27 Nov. 1st Sunday of Advent
Is 63:16-17,19, 64:1, 3-8. While freely admitting his people’s sinfulness, the prophet recalls God’s mercy too. And only God can save his people.
1 Cor 1:3-9. As we await the return of Christ in glory, the grace of God is always near to keep us steadfast in living our Christian life.
Mk 13:33-37. We stay awake at our appointed tasks, as we do not know the day or hour when the Master will return, to assess us.
Theme: Making a new start. What is death, an end or a beginning? Is it annihilation, or, as our Christian faith holds, a new birth? We could begin our new liturgical year by placing our lives in this perspective: Making a new start, with the help of God.
There are various themes to explore, in today’s readings. Isaiah calls us to confess our sins and hope for better days. Paul’s thanksgiving in Corinthians is confident and upbeat. Mark warns us against complacency, since the end is coming sooner than we expect. Amid such disparity, we might go with the first and third readings, about being prepared for the day of the Lord.
Advent invites reassessment of where our ways may be leading us. This annual reminder that the world as we know it will one day end, is more appropriate during the northern Wintery season, when daylight is shorter and darkness seems to be winning over the light. But the positive side of this is that a new day is dawning, when Christ will come again into our lives with power to save us.
Did you ever watch other people at airports, waiting for loved ones to arrive from a flight? They often seem excited, eager for the first appearance of the familiar face, ready with the broad smile of greeting. We too wait for the Lord’s coming with anxious eagerness, because we long for his presence. The waiting is important because, during our earthly pilgrimage, we are incomplete. As Augustine once said, “You have made us for Yourself, o Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” At some deep level of life, we are in need, a need that only God can fill.
This is a time to open our hearts and invite the Lord to come and bring us to completion. We begin Advent with a yearning for his coming. Today’s first reading puts our need into words, “We have all withered like leaves and our sins blew us away like the wind.” The whirling, withered leaves of autumn are a familiar scene, these past few weeks. Isaiah proposes whirling leaves as symbols of all that is dried up and withered in our lives. But he also calls us to look for a better day. God is still in charge of creation, and our personal lives are under his loving care. We pray with fervour this Advent, “Come, Lord Jesus,” and make our own the words of the psalm, “Visit this vine and protect it, the vine your right hand has chosen.” It is a central plank of our faith that the Lord never abandons His people.
Back to the image of people at airports waiting for loved ones to arrive. It is an alert, active waiting – the kind of waiting called for in Advent. In today’s gospel Jesus says, “Be on your guard, stay awake”. He wants us intent on our task here and now. We are to grow more mature in our relationship with him, pay more attention to prayer, and live with his message in our hearts. That’s what waiting for him should be like. And while we wait, we can enjoy his gifts, as promised in Holy Scripture. Paul assures us: “You will not be without any of the gifts of the Spirit while you are waiting for our Lord Jesus Christ.”
These coming weeks we will pray for this spirit of hopeful anticipation, the watchfulness of a genuinely Advent people.
The First Sunday of Advent invites us to keep vigil, like the angelic watchers who rejoiced that the Awakener came to awaken us from the slumber of sin; he came as “our Redeemer from old” (Is 63:16b). Keeping vigil at the beginning of the new Church year is like following the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah where the strongest theme of the prayers is the coronation of God as King of the Universe, in preparation for the acceptance of judgments that will follow. As we celebrated Christ as King last Sunday so the time of vigil and repentance has now come.
Keeping vigil means to realize that the world is not on our shoulders. Life is not up to us. It is a gift that is alive most when in union with its Giver. It is the time not to be wakeful for the sake of wakefulness so that we might be asleep to virtues, vigilant and wakeful to vices. Even Judas Iscariot kept vigil an entire night and he sold the blood of the Just One who purchased the entire creation. One who splendidly watches and prays in the darkness is wrapped in hidden brilliance in the midst of his visible darkness, like the shepherds in the fields. If an angry man keeps watch, his vigil is disturbed by anger, and his watch itself becomes full of wrath and curses. If a discerning man keeps vigil, he chooses one of two: either he sleeps sweetly, or he keeps vigil righteously. Ruth lay down with Boaz, because she saw hidden in him the medicine of life; now we see that from her seed arose the Giver of all life.
