Advent II, 2018

On an airplane recently I saw on the video screen something called “Creed.” I thought, “Well, isn’t this nice? They have a documentary on the Council of Nicaea and St. Athanasius.” It turned out to be a movie about boxing. The son of Apollo Creed convinces Rocky Balboa to train him.

I like the Rocky movies. They exemplify what the Greek philosophical tradition called courage. Plato defined courage as “endurance accompanied by wisdom.” His teacher Socrates describes a man going to war. He fights and endures with confidence, because he has others to help him, his side is more numerous than the enemy, and he has the high ground. Who is more courageous? That man, or the one in the smaller army with bad positioning?

Building on this, Aristotle called courage manliness, facing difficulties with no expectation of help; the courageous person endures alone. There are lists giving examples of courageous endurance: being tortured; giving birth; undergoing surgery; being enslaved, exiled; having a bad family. 

That’s the Greek philosophical tradition that develops into stoicism. You can see it dramatized in Creed and the Rocky movies, or in Marcus Lutrell’s Lone Survivor.


I find this really interesting: courageous endurance gets combined with the word leitourgia, which becomes our word “liturgy.” Leitourgia meant a service that a person performed. When you put endurance and liturgy together it became responsibility, specifically, expenses that you take on. When you have a child, now you have extra expenses. You’ll have to courageously endure not getting everything you want, because your children have needs. That’s your responsibility. 

Those responsibilities extend out to our family members, and then as Christians to each other. When Christians began celebrating the Lord’s Supper—you can see this right in the early chapters of Acts—they brought bread and wine as an offering, for the communion, but they also brought other food and money for two purposes: to support the pastor, and to take care of the needs of people. In a world where infants were often not wanted, the Christians adopted them. Soon they started hospitals and soup kitchens. The community gathered for the Lord’s Supper, and then spread the offerings out to the world. Some people try to pit liturgy and mission against each other, but they are really two sides of the same coin.


Now maybe you can start to see some of your own sins. Have you gladly taken on responsibility in your family? Or do you worry how a child might cramp your style? Have you been patient with others who have caused you grief? Or do you complain about the neighbors God has given you?

Christianity is more than Stoicism.

But Christianity is more than stoicism, and more than an ethic of charity. Something happens when the Greek tradition of courageous endurance collides with the Old Testament Scriptures. A few centuries before the birth of Jesus, the time came to put the Hebrew Bible into Greek. Those Hebrew words had to find Greek equivalents. But the Hebrews meant more by endurance than just sticking it out, and usually excluded the idea of the lone warrior for whom no help is coming.


The Hebrews took the Greek idea of patient endurance and paired it with confidence that help was coming, specifically in Yahweh – God. For the person suffering, enduring a trial, the Psalms took stoic waiting and advanced it to a waiting upon God. Ps. 39:1, “My hope is in You [Yahweh]”; Ps. 71:5, “You are my hope, O Lord GOD.”

Ps. 27 is the song of a warrior who combines bravery with trust in God: “Wait on the Lord; be of good courage, and He will strengthen your heart.” Instead of just fighting bravely and dying, the Jewish warrior-poet has confidence that in the ultimate battle the one who trusts in Yahweh cannot lose. “They shall not be ashamed who wait for Me,” says the Lord (Is. 49:23).


That is what we are doing in Advent: waiting for Him, waiting for Christ to return and set the world to rights. The worse things get for us, the more it is a sign that Jesus’ rescue is near. All the world will be fearful, Jesus says, but when you see the world in chaos and tribulation, “Look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.”

In your trials and conflicts, do you wait confidently for God’s help? Or do you instead become frustrated, lash out, and seek to win? In this life we will have people who show us ingratitude, be cruel and disrespectful. St. Paul tells us that love endures all these things (1 Cor. 13:7) without complaining or becoming discouraged (Spicq, TLNT). 

That feels impossible if we just trying to rely upon ourselves for stoic resolve. But Jesus is telling us that we endure because we are confident in His redemption. In today’s Epistle from Rom. 15, St. Paul describes God as “the God of endurance and encouragement.” The steadfast courage doesn’t flow from within ourselves, but we are encouraged, given help from the outside, from the God who forgives sins and strengthens us for the fight.

And that fight is not against other people, but it’s a fight against ourselves, our sinful nature, that makes us proud, greedy, despairing, lustful, covetous, angry, selfish. “Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life.”


Scripture gives us Jesus as an example. Look to Jesus, who “endured the cross,” says the writer to the Hebrews (12:2). Jesus is example, but even more important is that He is the hope when our hope has grown dim. We who know the Ten Commandments know we have not endured all things with love. We have been the ones whom others have had to endure. We are ungrateful, cruel, disrespectful. Who will forgive us, when we cannot undo the damage we’ve done? Who will help us when we are helpless? Who will be our courage when we are discouraged?

The one who endured the cross is our God of hope. This hope goes beyond wishing and dreaming. It is certain. That’s why St. Paul grounds it in the Scriptures. He says, “Through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” The Scriptures have recorded the history of what God has done for us. They tell us that in Jesus is forgiveness of sins because of the historical fact of the resurrection. Our hope is in Him.

Well, I don’t suppose Sylvester Stallone will be making a movie about the Nicene Creed anytime soon. But that’s the story of our hope. God the Father created us. God the Son redeemed us by His blood. God the Holy Spirit sanctified our bodies in Baptism to be His temple. On the last day He will raise our bodies from the dead. That’s our Creed. It’s better than stoicism. It’s real hope. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” +INJ+