Instant gratification is a very common human desire. It can be defined as “the temptation, and resulting tendency, to forego a future benefit in order to obtain a less rewarding but more immediate benefit.”
And this temptation abounds! The modern world doesn’t just offer us all manner of creaturely comforts, it offers them right now! We are culturally conditioning ourselves not just to desire instant gratification; but indeed to expect it! I cannot help but wonder if our voracious and growing appetites aren’t fast approaching the threshold of insatiability. At what point is enough, enough?
There are many examples we could site. We can order just about anything online, and it arrives on our doorstep in just two days times, sometimes less. Instead of having to wait for the new episode of our favorite TV show to air, television shows are now being released by whole season. Now we can consume them like a bag of potato chips.
Our access to goods and services, and the immediacy with which we can consume them is extraordinary. One would think that these conveniences would free us up with large amounts of time and energy to go about the real business of life. Alas, it seems they are threatening to become the business of life. The vast volume and addictive immediacy of our consumption seems to have left us busier than ever.
We moderns are faced with the cruel irony that for all the instant gratifications we enjoy, we are, in many areas of life, left feeling less satisfied, and less gratified, than ever before. We are in grave danger of losing site of those future benefits, those lasting awards, that can only be achieved through patience, discipline, and self-sacrifice.
In the midst of our compulsion for immediate gratification, the Season of Advent beckons us to consider the ultimate ends for which we exist; that is Our Lord’s coming again in great glory, when he will judge both the living and the dead. Before we set our sites on the manger in Bethlehem — Our Lord’s first coming — the Church in Advent invites to ponder his second coming.
The belief and teaching of the final judgment is deadly serious. So much so that it is tempting to not bother with it at all. But ignoring it will not make it go away. In truth, to omit this promised and prophesied event from the story of Salvation, radically distorts the meaning of the story itself.
John the Baptist, in preparing the way of Our Lord Jesus Christ, does not shy away from this sobering word. John warns his hearers, “Bear fruit that befits repentance […] Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The imagery of the axe cutting down the unfruitful tree is a very clear image of God’s final judgement. Notice that whether or not the axe cuts down the tree depends on the trees fruitfulness. It is not arbitrary, but in a very real and mysterious sense, it depends on the tree. Which is to say … it depends on us!
St. John Chrysostom writes, “… even while bringing the axe so near, he makes its cutting depend upon [us]. For if [we] turn around and become better persons, this axe will be laid aside without doing any harm. But if [we] continue in the same ways, it will tear up the tree by the roots. So note well the axe is neither removed from the root nor too quickly applied to cut the root. He did not want [us] to become too passive, yet he wanted to let [us] know that it is possible even in a short time to be changed and saved.”
The whole of the Christian life could be summarized in John’s single charge, “Bear fruit that befits repentance.” This imagery is an organic one. It takes time for fruit to grow, and become healthy, and ripe, and ready for harvest. A life of repentance — of turning away from sin and darkness, and towards the saving grace of God — will, over time, naturally bear the fruit of His redeeming love and light in a persons life.
Jesus preaches the same sermon as John the Baptist later in his own ministry, saying “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7.16-20).
In our modern world of instant gratification we do not have to plant, and water, and prune, and labor in the vineyard in order to enjoy the fruits of the earth. We can just go to the market and buy them. Not so with the spiritual life.
There is no short cut. We cannot “buy” fruit worthy of repentance. We must “bear” that fruit ourselves. It can only grow organically from within us, the spiritual branches of our souls and bodies; but only as they are rooted in the vine which is Our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is as Our Lord teaches, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15.4-5). Bearing fruit worthy of repentance takes patience, discipline, and self-sacrifice.
But the very Good News for us impatient moderns — with our affliction for instant gratification — is that while it takes time to bear fruit worthy of repentance, we do in fact have immediate access to the means by which we are able to bear that fruit: even Our Lord Jesus Christ! At the heart of the mystery of the Christian Faith, is the great miracle that we do not have to wait for his coming again to be with him, and commune with him, and be united with him. The encounter begins now! Indeed, this is the entire point of his first coming! This he accomplishes for us by baptizing us “with the Holy Spirit and with fire”.
Through the sacramental life of the church, and principally through the sacraments of repentance, baptism, and Holy Communion, we are offered instant gratification: we are able to be partakers of the most blessed and life-giving body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ immediately, here and now!
It is the very same risen Lord who we encounter and commune with at the altar, that we will meet in glory when he comes again to judge the living and the dead. We do not have to wait for this encounter at the end of the age. He has poured out His Holy Spirit upon all flesh through His body the Church, that we would be united with him in his death and resurrection, he in us and we in him. In Christ, Almighty God is not a mysterious and unknown figure, but an intimate companion, a loving Savior, a living Lord, and our relationship of knowing and being known by Him can begin now, and blossom and bear the fruits of repentance in this lfe, that when he does come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing!
Adapted from the sermon. Audio available here.