The time of Rosh Hashanah comes to an end with the sealing of the Divine book of judgments. The assumption in the Jewish reading is that everyone was sealed for life and therefore the next festival is “the time of our joy,” the messianic era of redemption. The Christian calendar follows suit and the vigil is pursued by the day of redemption, the night of reconciliation, the all-peaceful night when God came into the presence of sinners; when the Rich One was made poor for our sake; when the Deity imprinted itself on humanity so that humanity might also be cut into the seal of Deity. That God will confirm us to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:8).
(by Dr. Petra Heldt, Academic Director, Bat Kol Institute, Jerusalem)
Strange, isn’t it, that the church should begin its liturgical year in November? It is a time of fallen leaves and souls in purgatory. Nature reeks of death in Advent; not even the faintest rumours of Spring in the air. While nature is steeped in death, the liturgy would have us start again. The season is not ill-chosen as death puts our lives into their true perspective. By making death our starting point we will have no illusions about life. We can look reality in the eye and face our tomorrows in hope. We are waiting for our Lord Jesus to be revealed. Life is a vigil, a time of waiting which only ends with death and the advent of the day of the Lord.
Everything we touch in our life bears within it the seeds of obsolescence. The more we advance technologically, the shorter lived become our creations. In the course of an average life-span, we preside over the obsequies of hundreds of thousands of material things, all of which were a part of us for a time. We’ve scarcely become attached to our car, with all its whims and moods, when it needs replacing. A suit of clothes is barely broken in to the irregularities of our contours before it is consigned to the rag bin. A shoe that finally accepts our bunions, is well on the way to the garbage heap. The consumer society is technologically so sophisticated that it mass-produces disposables with a built-in obsolescence. A popular American TV series began each episode with a shot of a tape-recorder being switched on delivering a message beginning . “This tape will self destruct within four seconds.” If the squeak in our shoes or the rattle in our cars could be translated, it would probably send the same message.
Knee-deep in obsolescence, it is not surprising if the notion of discarding colours our attitudes towards people. We speak of redundant workers and obsolete professions. We scarcely raise our eyebrows at the suggestion of relegating people to the scrap-heap. We accept as inevitable the rationalisation of manpower and personnel pruning. If we are a little perturbed at plans to dump the over forties, it is only because we have reservations about the cut-off mark. Retirement in our world is not a matter of relieving the elderly of their burdens but of relieving the company of dead weight.
But remember: we are pilgrims on a journey. Death is our home-coming. If there is any high point in our lives, it is surely towards the end as we come in sight of home. The evening of our lives should combine the satisfaction of a long road travelled with the expectation of a better life to come. “Lord, you are our Father; we the clay, you the potter, we axe all the work of your hand.” If the potter builds obsolescence into the clay vessel he fashions, it is not to increase the turnover of creation. Our durability is contingent only on the will of our maker. When he chooses to recall us, “evening, midnight, cockcrow or dawn,” is not for us to know. Life-users, like road-users, must stay awake. Advent is a lay-by where we take stock of our position, consult our maps, and ready ourselves for the coming of the day of the Lord.
Our personal commission
Jesus has given each of us a commission, a purpose or mission in life, and it is important that, when he comes to call us home, we are found to have been carrying out that commission.
“Procrastination is the thief of time.” How true that is, especially when it comes to taking Jesus and his message seriously. All diets start on Monday. God is a God of now. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” The only “yes” in my whole life that he’s interested in is my “yes” of now. “Today is the acceptable day. Today is the day of salvation.” From the earliest gospel accounts, we see that following the call of Jesus meant “leaving all things, and following him now.” One man wanted to return to bury his father, another had to examine some property or animals he had bought, while another had just got married, and was not free to follow him. Excuses. Excuses. Excuses. Following Jesus doesn’t always mean leaving a place, but it certainly means taking on a whole new way of life.
