(NOTE: This essay first appeared in this blog in December 2014. I thought it would be appropriate for the end of the Advent Season and the preparation of the celebration of the Nativity of our Lord.)

The Book of Common Prayer. jpgIn the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer there is a prayer assigned to the fourth Sunday of Advent that asks God to purify our conscience. Not only that our conscience is purified but also that God will daily visit us to assure that purification. As I offered those words out loud to God, I wondered exactly what am I praying for. I already have a pure conscience—don’t I? How pure does it have to be? And, also, do I want God’s daily visitation to sweep my conscience clean?

Well, those questions require more than asking. What I mean by that is that I don’t even know what I am asking for. What is a conscience anyway and why does it need to be purified? Do I have to have God in my life every day? Can I be a sinner once in a while?

I think I know what the word conscience refers to. It has something to do with making moral or proper decisions in life. But first, a person must have a conscience to make such decisions. Some people—a lot of people—have no moral compass, no conscience, or if they do have a conscience, it is misguided. But who can make such a decision about another person’s behavior, let alone our own?

friedrich-nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who claimed God was dead, states a conscience is unnecessary. He has said or written,[1] “A bad conscience is a kind of illness, in the sense that pregnancy is an illness.” He added to his disdain for the idea of conscience by stating, “The sting of conscience, like the gnawing of a dog at a bone, is mere foolishness.” A more recent philosopher of sorts, the late Budd Schulberg, a writer of screenplays, claims,[2] “Going through life with a conscience is like driving your car with the brakes on.” Sigmund Freud claimed that conscience is the part of the superego in that it judges the ethical nature of one’s actions and thoughts and then transmits such determinations to the ego for consideration. But, where is the superego, what is he talking about? If we cannot identify that part of us, can we purify our conscience?

 

What is a conscience? One dictionary[3] tells us that conscience is an awareness of morality in regard to one’s behavior; a sense of right and wrong that urges one to act morally, for example, the saying “Let your conscience be your guide” applies. This dictionary also states that conscience is a source of moral or ethical judgment or pronouncement, for example, a document that serves as the nation’s conscience—Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights is America’s moral compass. A Latin proverb claims that “a clear conscience is like a wall of brass.”[4]

So, there you go. Some say that there is no need a of conscience, psychoanalysts tell us it is the deeper part of us that communicates to us right from wrong, and the Romans believed a conscience prevents a person from strategic failure.

Let’s assume we have a conscience and that part of us, that part of our minds, leads us to select right actions and moral behaviors as set forth by our culture and traditions. Let us, as morally guided, also decide that conscience means that we are more than mere organisms instinctively reacting to our environment. If these assumptions are true, then we take the idea of conscience further and declare that the conscience needing purification is our spirit, our deep inner self we call the soul.

Thus the prayer is asking God to purify our souls by God’s daily visitation and in such purification, prepare us for the coming of Christ—the Advent connection. But beyond that, we gain more than a purified conscience by God’s daily encounter with us we are also made into a mansion in which Jesus can dwell.

In the book of Second Samuel we read of David’s final victory in unifying Israel and God king-davidtells him to take a break; that is rest for a while.[5] David is a type-A personality and wants to keep at it; he doesn’t want to rest. If there are no enemies and no need for war, David wants to be at work doing something. He decides to construct a building in which to place God. The prophet Nathan, speaking for God, tells David to stop, relax, God has other plans. By resting David becomes the house that will be the vessel of God into generations to come—into history itself. David is the mansion where God will dwell. God will not be captive to some grand structure on the top of a hill. Taking the story to its climax, we now know that God incarnate comes to us through the Davidic lineage. But, and this is a big one, the God incarnate is not the son of David, instead he is the son of man, the total of all humanity. And he is the son of God the total of all that is divine. All that may seem remote and far away from the reality of our lives. Nevertheless, I ask you to read the words, “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation…” The point is, we have a conscience or soul and that God is with us, in our lives, not up in the sky somewhere throwing down lightning bolts to punish us for our sins. If we fail to purify our conscience by allowing God to make the holy daily visitation, we end up punishing ourselves for our sins. The message is that God is in here, in us, right in the midst of us, in our very beings.

When we are purified by confession, absolution, and the readiness to be God’s person, then the rest of our prayer becomes a reality. Place or time fall away, God is not in the tabernacle on the altar or in the grand temple David wants to build. God is our daily visitor. Welcoming God into our being prepares us for the presence of Jesus Christ in the world. Instead of structures made of stone and wood, the temple, the mansion, of God is human flesh and bone.

A purified conscience lets us see that we may be the rich who are sent away empty. There is no place for conceit or pride in our good fortune. The hungry truly do need feeding. With a purified conscience we are mansions—temples of the Holy Spirit—and we now see that life for us vertical. We lift up our prayers in praise of God and we reach down to bring the lowly with us as we gain in God’s blessings.

So, then, are we ready for the coming of Jesus Christ, are we a purified conscience, are we the mansions in which the Spirit of God can dwell? Let’s make this prayer a reality in the way we live, the way we think, and the way we care for the world we live in. Those prepared to be the mansion of Christ will sing the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.”


[1] American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.

[2] Similes Dictionary, 1st Edition. The Gale Group.

[3] www.thefreedictionary.com.

[4] Op. Sec., Smiles Dictionary.

[5] 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

Photos: Yahoo open source.

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