Advent: Remembering, Being Vigilant, Doing My Job

Photo taken by a member of the ISS Expedition 53 crew: '...the sweep of the coastline of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The cluster of lights at image center includes the major population centers of the Levant. The brightest lights are the cities of Tel Aviv in Israel, Amman in Jordan, and Beirut in Lebanon.....' (September 28, 2017)
City lights by the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Photo from the ISS. (2017)

Quite a bit has changed over the last couple millennia. And some things haven’t.

One of the things that hasn’t changed is human nature: which is good news and bad news, depending on how I look at it.

I’d started writing about that, when my oldest daughter and I ran into an all-to-common opinion about religion.

The narrator of a video we were watching said that religion was silly. Then he said something like ‘isn’t that an unforgivable sin?’

The phrase is fairly common in English-speaking cultures. It’s “Biblical” in the sense that it refers to a sentence in Matthew.

Since I’m a Catholic, I do not think the unforgivable sin is using the wrong fork at a formal dinner. I’ll get back to that.

At any rate, here’s my shorter-than-planned review of (comparatively) recent events, along with how I see sin (original, unforgivable and otherwise); and why Advent matters:

Politics, Ideas, and Technology: 20 Centuries in 138 Words

Giuseppe Becchetti's drawing of the Roman Forum. (1893) colorized, via Dan's Roman History, Facebook, used w/o permission.
Giuseppe Becchetti’s “The Roman Forum”. (1893) Colorized.

The Roman Empire had two pretty good centuries, coasted along for a while, crumbled, and became a nostalgic memory.

Europe’s warlords eventually stopped trying to reconstruct the Roman Empire.

Anonymous engraving from Hector Fleischmann's 'La Guillotine en 1793' (1908): Girondins being executed during the French Revolution. via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Upper crust western Europeans said they were really smart, and came up with some good ideas. Applying those ideas produced mixed results.

A remarkable number of us survived the 20th century’s global wars: or, as I suspect historians may call it in another century or so, the Colonial War.

That’s mainly political stuff.

At least as important, I think, we’ve been developing technologies that let most of us spend time doing something other than collecting enough food to survive the next winter.

I see that, and medical practice finally catching up with what folks like Hildegard of Bingen had been doing a thousand years back, as a good thing.1

After the Sixth Day: Still “Very Good”

Earth seen from the Rosetta spacecraft. From  ESA (MPS for OSIRIS Team), MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA (November 23, 2009) used w/o permission.
Earth, seen from the Rosetta spacecraft. (2009)

USGS/Graham and Newman's geological time spiral: 'A path to the past.' (2008)On a cosmic scale, two millennia barely register as a moment in time.

On the other hand, it’s quite long enough for us to notice cycles and changes.

Europe enjoyed about three centuries of really nice weather.

Then the Little Ice Age made ice skating on Rotterdam’s main canal and frost fairs on the Thames possible.

North America’s crust is still rebounding from the weight of the most recent glacial period’s ice sheet.

At the moment, we’re either in an interglacial period, or maybe at the end of a cyclic ice age that started around two and a half million years back. I’ve seen informed opinions on that going both ways over the last few decades.

At any rate, right now Earth has, on average, been getting warmer. I live in central Minnesota, and haven’t invested in housing built on Florida’s sand bars, so I’m not nearly as panicked at the idea as I might be.

Let’s see. What else has been changing. Or cycling, at least. Our sun. Right.

Our star’s activity cycle has been chugging along: with occasional odd spots, like the Maunder Minimum.

We’re learning that our sun’s activity affects conditions on Earth. But I’ve yet to see someone claim that the Maunder Minimum caused the Age of Enlightenment.

Even though the timing invites “post hoc ergo propter hoc” illogic. Still, being Latin, it sounds cool; and I’m wandering off-topic again.2

Human Nature: Good News, Bad News, and Original Sin

Jean-Léon Gérôme's 'The Death of Caesar.' (ca. 1859-1867) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
“The Death of Caesar” in the Theatre of Pompey, as imagined by Jean-Léon Gérôme. (ca. 1859-1867)

Human nature hasn’t changed. Which is, actually, good news.

