Friday, 15 December 2017

Advent Week 2 Friday

Readings: Isaiah 48:17-19; Psalm 1; Matthew 11:16-19

The gospel passage gives what seems like an existentialist description of the human condition: always anxious, full of care, finding happiness in nothing that comes its way, finding fault with everything, bored and dissatisfied, the noonday devil in full possession, it seems, of the entire day. Vanity of vanities, we might be tempted to add, quoting the Bible's own existentialist philosopher, all is vanity. We played the pipes, but you were not in the mood for dancing. We lamented, but you refused to join in the mourning. The ascetic you rejected as mad, the one who shared in the ordinary celebrations you dismissed as superficial.

The Baptist, and Jesus, speak from a deeper source, the deepest source, in which human contentment and happiness are really to be found. The law given through Moses is God's guidance for human happiness but the people had not hearkened to it. They failed to appreciate the integrity that comes from observing the law of God and so they lose their appetite for what is truly good. Eventually they do not know what they want, everything they are offered is inadequate and their true good, when it is presented to them, now seems like a foreign imposition, a distasteful oppression.

The happy tree, on the other hand, planted by the water's edge, yields its fruit in due season, its leaves never fade, and its work prospers. The philosophy here is reminiscent of Aristotle's: a happy thing is a thing that does well whatever it is that kind of thing is meant to do. A happy tree is a tree that does well what a tree is meant to do: bear leaves, yield fruit, flourish by the water's side.

A happy human being is a human being who does well what a human being is meant to do. A human being is meant to know what is true, to admire what is beautiful, and to love what is good. So a happy human being, bearing its leaves and yielding its fruit, flourishing by the water's side, will be a human being who is learning what is true, appreciating what is beautiful, and loving what is good.

'Yet wisdom has been proved right by her actions'. This concluding comment of Jesus in today's gospel passage is a summary of what Psalm 1 (and Aristotle!) have to say. When a thing has its integrity, and is flourishing, it grows strong as the kind of thing it is and bears the proper fruit. Observing the law of God, says Isaiah in the first reading, guarantees a contentment as deep as the ocean and a joy as strong as a river. To turn away from that law, to prefer distractions and distortions, is to fragment ourselves. It means subverting, and poisoning, the roots of our own happiness. It means cauterising our capacity for knowing truth, for admiring beauty and for loving what is good. Josef Pieper speaks about this irrational and unnatural character of sin which is deeply paradoxical: how is it that we can deliberately deny the ground of our own existence, the source of our own fulfillment?

Yet this is what we do when we sin and its spiritual consequences are seen in a permanent dissatisfaction: 'we played the pipes and you would not dance, we sang dirges and you would not lament'. You can only be happy if you live in line with what you are meant to be. Integrity and happiness can only be found together. And my integrity I find, not by looking at myself, but by turning to the Lord who is my integrity, my vindication, my redeemer. Sin means turning away from God so the overcoming of sin can only be by turning back towards God, and planting myself once more on the bank of the river of life. The One sent from the Father teaches us the way to authentic human fulfillment. He is Eternal Wisdom, proved right by his actions, and inviting us to share the same light of truth, the same life of love.

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