Monday, December 3, 2007

A Paradox of Time: Already and Not Yet

Duc in altum (Lk 5:4)

Every year it seems to get worse. The Christmas songs and decorations begin their commercial assault earlier and earlier. This year the yuletide ads began well before Thanksgiving. And there is no escape. The songs repeat themselves everywhere until the shopping mall sounds like one continuous DecktheRudolphSantaWeWishYouFalalala. The decorations become more absurd, having less and less to do with Christ. Ironically, once Christmas actually arrives, these decorations and songs will be pushed aside to make room for the next marketable holiday. And on that day we Catholics will only just begin our Christmas celebration. But for the time being, we must practice patience. We still have some spiritual preparation to go through. Although we already have it on our minds, Christmas has not yet arrived.

Already and not yet. This paradox of time characterizes the Catholic faith in general and Advent in particular. We must preserve both together, not eliminating either one: both already and not yet. This paradox means, first, that Christ has already come and redeemed us. Even now we possess his life through the sacraments. He has already won the battle between good and evil. At the same time, however, we are not yet there. We can still fall away from His grace. We can render his victory meaningless for ourselves. Although we already have one foot in heaven, we must remain vigilant because we are not yet there.

This paradox helps us to understand Catholic worship. At one and the same time the Mass looks to the past (already) and the future (not yet). In the past we find our Lord’s death and resurrection, the saving events of our faith. In the future we look “in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” The Mass brings this two moments together in one celebration. It makes present our Lord’s Sacrifice as we await His return in glory. And that provides the template for all Catholic prayer. In our conversation with God we thank him for what he has already done and beg his help for what is not yet accomplished.

The theological virtue of hope rests on this union of already and not yet. Hope regards the fulfillment of a promise as both already accomplished and not yet fully realized. Hope fails if this paradox is eliminated in one direction or another. If we forget the already — that is, the promises Christ made and the graces he won for us — then we will not have any basis for hope and fall into despair. If, on the other hand, we forget the not yet and foolishly conclude that Christ’s promises require no cooperation or effort on our part, then we become presumptuous and will face the Lord ill-prepared for eternity.

All of this helps us to understand Advent better, because it is a season about the past, the future, and the hope that they bring. As the prayers for the First Sunday of Advent make clear, we are looking in two directions: to the already and not yet. We recall our Lord’s first coming to better prepare for his second. He came once in humility and meekness to save the world. He will come again in power and glory to judge the world. How we receive him at his first coming determines how we will be received by him at his second.

Which brings us back to what we should be about at this time of year. It is not yet Christmas. But we should already be preparing. These weeks given to us before Christmas are for the spiritual preparation necessary to receive the Christ child. Let us stir up in our hearts an awareness of our need for him and the desire to bring him our worship when at last he arrives.

— Rev. Paul Scalia

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