace of God, we can will that good for
ourselves and for one another. We can and must discipline our desires and
fantasies accordingly: "make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the
lusts thereof." We often fail, but we can repent, and our salvation is
near at hand. "Now is our salvation nearer than when we believed."
So, when we read today in the Gospel about Christ's arrival in Jerusalem
and of his anger upon finding his temple made into a den of thieves, let
us think of ourselves. Have we ordered the desires and ambitions of our
life in such a way as will allow us to recognize the good that Christ brings,
to know his truth, and to live his life? Or is our life as disordered as
the money-changers, who perverted the use of the temple and who were therefore
cast out by Christ? Listen, then, to St. Paul's message: "It is now high
time to awake out of sleep." The joy of his coming, the joy of Advent,
belongs to those who will the good which Christ is, and which he brings.
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