Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B.
Tomorrow is the feast of St. Nicholas, my patron saint. And while St. Nicholas is widely known as having been a generous person and a giver of good gifts, he is less widely known as being a vigorous and even violent opponent of heresy. St. Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, in modern-day Turkey. And as a bishop, he attended the first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicaea, which took place in 325 AD. The Council was convened to deal with Arianism, the heresy which claimed that Jesus, although human, was not fully Divine. Arius himself, the chief proponent of this heresy, was also in attendance at the Council. St. Nicholas became so mad at Arius during the council proceedings that at one point he punched him in the face. This event has given rise to one of my favorite images on the internet: It’s an image of St. Nicholas with a caption that reads: “I’m here to deliver presents and punch heretics, and I’m all out of presents.”
Bishops like St. Nicholas, priests like Fr. Ken and I, and deacons like Deacons Rob and Tim, are all called to preach the gospel. And it is the duty of every preacher, it is said, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I spent the earlier part of today comforting the afflicted. So, I’m all out of that. It’s time to afflict the comfortable, like St. Nicholas did to Arius, and like St. John the Baptist did to the inhabitants of Jerusalem in our gospel. So, brace yourselves.
This past Thursday I was denied entrance to ProHealth Oconomowoc Memorial Hospital. I went to offer the last Sacraments to a patient who was in danger of death. The patient did not have COVID. And I was exhibiting no symptoms of COVID either. But because of a strict no-visitors policy, I was denied entrance. Even after explaining to the charge nurse that Catholics have a right to the Sacraments, especially in danger of death, I was denied entrance. Thankfully, the wife of the patient could visit, but even she was initially denied entrance and had to plead to be let in. The next day a parishioner brought to my attention that ProHealth Waukesha Memorial Hospital is also prohibiting family and clergy to be with patients who are on their deathbed. Catholics are dying alone, without their loved ones beside them, and without the aid of the Sacraments. This is an affront to human dignity and an offence to Almighty God. The policy makers at ProHealth and other care providers will have to answer for this on the day of judgment.
When a priest offers the last Sacraments, when He absolves sinners and anoints the sick, it is Christ Himself who absolves and anoints. And so, to deny entrance to a Catholic priest is to deny entrance to Jesus Christ. A culture which denies entrance to Jesus Christ is a culture which is no longer Christian. Actually, it is more than that: it is anti-Christian. Since the middle of the last century, our culture has become increasingly secular. But for a time, it was at least tolerant of Christianity. We need to wake up to the fact that we no longer live in that time. We now live in a time that is decidedly hostile to Christianity. Not only is our culture no longer interested in preparing the way for Christ, like St. John the Baptist did, it is increasingly committed to closing the doors to Christ. And in such a culture, the mission of the Church—to bring souls to Christ—is much harder to fulfill.
One of the fundamental claims of Christian culture is that the human person is a union of body and soul. The good of the human person, therefore, is a good which is both bodily and spiritual. That being said, Christian culture has always claimed that the spiritual good of the human person is more important than his bodily good. His spiritual health is more important than his bodily health. His soul is immortal, after all, while his body will eventually die. “What does it profit a man,” Jesus says, “if he gains the whole world but loses his soul” (Mk. 8:36). “Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” Jesus also says. “Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Mt. 10:28).
That the spiritual health of a human person is more important than his bodily health is not just a fundamentally Christian claim, however. It is a fundamentally Western claim. Socrates, the founding father of Western thought, held this claim as well. When he was condemned to death at his trial in 399 BC, Socrates said this: “I believe that to this day no greater good has ever happened in the state than my service to…God. For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons and your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul” (Apology 30a). “The difficultly [in life] is not in avoiding death,” Socrates also said, “but in avoiding unrighteousness” (Apology 39a).
Putting the bodily health of the human person before his spiritual health is not just a betrayal of Christian culture, but of Western culture more generally. And there are consequences for this. Whenever we put second things first, C.S. Lewis said, we risk losing both first and second things (First and Second Things). The primary purpose of eating is nutrition, and the secondary purpose is pleasure, for example. But when we put pleasure before nutrition, we risk both nutrition and pleasure. The man who eats primarily for pleasure will progressively find his eating both unnourishing and unpleasurable. Similarly, when we put bodily health before spiritual heath, we risk losing both bodily and spiritual health. Care providers who put the bodily health of their patients above all else will progressively find their patients unhealthy in both body and spirit.
There is a growing body of evidence which shows that isolating patients in care facilities, denying entrance to visitors like loved ones and clergy, significantly increases their risk of mortality, more so potentially than even smoking, obesity, or high blood pressure. This sort of isolation is “associated with a 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia, a 32 percent increased risk of stroke, and a nearly fourfold increased risk of death among heart failure patients” (https://www.aarp.org/caregiving/health/info-2020/covid-isolation-killing-nursing-home-residents.html). Putting bodily health before spiritual health does not lead to better bodily health. Instead, it puts both spiritual health and bodily health at risk. Whenever we put second things first, we risk losing both first and second things.
Putting spiritual health before bodily health does not lead to poorer bodily health. Instead, it allows both spiritual and bodily health to flourish. It was Christians, after all—those who put spiritual health before bodily health—who built the first hospital systems. Catholics invented hospitals, not secular extremists who call themselves scientists. That is why it is absurd, utterly absurd, that the very institutions which we created are now shutting us out.
The season of Advent is about preparing the way of the Lord, as St. John the Baptist did. It is about opening wide the doors to Christ, in our hearts, in our families, and in our culture. When doors are open to Christ, hearts, families, and cultures experience new life and renewal. When doors are closed to Christ, hearts, families, and cultures experience death and decay. This Advent let us put first things first and second things second. Let us not just be concerned for our bodily health, but above all for our spiritual health. Let us repent of our sins and make a straight path for the Lord. Amen.