Chapman’s News & Ideas Paradoxes at the End of Advent

Pope Francis’ already famous prophetic warnings to the Curia this week seem to some (maybe some in the Curia, for example) like a strange kind of season’s greeting. Some Christmas Party he gave them! Where’s the cheer? But if you remember that his message was preached while still in the Church season of Advent, not in the season of Christmas, you’ll see that it was appropriate, indeed.

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve,and as one ponders the lessons of the four weeks of Advent, he remembers John the Baptist crying the in wilderness, “Make straight the path of the Lord.” The predictions of Isaiah. God’s promises to David. The Annunciation and the Magnificat of Mary. December, for the Church, is not the season of shopping, but of waiting, listening and reflecting. It is penitential, though maybe not as much as Lent. For liturgical Christians the joy of Christmas begins tomorrow night and lasts through Three Kings Day (the Epiphany), January 6.

What does Advent teach? Like so much of the Bible, the paradoxes are profound. The greatest, of course: The King of Kings is to born to a lowly maid. The Son of God arrives in a stable.

God has a way of giving his greatest gifts to those most humble, those thought unworthy by others. David was a mere shepherd boy, the least obvious of his brothers. How can that be? It’s none of your business. As in the parable of the vineyard workers, Jesus makes clear that God rewards according to his desires, not ours. And yet he will do right by us regardless if we trust his sovereignty.

Watch Amadeus, a wonderful film for Advent, and marvel at the proud but relatively untalented composer Salieri who (in the play and film telling, if not in actual history) is willing to do all that God wants if only God will bless him with great accomplishments. Salieri wants a deal with God. But God blesses instead the irrepressible, irresponsible and profane Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In a great scene, an indignant Salieri burns his crucifix in the fireplace. He goes on to lead a long embittered life, while the prodigious genius, Mozart, creates music for the ages, though his own time on Earth is short.

God doesn’t like the pride of Pharisees. But he also holds to account those he blesses greatly. The incomparable Moses doesn’t get to enter the Promised Land because of shortcomings. David is gravely humbled by God (through the prophet Nathan) because of his sins.

So, as Advent ends, we 21st century denizens also might do well to think of George Gilder and his Israel Test: how do you regard those more talented than yourself? Do you envy them and try to put them down? Or do you admire them and try to emulate and make common cause with them?

These are among the kinds of questions Pope Francis was posing to the Curia, warning of the “sickness of considering oneself ‘immortal’, ‘immune’ or ‘indispensable’.” He warns of “Martha-ism” (in the Gospel story of Mary and Martha, when Jesus visits their home), the sin of “excessive industriousness;…of those who immerse themselves in work” and neglect to sit at Jesus’ feet.” Remember to join your people, to “weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.”

He warns, too, of “excessive planning and functionalism.” And of the “ailment of rivalry and vainglory.” And he wants to root out the sickness of those Churchmen who are hard and unyielding, while in private “they lead a hidden, dissolute life.” Ouch!

He is opposing “careerism and opportunism”, the sin of personal jealousy, of humorlessness, of accumulating honors and property, of “living in a closed circle” of group identity.

This will be recalled as an historic address if Pope Francis now follows these prophetic words with sound actions. It will take great courage and strength to do so. Pope Benedict XVI reputedly realized that reform of the Curia was needed, but that he lacked the physical ability to carry it through. Reform at Vatican City may be the new pope’s most important task. He knows he has to evangelize the Church so the Church can evangelize the world.

One has to wish Pope Francis well. But one also can point out the Francis has described the bureaucratic sclerosis that afflicts many organizations, including businesses, universities and governments, not just the institutional church. People fall in love with their job and imagine that no one else can do it, and that those it regulates and organizes are somehow dependent on it. The official is so hard-working and long-suffering; why don’t the peons do as they are told?

Then one turns Francis’ spotlight on oneself. Do I have the sicknesses he describes?

To ask that question is get the answer, Oh, Yes! It’s true!

Thank God, therefore, that our Redeemer lives and is born again on Christmas Day in the morning!