1st Sunday in Advent
Theme: “Many shall stream to God’s house” says the advent prophecy of Isaiah. Advent is a time of new beginnings, the start of a new year of Christian prayer and worship. The Lord calls every believer to let his or her heart be inspired once more by the message and spirit of the Gospel, so that we get ready to welcome our Saviour Jesus Christ at Christmas, and, more importantly, when he returns at the end of time, as the just judge of our life and times. Let’s not waste this golden opportunity to make a new start, in our personal spiritual journey.
Is 2:1-5. The happy future promised by God is not just for Jerusalem, or for the fortunate, the healthy and the wealthy in our society, but for all who seek the truth and who work for peace.
Rom 13:11-14. We can “wake from sleep” and “put on the armor of light” during this Advent season, if we resolve to live closer to the mind of Christ, and let him come more fully into our hearts.
Mt 24:37-44. We must accept the gifts and challenges each day brings, while trying to make ready for the day when Christ will come for the final judgment.
First Reading: Book of Isaiah 2:1-5
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
Resp. Psalm: Ps 121:1-2, 4-5, 6-9
I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
Our feet are standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem.
To it the tribes go up,
the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
For there the thrones for judgment were set up,
the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.
Second Reading: Epistle to the Romans 13:11-14
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.
Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Gospel: Matthew 24:37-44
For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
(by John O’Connell)
Advent reminds us of the three comings of the Lord – the coming in history over 2000 years ago; the coming in glory at the end of time when God’s dream for human kind will be realised; the coming in mystery in the happenings of daily life.
Somebody has said that if we can learn in these weeks of Advent the importance of patient waiting we have learned one of the greatest lesson in life. This is hard for us, especially in the West. We live in an instant age – instant food, instant this, that and the other. We even speed up nature: with artificial light we fool the hens to lay two eggs a day! We are in too much of a hurry in having every possible experience too early in life – the morning-after pill for eleven year olds!
The most important things in life cannot be rushed and require patient waiting. Patient waiting is required from the mother to bring the child to birth, and then from babyhood to adulthood; the teacher requires it with the slow learner; the politician requires it not to give up on the peace process, and everybody requires it to build loving relationships. We wait not mournfully, but in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Expect the Unexpected
Today, the first Advent Sunday, marks the beginning of a period of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ, our Saviour, at Christmas. All the readings in the Mass advise us most urgently to make ourselves ready, to be on the alert, to turn aside from our sinful ways, and give more time to God in our lives. “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord,” Isaiah says in the first reading. We must not live lives of darkness and of sin, St Paul admonishes his listeners; but let us put on the armour of God’s grace, and appear in the light, meaning that our consciences should have nothing to hide at any time, but rather be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit directing them. “Be vigilant, stay awake,” the gospel warns, at any moment you may be called upon to make an eternal choice, and that as unexpectedly as the people who were swallowed up by the Flood, in the time of Noah.
Outwardly, people may appear the same, like the men working in the fields or the women grinding at the millstone, but inwardly they have responded differently to the graces God has given them. So they are in varying states of preparedness for what is to come, with the result that while some will be taken into God’s kingdom, others will be left or rejected. This is true of every single individual, for as we pass through life we are all being faced with a choice between two ways, either that of slavery to evil tendencies in our lives, which we call sin, or, on the other hand, that of grace, which is allowing Jesus Christ be our guide and exemplar in all that we do.
It is only when we sincerely try to model our lives on that of Christ that our spirits will experience real freedom. Jesus himself said to the Jews (Jn 8:32), “If you persevere in my word, you will indeed be my disciples. You will learn the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Persevering in the word of Jesus demands that we listen to it, as it comes to us from out the scriptures and from within our consciences; also that we think about it and study its requirements, and that we put into action what we have learned. The true disciple of Christ asks the question, “What am I setting before myself as the main purpose of my life?” My career, the gaining of material possessions, the pursuit of pleasure, or the service of God and my neighbour? The truth of Jesus will teach us what things are really important and what are not. Furthermore, discipleship of Christ brings its own rewards. It brings freedom from fear, fear about oneself, fear about one’s ability to cope with life, fear about contradiction and opposition from others, fear about death and the uncertainty of life thereafter. “In love there can be no fear,” St John wrote (1 Jn 4:18), “but perfect love casts out fear; because to fear is to expect punishment, and anyone who is afraid is still imperfect in love.”
If we end up having no love or reverence towards God, no respect or consideration or pity towards others, then we will have reached the stage of choosing to be lost, as Jesus, in his prayer at the Last Supper, said of Judas. “Father, I kept those you had given me true to your name. I have watched over them, and not one is lost except the one who chose to be lost.” This is what should really frighten us, that the choice of our own destiny for all eternity rests entirely with ourselves.
