The Four First Things
It’s traditional in Advent to preach on the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell.
While I value the tradition, why not think this year about the four first things instead of the four last things?
By these, I’m thinking of the foundation principles, not just of the Catholic faith, but of everything that is. If you don’t have the foundations in place, when the tempest rages, the house will fall. And one of the problems with the Catholic Church today (and with our modern society) is that we have built on shaky foundations.
The world was without form and void, and God said, "Let there be light" (Genesis 1). Therefore, the first of the first things is Light. I capitalize the word "Light" because we are talking about the Light of Lights; the source and beginning of all things is Light.
Physicists tell us that energy is simply Light in various different forms or expressions. Atheists like to point out what they consider foolish about the creation story in Genesis: "How can you believe this when Light is created first, but the sun, moon and stars that give the Light are only created on the fourth day?"
They have missed the theological point. They have been too literal and fundamentalistic about the text. Light is created first because there is a Source of Light that is greater than the sun, moon and stars. This is why the story of Genesis is echoed in the last book of the Bible, where we are told that in heaven there is no sun or moon because "The Lamb is the Light in the city of God."
There’s the answer to the riddle! Christ the Lamb is the Light. The Son is the Source of the Sun. The second Person of the Holy Trinity is the Light of the World.
This Light is the foundation of all things and the foundation of all that is. In an amazingly profound metaphysical and mystical teaching, St. Paul cries out that Christ is the power through whom all things were created and through whom all things consist (Colossians 1:17).
The Light is also called the Logos (Word) — which St. John teaches was in the beginning with God, and through him, all things were made. He equates the Word with the Light and says, "The Light was the life of men" (John 1:1-4).
The second first thing, therefore, is Life. Now, the first things become not only theological, but practical. If the Light is first, and from the Light comes the Life of mankind, then human Life is a foundation upon which rests everything else in our families, our communities and our culture.
The first human right is the right to Life. All other rights, privileges and responsibilities rest on that first thing. If the right to Life is forfeited, everything else will be forfeited.
Human Life is fundamental not simply for its own sake, but because it springs from the divine Light, which is the Life of God himself. We are made in his image. Our Life is his Life, and our Life comes from his Light. This is why human Life is one of the four first things: Because, like lights in a lantern, the divine Light shines within each human face.
The third first thing is Law. We have the Light, and from the Light comes Life, but also from the Light comes Law. By "Law," I do not simply mean rules and regulations, but the principle of order and structure. God created the world out of chaos. This means he brings order out of chaos, and it is through Law that the order is established.
By Law, we mean the laws of nature by which the whole of creation is ordered and governed. Human beings are conscious of this intrinsic order through the natural Law. Some things are simply right because they are part of the natural Law.
Other things are wrong when they contradict or distort the natural Law. Marriage is between a man and a woman. The design of our bodies and the function of procreation make it easy to understand that natural Law dictates a certain behavior as being right and contrary behavior as being wrong.
From the natural Law comes the Law in Divine revelation, like the Ten Commandments, and from these foundational laws should come all civil laws. Law, therefore is not simply arbitrary rules; instead, it is order instead of chaos. It is structure instead of disintegration. It is design instead of random chance; it is Providence instead of fate.
Law is one of the first things because through the acceptance of Law, the chaos of relativism is put to flight.
The fourth first thing is Love. Love counters Law as mercy balances justice. Love is not a contradiction to Law, but the fulfillment of the Law. Love is where the Law is leading us. The structure of Law and the tenets of faith are the path to the freedom and fulfillment of Love.
By Love we mean the divine Love — not sentimental and shallow human eroticism. Love, St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, is that energy force which binds together the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. The poet Dante says that the divine Love is the force that "moves the sun and the other stars."
This Light, Life, Law and Love are a foursome that cannot be divided. The four first things are intertwined. The Light, Life, Law and Love are four aspects of the great outpouring of God into the created world.
What does this matter for Advent?
During Advent, we look forward to the celebration of this Light, Life, Law and Love being incarnate in the Child of Bethlehem. There, the force that "moves the sun and the other stars" becomes a human baby. There, the Light and the Life, the Law and the Love are enfleshed and come alive in human history. The abstract becomes real. The theory becomes the story. God becomes a man so that man can become like God.
Paradoxically, meditating on these four first things also prepares us for the four last things, for it is only as we open our eyes to the Light, our lives to the Life, our minds to the Law and our hearts to the Love that we will be prepared to face death, judgment, heaven and hell.
In this way, the last become the first and the first become the last.
Father Dwight Longenecker
is parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary
in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book,
The Romance of Religion, will be published in
February by Thomas Nelson. Visit his blog,
browse his books and be in touch at
- Dec. 1-14, 2013