Conscience Alert for Advent

Editorial: A well-spent Advent makes clear that the path to conversion for everyone is difficult and the way is slow. Yet the star above the little town of Bethlehem burns brightly ahead of us. There, the Divine Child waits.

Oklahoma Wesleyan University’s president recently issued a public statement that repudiated the push by some college students to suppress ideas or beliefs that made them “uncomfortable.” The tipping point for Everett Piper was a student’s complaint of feeling “victimized” by a sermon on the topic of 1 Corinthians 13.

“It appears that this young scholar felt offended because a homily on love made him feel bad for not showing love! In his mind, the speaker was wrong for making him, and his peers, feel uncomfortable.”

Piper issued a warning for other students who might feel similarly inclined: “That feeling of discomfort you have after listening to a sermon is called a conscience! … If you want the chaplain to tell you you’re a victim rather than tell you that you need virtue, this may not be the university you’re looking for.”

The story points to a disturbing tendency in our culture to demonize values and beliefs that upend our moral complacency. Rather than engage the principles or arguments at issue, some prefer to remove or even punish the irritant. This pattern has played a role in the recent cascade of protests at universities across the nation. But Piper’s encounter with the student reveals the deeper religious dimension of this all-too-human tendency: the impulse to ignore or even block out a divine voice that demands a radical change of life.

In the Sunday readings for Advent, St. John the Baptist admonishes the crowds that gathered around him to atone for their sins and warns those who would not listen that they will pay the penalty. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” John says in the Gospel of Luke. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree, therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:8-9).

Herod was among those who do not like to be made uncomfortable. Thus he put John “in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been telling him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her’” (Matthew 14, 3-4). Soon Herod would find an excuse to have John killed. 

We need no further reminders of the purpose of Advent, which helps us prepare for the arrival of the Divine Child and allows him to heal the darkest corners of our souls.

John tells his disciples that they must change their path, share their goods and foreswear unjust and unethical practices. During Advent, John’s prophetic voice prompts us to help with Christmas gift drives and look for opportunities to aid the most vulnerable, including our Christian brothers and sisters who confront war and religious persecution in the Middle East and elsewhere and need our support through organizations like Aid to the Church in Need and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Yet we will miss the deeper purpose of Advent if we limit this season to charitable outreach or social action. The gift of the Incarnation calls us to a more radical conversion of heart inspired by the humility of the Son. In accordance with the will of the Father, he took the form of an infant and placed himself in the care of a poor couple who faced grave dangers.

“God’s sign is his humility. God’s sign is that he makes himself small; he becomes a child; he lets us touch him, and he asks for our love,” observed Pope Benedict XVI in his 2009 homily on the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord.

“How we would prefer a different sign, an imposing, an irresistible sign of God’s power and greatness! But his sign summons us to faith and love, and thus gives us hope: This is what God is like. He has power; he is Goodness itself. He invites us to become like him. Yes, indeed, we become like God if we allow ourselves to be shaped by this sign, if we ourselves learn humility and hence true greatness.”

The humility and simplicity of life that marked the Holy Family guide our own examinations of conscience: Are we a light shining in the darkness? Are we fully present to our families, co-workers and those who have no one? Do we put the needs of others before our own self-interests?

The Oklahoma Wesleyan student boldly demanded a reprieve from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13, but we all need to heed their timeless message: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

“Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.”

St. Paul addresses his words to every human person who walked on this earth. Fully aware of our tendency to fear the self-sacrifice that true love demands, he spells out what it means to open one’s heart to another. And he draws a bright line between the values and powers rooted in this world and the work of faith, hope and love that transcends time and space. Yes, his words serve as an indictment of our own behavior. But they also offer hope for personal transformation in Christ.

Still, like the college student, we often fear the very thing that will bring us true fulfillment as an intolerable burden; and like the college student, we often prefer distractions or half measures. The invitation to participate in the creative and fathomless love of the Holy Trinity, Benedict has noted, is perceived as an “obstacle” rather than the path to happiness.

We nod approvingly as President Piper finished his admonitory letter to the student body: “We are more interested in you practicing personal forgiveness than political revenge. We want you to model interpersonal reconciliation rather than foment personal conflict.”

But a well-spent Advent makes clear that the path to conversion for everyone is difficult and the way is slow. Yet the star above the little town of Bethlehem burns brightly ahead of us. There, the Divine Child waits.

“The journey is never finished,” said Pope Francis in a 2013 Advent reflection, “just as in each of our own lives there is always a need to restart, to rise again, to recover a sense of the goal of one’s own existence.”