If the Son of Man comes unexpectedly and finds us wanting, then we, who were part of the divine plans and designs from the moment of creation, we who were born to love, to be united with our Creator for ever in heaven, we will depart this world, and find ourselves unloving, frustrated by our rejection of love, utterly incapable of any response to the love of the God who will still love us. To prevent such a tragedy, it is necessary for us from time to time to take a critical look at ourselves, at the kind of lives we are leading, the response we are making to God’s grace. We should take note of our patterns of behaviour, but far more importantly our sets of values, what we regard as important in life.
Advent is a time when we ought to do precisely this. “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,” the first reading tells us, “to the Temple of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The second reading is of special significance in that it finally brought about the conversion of St Augustine after he had opened the New Testament at random at that very passage, and please God it will help us to look into our own lives and, if needs be, change them too.
Looking to the Future
An explosive novel called Look Back in Anger dealt with the disillusionment a man faced in his youth, due to inequality and unfairness in society. Looking back is less popular today; the modern tendency is rather to Look Ahead, and many pundits are happy to forecast our future. (Conservationists, Ecologists, Demographers, City Planners, Sociologists, Actuaries and Life-Insurance agents.) All this peering into half-foreseeable social facts is useful, up to a point. As rational people, we ought to look ahead, and make plans for future contingencies.
There is no shortage of prophets-of-doom, predicting ecological disasters, over-population and world-wide scarcity of raw materials. Like them, the Old Testament prophets often predict a gloomy future, seeing their people caught in the tight grip of sin. However, remembering God’s personal love for humankind, they usually end their forecasts in hopeful mood, promising salvation at the end of a period of trial.
Isaiah today prophecies an age of peace upon earth. He looks to a time when all nations will enjoy God’s blessings, and share with his chosen people in a universal spirit of joyful worship. Even today, we should be doing our part to make this vision a reality, working for justice and harmony among people, and so preparing for the Kingdom of God. Instead, we Christians have sometimes been accused (rightly?) of not caring enough for the future of this world, and focusing too much on reaching a distant heaven. We don’t seem as actively committed to social change, law reform, or the fair distribution of wealth as the Communists.
It does appear that Catholics pay less attention to our Church’s social teachings than to pronouncements on such personal matters as contraception. And yet, in the light of the Gospel, our social behaviour is no less important than the private area of sexual morality. Perhaps we need to be “re-awakened” to these priorities, just as Paul urged his Christians to awake, and be on the alert, for the time available to us is short. (Cfr. the song: “I may never pass this way again” – same moral.)
Jesus is no “prophet of doom;” his message is good news for all who want to be saved from sin. The future he offers us upon his return is a glorious one: a blessed life without end, shared with himself and all the redeemed. But not all will enter that life, it seems. Today’s Gospel warns us to be ready for Our Lord’s return. His coming will be sudden, unexpected, and final. Some, by their faith and good actions, will be ready for judgement; others, never having given a thought to what God requires, may not. (“One will be taken, the other will be left.”)
Now is the acceptable time; Now is the day of salvation! During this Advent we can raise our awareness of the future that awaits us, when Christ comes in final judgement upon this world and our personal part in it. The best preparation is to take our full part in life, here and now. Although in the dark of winter, we think about rebirth. Christianity gives a focus to an optimism which is basic to human nature. As Wolfhart Pannenberg put it, “It belongs to the essence of human existence to hope beyond death.” Our everyday hopefulness is based on the biggest hope of all: that death will not have the last word.
Starting the Liturgical Year
There is a note of urgency and summons to alertness in both the second reading and the gospel today. These might provide one with a jumping-off point for some reflections on the start of the liturgical year.
Conversion: One might adapt or make use of Paul’s imagery of throwing off the bed-clothes and dressing for the daytime. The whole image is one of getting ready to take on another day. There is a hint here of the struggle that some people experience in trying to get up in the morning – a symbol for conversion. The day that has to be faced is the new day of Christ’s final coming. The real question to be faced is “Can we face Christ?” “Have we really cast off the deeds of darkness/self-interest, in favour of living in the light of the gospel?” The gospel faces us with this question about how alert we are to our real selves. We are supposed to belong to Christ; have we really lived as if that were true? Part of the struggle of taking on a new day is the struggle to hope that it may be better than the failures of the day before. The process of conversion, turning from the darkness to the light, is only made possible by the gift of the light itself. It is the rising of the sun that calls us to get up. It was the coming of Christ into the world as its light that makes true conversion possible.