Early in his story is the promise “Peace on earth to those of goodwill.” In a later passage we are told “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and everything else will be added to you.” In other words, if I take my Christian call seriously, there is no way I could be off my guard, or forget the fundamental direction of my life. Jesus tells us that we are no longer slaves, who do not know, nor are they told, their master’s business. “You are my friends, because I have made known to you everything that has been told me by my Father.” To be a slave would tend to develop a slavish mentality. It would mean looking over my shoulder all the time, and really working only when the master is watching. If a Christian is motivated by love, then his service will be a service of love. Love is always active, and is always engaged and in gear.
According to today’s gospel, the people were given detailed instructions about what they were to do, what they were to be about. In other words, they couldn’t claim ignorance, or say, “We weren’t sure.” Jesus is clear about what he has to say; he is definite about his return, and he leaves us in no doubt that, to put it in simple words, the direction we choose to travel in now will determine the eternal direction of our lives after death. In other words, he gives us the message, he gives us the choice to make decisions, and he stands back, allowing for our free will to come into operation.
I hesitate to make any concrete suggestions about our response to today’s gospel, because I know that, if the goodwill is there, the Spirit of God will do the rest. We are beginning a time of preparation for Christmas. We are all only too well aware of the amount of effort we put into our preparation for Christmas, relative to food, clothes, cards, presents, etc. All of this is good. The gospel points to a much more serious form of preparation and effort, and I won’t insult your intelligence by drawing pictures, or spelling out exactly what we ought to do. If I am ready to be alive and alert, the Spirit of God will do the rest.
If ever a Gospel had a wake-up call it is today’s. “Wake up!” Jesus tells us at the beginning of this first Sunday of preparation for Christmas. Good things are about to happen. The Master is returning. There’ll be a big celebration. Don’t miss it. Shake off your lethargy, get rid of your moods, drop your attitude, forget your reasons to sulk. There’s a big party coming and you’re invited. And don’t let the commerce interfere with Christmas.
Story: An American mother and father (who were also a grandmother and a grandfather) had a wonderful idea for celebrating Christmas. They would take their children and grandchildren to Ireland just after Christmas Day. Even if it was dark almost all day in Ireland at that time of the year and cold and wet too; the warmth of our family will bring heat and light to Ireland, they said. We’ll have a grand time.
Their grandkids thought the idea extremely cool. So did their kids and their spouses. It would disrupt the children’s schedules and they’d wine a lot, but it would be a great adventure. Christmas in Galway, how could you beat it? But one couple was less than enthused. How could they get all their Christmas shopping done and all their cards out and go to all their dinners and parties if they had to prepare to fly across the ocean in Aer Lingus. They went through the motions but their hearts were not really in it. As St. Stephens day drew near they knew they couldn’t do – or perhaps didn’t want to do it. Anyway, they pretended they were almost packed and then at noon on St. Stephens Day they called the grandparents and proclaimed that they both had heavy colds and so did the kids, so they just weren’t able to go this time. For the rest of the winter the other kids told their cousins how the sun shone every day in Ireland (it was a sort of miracle) and the temperature was in the fifties and how much fun their trip to Ireland had been.
First Reading: Book of Isaiah 63:16-17, 64:1-8
For you are our father,
though Abraham does not know us
and Israel does not acknowledge us;
you, O Lord, are our father;
our Redeemer from of old is your name.
Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from your ways
and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you?
Turn back for the sake of your servants,
for the sake of the tribes that are your heritage.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence –
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil
– to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Second Reading: First Epistle to the Corinthians 1:3-9
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him with all speech and all knowledge-even as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you-so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ; who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Gospel: Mark 13:33-37
Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.
Therefore, keep awake-for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”