The patients I encounter in my health care ministry are not, for the most part, runners. Many of them can walk, others have hopes of walking or even running again, and some, sadly, must accept that their ambulatory days are behind them. For all these people, however, and for every person, the Church prays that God may grant “the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ.” And I would venture to say that those brothers and sisters of ours who are more-or-less crippled by illness are favorites to win that race.
This prayer begins the Church’s new year and her celebration of Advent. It’s part of the collect (a.k.a. the opening prayer) for the First Sunday of Advent. In its entirety, the prayer reads:
Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
As might be expected of an Advent prayer, this one refers to the “coming” of Christ. The word “advent” means “coming” and the Advent season is focused on preparing for Christ’s coming – both the celebration of his “first” coming at Christmas and his “second” coming that is still in our future. In this prayer, we ask God for the resolve to come to Jesus as Jesus comes to us. We ask God that we might do that with the haste and eagerness signified by the image of “running forth.”
Of course, “running forth,” is meant as image and not to be taken literally. The prayer makes it clear that our coming to Jesus is not accomplished by bodily motion but by “righteous deeds.” What is less obvious, perhaps, is that these “righteous deeds” are not, in the first instance, physical activities. The language of “deeds” might make us thing of things we actively do, the kinds of things that the Church calls “corporal works of mercy.” Those would include bodily (corporal) activities like feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and visiting the sick. To be sure, these works of mercy and others like them are to be counted among the righteous deeds by which we “run forth” to meet Christ at his coming. But righteousness is less about the actions of the body and more about the movements of the heart.
Jesus taught that deeds which are righteous in themselves can be unrighteous when done for the wrong reasons. “Take care,” he said, “not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense form your heavenly Father” (Matt 6:1). Deeds that are truly righteous proceed from the virtuous intentions of loving hearts. Moreover, the interior movements of the heart can themselves be “righteous deeds” even if they don’t lead to any activity of the body. Included among the “righteous deeds” Jesus speaks about is prayer. He tells his disciples to “pray to your Father in secret” (Matt 6:6) even without the use of words. Returning to the metaphor of our Advent prayer, we might conclude that one can run faster with the deeds of the heart than with the deeds of the body.
Those among us who are sick and dying are, for the most part, less able to perform bodily deeds of righteousness. They are not likely to be found building houses for the homeless or digging graves for the dead or delivering supplies to refugees. They can, however, perform righteous deeds. They are probably more likely than most to be found praying, forgiving, exercising patience, and suffering in union with Jesus. But more importantly – since righteous deeds are not only performed by us, but granted by God – our sick and suffering brothers and sisters are more likely than most to have God’s Spirit alive in their hearts. Saint Paul suggests as much in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “Although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor 4:16-17). The afflicted among us, whose bodies are wasting away, are being renewed in spirit by the God who grants them “the resolve to run forth.”