I’ve been going over this a lot lately, but I think it bears repeating.

“God created mankind in his image;
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
(Genesis 1:27)

“then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
(Genesis 2:7)

“What is man that you are mindful of him,
and a son of man that you care for him?
“Yet you have made him little less than a god,
crowned him with glory and honor.”
(Psalms 8:56)

We’re made “in the image of God”, “little less than a god”: pretty hot stuff.

But “little less than a god” isn’t “God”: not even close.

And we’ve got problems.

Even so, we’re not garbage.

This universe was basically good. It still is. We were basically good. We still are. (Genesis 1:31; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 299, 337-344, 355-379)

Humanity was made “in the divine image”. We still are. (Genesis 1:27; Catechism, 31, 355-361)

So: if we’re such hot stuff, and basically good, why isn’t life just one big bowl of cherries?

This is among the most lucid answers I’ve run across in recent years:

Kevin: “Yes, why does there have to be evil?”
Supreme Being: “I think it has something to do with free will.”
(“Time Bandits”, Monty Python (1981) via

Living With Consequences

Gustave Doré's illustration for Dante's 'Divine Comedy', 'Inferno', Canto XXXIV. (Illustration created 1860s, Dante's 'Inferno' written ca. 1320) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.The trouble started when an angel decided that ‘my way’ outvotes ‘God’s way’.

Which reminds me: I haven’t talked about angels for a while.

Angels are people, but they’re not human. They have intelligence and will, but they’re spirits with no physical bodies. (Catechism, 328-330)

We’re creatures with intelligence and will, too. But we’re made of spirit and physical bodies. (Catechism, 355-373, 1730)

Demons are angels who made a really bad decision. Satan, or the devil, is our name for the angel who decided that preferring ‘my way’ to God’s was okay. (Catechism, 391-395)

Now, about what went wrong with us. The account Genesis 3 is figurative, “…but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man….” (Catechism 390)

The first of us decided that ‘I want’ mattered more than God’s ‘you should’. I’m not personally responsible for that bad decision, and human nature did not become all bad. But, like everyone else, I’m living with consequences of humanity’s bad start. (Catechism, 396-406)

That’s why we “…all need salvation and that salvation is offered to all through Christ….” (Catechism, 389, 405, 407-412, 1701-1707, 1949, 1811)

I’ll take that as good news.

Now, what the Catholic Church says “original sin” means:

ORIGINAL SIN: The sin by which the first human beings disobeyed the commandment of God, choosing to follow their own will rather than God’s will. As a consequence they lost the grace of original holiness, and became subject to the law of death; sin became universally present in the world. Besides the personal sin of Adam and Eve, original sin describes the fallen state of human nature which affects every person born into the world, and from which Christ, the ‘new Adam,’ came to redeem us (396-412).”
(Catechism, Glossary)

Sin and Options

Sporki~commonswiki's (?) photo taken during World Youth Day, Rome. (2000) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permissionWhich reminds me: I should love God, love my neighbor, and see everybody as my neighbor. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31, 10:2537; Catechism, 1789)

Sin happens when I don’t do that.

Sin offends reason, truth, “right conscience”, and God. It gets in the way of healthy relationships. Sin is focusing on someone or something inappropriately, and failing to love God and neighbors. (Catechism, 1849-1851)

There’s no such thing as a good sin, but some are worse than others. (Catechism, 1789, 1854-1864)

Then there’s the “unforgivable sin”.

“Therefore, I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”
(Matthew 12:31)

I could fret over that Bible bit, and obsess over exactly which sin is unforgivable. I’ve got free will, so that is an option. But it’s not a smart one.

Anxiety over table etiquette isn’t, I gather, a major issue these days. So I figure the odds are slim to none that someone’s preaching that the unforgivable sin is using a salad fork during a meal’s main course.

I’m no theologian, but I’m about as sure as I can be that improper table etiquette isn’t a mortal sin.

