Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Happy New Year! The First Sunday of Advent

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Happy New Year, everyone!  This Sunday, December 2, is the first day of Liturgical Year 2013, which is Lectionary Cycle C for readings on Lord’s Days and Holy Days.  Obviously, it is also the First Sunday of Advent.  Now, the tradition of the Church is to read the Book of Isaiah during Advent, because this prophetic book, more than any other, is regarded as a prophecy of the Coming of Christ (adventus Christi), both his first coming and his second coming.  Thus, if you examine the Sunday Lectionary for Years A and B, and the weekday Lectionary for Advent, you will see that the First Readings are dominated by selections from Isaiah.

However, in Year C of the Lectionary, the Church opts to do something slightly different for a change.  The First Readings for this year are taken from other important prophetic passages concerning the coming of the Christ outside the Book of Isaiah—passages that otherwise would be neglected if only Isaiah were read.

1.  Our First Reading is Jeremiah 33:14-16:


The days are coming, says the LORD,
when I will fulfill the promise
I made to the house of Israel and Judah.
In those days, in that time,
I will raise up for David a just shoot ;
he shall do what is right and just in the land.
In those days Judah shall be safe
and Jerusalem shall dwell secure;
this is what they shall call her:
"The LORD our justice."

This Reading is taken from what scholars call Jeremiah’s “Book of Comfort” or “Book of Consolation”: Jeremiah 30–33.  These four chapters, as I tell my students, are the only ones in the whole book where Jeremiah is in a good mood.  With a couple exceptions (e.g. Jer 3;15-18; 23:5), the prophecies of hope and restoration are all to be found in this section.

In this prophecy, notice that the fulfillment of God’s promises are intended for both “Israel” and “Judah”, that is, all twelve tribes, both the northern ten “Lost Tribes” and the southern two tribes (Judah and Benjamin) that came back from Babylonian exile.  As we read the New Testament, God’s concern for all twelve tribes is expressed in many ways, from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, the tribal territory of Zebulun and Naphtali; to the choice of twelve apostles as a new foundation for a new Israel; to the ministry to the Samaritans, descendants of the northern tribes; to the missionary expansion of the Church to the “nations” where most of the northern tribes were scattered.  To this day, God has not ceased to be concerned about the descendants of the tribes of Israel.

Next we notice that the Reading refers to a “just shoot” (other translations: “Righteous Branch”) raised up for David.  Here the word is Hebrew tzemakh, “branch, sprout.”  In a more famous passage that speaks of the “Branch,” a Hebrew synonym is employed, netzer: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch (netzer) shall grow out of his roots.”  This word netzer is the root of the geographical name Nazereth, and in Matt 2:23, the Evangelist finds it particularly fitting that Jesus, the “Branch” (netzer) should come from “Branchton” (Nazereth) and be called a “Branchian” (Nazarene).

In any event, Jeremiah 33 is a chapter that emphasizes God’s faithfulness to the covenant with David.  This very important covenant (see 2 Sam 7; Psalm 89) will be restored and renewed in the “coming days.”  We recognize Jesus as the King, the Son of David, who rules over David’s kingdom, whose center is the heavenly Jerusalem, but nonetheless is manifested visibly in the Church.

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14

R. (1b) To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.
Your ways, O LORD, make known to me;
teach me your paths,
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my savior,
and for you I wait all the day.
R. To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.
Good and upright is the LORD;
thus he shows sinners the way.
He guides the humble to justice,
and teaches the humble his way.
R. To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.
All the paths of the LORD are kindness and constancy
toward those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
The friendship of the LORD is with those who fear him,
and his covenant, for their instruction.
R. To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.

The themes of this psalm include waiting for the salvation of the LORD (“for you I wait all the day”), which is a good reminder as we enter this period of liturgical “waiting” for Jesus to come.  The liturgy “trains” us for life.  Our mystical “waiting” through Advent is a sacramental form of teaching and training, that helps us to “wait” for the Lord’s salvation during the ups and downs of our personal lives, through our struggles, joys, and difficulties.