The renewal of the old: Part of the process of beginning a new liturgical year is a reflection on time, the relationship between past, present and future. The “time” that we celebrate in Christian liturgy is not the static time of repeated patterns that never change from year to year. What we celebrate centrally in our worship are events from the contingency of history; events that we claim to represent. Starting a new year we need to remember that the saving events of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, have to be made present in life as well as liturgy. It is in the changing circumstances of new life and new history that the mystery of salvation will unfold. In this new year we will all change, both individually and as community; we pray today that the change will be for the better realization of Christ’s presence among us. It is important for us to be able to focus on this hope-in-change for the sake of the young people in the community who sometimes experience the church community as a relic of the past, “unreal” and isolated from the dynamics of history.
The new world: Today we are presented with an old vision of a new world. It is so old that some people think it will never become real. It is the vision of a world at peace (first reading.) The challenge of that lesson is addressed to each of us, the challenge to walk in the light of the Lord. It is only through seeking his revelation and living it out that the peoples of the earth will find the way to this new world of peace. The task of building this reality is given to all people but especially to Christians who follow the ultimate peace-maker (cf. Eph 2:11 ff..) The challenge and the urgency of the call to build peace is not confined to the scriptural word of God. Contemporary analysts tell us of the importance of transforming the instruments of war into tools for the development of a world at peace. Some years ago, in a stark report entitled North South: A Programme for Survival, Dr. Willi Brandt wrote: “The public must be made more aware of the terrible danger to world stability caused by the arms race, of the burden it imposes on national economies, and of the resources it diverts from peaceful development.” This task of building peace is not something simply for public leaders and politicians. The arms race is at world level a symbol of our own personal will to power, our unwillingness to let go of our self-indulgence for the sake of others’ rights. The challenge of the gospel to all of us is to turn our own resources and wealth to the advantage of others, rather than to the extension of our own power over others.
The new liturgical year offers us the hope that we will be better peace-makers in the future. It offers us the hope that if we do “put on Christ” our young people will not lose heart, and our liturgical celebrations will be turned not merely towards the past but towards a living presence and a real future.
Following The Signs
The famous Czechoslovakian film-maker Milos Forman, was interviewed a few years ago on television. It was the period when all the political changes were taking place in Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism. He was asked about the prospects for the future. The Czechs, he said, were exchanging the zoo for the jungle. For three generations they had lived in a zoo under communist dictatorship. Now that the zoo-keepers were disposed of and their cages unlocked, they had all the freedom of the jungle. His comment has since proved prophetic. In the zoo they were fed and looked after by their keepers, sufficiently though frugally. They had their cages, which protected them from the elements and other predators. Their days were passed with regular supervised exercises. All they lacked was the freedom to roam at will. Such was the socialist society under communism. It provided its citizens with housing, education and health services, however basic. Unemployment did not exist officially. They were now released into the wild, to survive in the jungle of capitalist society. Here, the norm is the survival of the fittest. Jobs are scarce, housing is in short supply and expensive, health services and education are two-tiered. Society is divided into the “haves and the “have-nots . It is a dog eat dog world. In any case, most zoo-raised animals would not survive in the wild. They have lost the knack of surviving. Forman’s prediction came true. A few short years later, they welcomed back their former zoo-keepers. Poland, Lithuania, Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic etc., re-elected communist governments.
In his poem, The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats comes close to describing what they experienced, and which many in this country are feeling about our national politics and economics:
Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,
mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
the blood dimmed tide is loosed
and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction
while the worst are full of passionate intensity,
Surely some revelation is at hand,
surely the Second Coming is at hand.
Today we prepare for Christmas and the coming of Christ. But beyond that we look forward to the Second Coming, which Christ speaks about in the gospel. Recent political events, spectacular though they may be, do not herald the imminence of the Second Coming, when Christ will return at the end of the world. But they are straws in the wind that bring it to mind. Programmes to convert former tank factories into tractor-production seems almost the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy: These will hammer their swords into ploughshares, / their spears into sickles./ Nation will not lift sword against nation, / there will be no more training for war.
To travel anywhere by Underground in any major city, you must look up the name of the end-line terminus in the direction you wish to go. Once in the underground, you follow the signs with that name. It leads you to a platform, over which hangs a sign with the word Direction and the name of that terminus. The next train will take you there. Life is full of crossroads, spaghetti junctions, criss-crossing routes going in all directions. It is easy to lose our way and get lost. If we don’t read the signposts, we can spend all our lives going everywhere and getting nowhere. Advent is a signpost on our way, giving us direction. The end of the line for us is Christ’s glorious advent and eternal life.