MORTAL SIN: A grave infraction of the law of God that destroys the divine life in the soul of the sinner (sanctifying grace), constituting a turn away from God. For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must be present: grave matter, full knowledge of the evil of the act, and full consent of the will (1855, 1857).
(Catechism, Glossary)

On the other hand — no. I’m running late, and don’t have time for such speculation.

Besides, folks can have very real concerns over acts which may feel unforgivable.

Bottom line, I could have committed an egregious sin: and, since I’m still breathing, forgiveness is an option.

There’s nothing special about me, so the same applies in your case. I’ve put a few links in the footnotes which may or may not help.3

So, if that, whatever “that” is, isn’t the “unforgivable sin”, what is?

It’s pretty simple, actually.

It’s saying “no” to God, without the option of changing my mind.

Here’s how it works.

Accepting God’s Mercy: Or Not

Pieter Claesz's 'Vanitas Still Life.' (1630)Right now I’m alive.

But that won’t last. Death happens. (Catechism, 1021)

Here’s where it gets interesting.

Death happens, and I will live forever.

Depending on what I’ve done, and what I decide, and — this is important — by the grace and mercy of God, that can be very good news indeed. (Catechism, 1020-1032)

But there’s a catch of sorts. I must say “okay” to accepting God’s mercy.

Right after I die, I get an interview with our Lord: my particular judgment. It’s the ultimate performance review. (Catechism, 1021-1022)

The good news is that accepting God’s mercy is an option. So is refusing God’s mercy, although that’s not a good option. At all. (Catechism, 1020-1041)

And that, I’ve gathered, is the unforgivable sin: telling God ‘you aren’t the boss of me’, at a point where changing my mind later is not an option.4

Advent: Getting, and Staying, Ready

NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration's image: part of the Veil Nebula, a composite of many separate exposures made by the WFPC2 (Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2) instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope. The assigned colors are: F502N ([O III]) blue, F656N (Halpha) green, F673N ([S II]) red. (exposures taken November 1994, August 1997)
The Veil Nebula, seen with Hubble’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2.

“O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.”
(“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel“, additional verse; translated by Henry Sloane Coffin (1916))

It’s Friday afternoon as I’m writing this, so most of what I was going to say about the first two millennia of our long watch will wait.

This excerpt from the USCCB website says what Advent’s about:

What is Advent?
Sunday, December 3, 2023 — Sunday, December 24, 2023

“Beginning the Church’s liturgical year, Advent (from, ‘ad-venire’ in Latin or ‘to come to’) is the season encompassing the four Sundays (and weekdays) leading up to the celebration of Christmas.

“The Advent season is a time of preparation that directs our hearts and minds to Christ’s second coming at the end of time and to the anniversary of Our Lord’s birth on Christmas. From the earliest days of the Church, people have been fascinated by Jesus’ promise to come back. But the scripture readings during Advent tell us not to waste our time with predictions. Advent is not about speculation. Our Advent readings call us to be alert and ready, not weighted down and distracted by the cares of this world (Lk 21:34-36)….”
(Prayer and Worship, Liturgical Year, Advent; USCCB)

I’m a Christian, and a Catholic: so I occasionally think about our Lord’s first coming, and about his assurance that he’ll come back.

As for when Jesus will return, making that go-time decision is up to God the Father.(Catechism, 1040)

“But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.”
(Matthew 24:36)

If the Son of God didn’t need to know, I sure don’t.

Meanwhile, we’ve got our standing orders, outlined in Matthew 28:1820. So part of my job is — well, doing my job, paying attention, and praying.

“‘Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.'”
(Luke 21:3436)

I’ve talked about this sort of thing before. Often. Including:

Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier's 'Reading of Voltaire's L'Orphelin de la Chine' (a tragedy about Ghengis Khan and his sons, published in 1755), in the salon of Madame Geoffrin (Malmaison, 1812).1 Two millennia, a very quick review:

2 Changes, cycles:

3 A few links, regarding a specific issue; I think extrapolating to other specific issues may be valid:

4 Taking the Holy Spirit seriously
— or — why blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is a bad idea:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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