Another theme is the covenant faithfulness of the LORD.  “All the paths of the LORD are hesed,” the Psalm says, translated “kindness” in our Reading, but better defined as “covenant faithfulness.”  The First Reading reminded us of God’s covenant faithfulness to David, in fulfillment of which He sent us Jesus, the Son of David.  But God keeps his covenant not just with the royal house, but with all who “fear him,” including us sitting in the pew.  God extends to us, also, the Covenant of David, through the Son of David (see Isaiah 55:1-3), although we must correspond to it, and become like God by showing covenant faithfulness to Him in return: “The paths of the LORD are hesed (covenant fidelity) toward those who observe his covenant.”

3.  The Second Reading is 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2:

Brothers and sisters:
May the Lord make you increase and abound in love
for one another and for all,
just as we have for you,
so as to strengthen your hearts,
to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father
at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones. Amen.

Finally, brothers and sisters,
we earnestly ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that,
as you received from us
how you should conduct yourselves to please God
and as you are conducting yourselves
you do so even more.
For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.

This Epistle gives guidance in how to live while we await “the coming of Our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.”  This is the Second Coming of Christ, which is an important theme in 1 Thessalonians (see 1 Thes 4:13–5:11).  The general summation of our appropriate behavior while we await the return of Jesus is that we “increase and abound in love, for one another and for all.”  Love for “one another” is love for the Christian community, which for each of us starts with our own parish.  Love “for all” is love for those outside the family of believers.  Advent should be a time dedicated to expressions of love for fellow Christians and for those who do not share our faith.  We should be on the lookout for some initiatives or projects in this coming month in which we can participate, in order to give some concrete expression to our desire to grow in love as Christmas approaches.

4.  The Gospel is Luke 21:25-28, 34-36:

Jesus said to his disciples:
"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will die of fright
in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then they will see the Son of Man
coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
But when these signs begin to happen,
stand erect and raise your heads
because your redemption is at hand.

"Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy
from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life,
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.
For that day will assault everyone
who lives on the face of the earth.
Be vigilant at all times
and pray that you have the strength
to escape the tribulations that are imminent
and to stand before the Son of Man."

This hardly seems like an Advent or Christmas reading.  In fact, it has more in common with the readings from Luke and Revelation we had in the last few weeks of November, as we focused on Christ the King and his return at the final judgment. 

But we need to remember that Advent has always had a dual focus on both the First and Second Coming of Christ.  This first week of Advent looks more to the Second Coming, and so makes a nice segue with the end of the Liturgical Year.  Next week the focus will turn to John the Baptist, the predecessor of the LORD, and then starting around Dec. 17 the focus will narrow more specifically to the approach of the birth of Christ.

As we ponder this Gospel, the heart of its application is probably to be found in these verses:

"Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy
from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life,
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.

This reminds us of the Lord’s Parable of the Sower, and his warning about the thorny soil:

Matt 13:7 Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them…  22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the delight in riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.

This is the message that most church-goers need to ponder.  Folks for whom the seed “fell on the path” or “fell on shallow soil” usually don’t keep coming to church week after week, but there are many of us in the pew who make it church, but have “drowsy hearts” and have become weighed down with the “cares of the world and delight in riches.”

This is, in part, the result of a predictable process.  Living a life of virtue—hard work, honesty, kindness, cheerfulness—leads to material success under normal conditions.  So many church-goers have found some material success by practicing the virtuous they have imbibed from the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church.  However, just as they did for ancient Israel, material blessings pose a danger for us: our hearts can become attached to them rather than God, attached to the gift rather than the giver.

This Gospel Reading urges us to fight against this as we await the coming of the Lord.  I good way to fight against materialism, as well as to show concrete expression of our “love for all” (see the Second Readings), is the offering of alms.  So in this week of Advent, let’s consider whether we can make a sacrificial gift to a worthy charitable cause, particularly one that acts in the name of Christ.

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Care to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and see the Dead Sea Scrolls with Dr. Bergsma and Fr. Denny Gang?  Check out the June 26-July 5 2013 Pilgrimage to the Holy Land by clicking here.

2 comments:

Kenneth James said...

Thank you DR.Bergsma..Wish you a Happy New year..:)

heidi gresko said...

Thank you for the insight (once again). I want to go on the pilgrimage but can't get away from work in the summers. Any chance in the future of a non summer pilgrimage?