Saturday, November 28, 2015

Staying Sober While We Wait: Readings for 1st Sunday of Advent

Happy New Year everyone!  We start the liturgical calendar anew this evening, and we are in Year C, which has some of the most creative and stimulating combinations of lectionary readings.

We just concluded the liturgical calendar by reading largely from the prophet Daniel and Our Lord’s eschatological discourse from the Gospel of Luke.  We spent a good deal of time meditating on the second coming of Our Lord, the end of history, and the final judgment.  We now make a smooth segue into Advent, because the first week of this liturgical season is given over to contemplating the second coming, as well.  The second week of Advent will move into the “John the Baptist” stage of the season, where we meditate on John as the introductory and transitional figure between the Old and the New Testaments.

But for now, we are thinking about the return of Christ and the final judgment.  This Sunday’s Readings continue to present to us Jesus as the King, the Son of David and Son of God, who will come to bring human history to its conclusion. We are exhorted to stay sober and alert while awaiting him.

1. Reading 1 Jer 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.”

We begin with an important oracle from the prophet Jeremiah, taken from near the end of what is known as Jeremiah’s “Book of Consolation” or “Book of Comfort,” the section Jer 30-33.  This is the one section of the Book of Jeremiah where the prophet seems to be in a good mood and have something positive to say about the future!  In the center of it is the famous “new covenant” oracle of Jer 31:31-34, the only passage of the Old Testament to employ the term “new covenant.”

Here, however, we have a less famous but clearly related oracle that further describes the future era of the new covenant.  In that era (“In those days, in that time”) the Davidic kind will be re-established: “I will cause to sprout for David a shoot of righteousness.”  This shoot (Heb. tzemach) refers to an heir to his throne. 

The arrival of this king will bring peace to the people of God: “Judah shall be safe and Jerusalem shall dwell secure.”  This was not fulfilled in a political sense, but an interior sense.  The Messiah came and formed “the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16).  The peace he gave to the people was the most important kind of peace of all, peace with God:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.   Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. (Rom 5:1-2)

This peace is compatible even with going through external hardship, as St. Paul continues: “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance ….”

Jeremiah speaks of “Jerusalem” (the people of God) being called by the name, “The LORD is our Righteousness.”  The “name” in Hebrew refers to the essence or nature of a thing.  Jeremiah is prophecying an era in which the people of God will be given the righteousness of God Himself.  This consists of the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to each of us in the sacraments, and received by us in faith. St. Paul explains, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”  We now have divine love—which is divine righteousness—indwelling us and enabling us to live a truly “superhuman” lifestyle, a life of love and self-giving. 

The Christian life does not rely on a goodness that we ourselves produce: St. Paul insists he does not have “a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”  That is, the gift of the Holy Spirit, accepted by faith, which fills us with the righteousness of God.

2. Responsorial Psalm Ps 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.

Psalm 25 is a Davidic prayer for deliverance from enemies.  In the passages we read at Mass, David acknowledges that merely being delivered from external foes without becoming righteous internally would not be enough.  He prays for God to “teach me your paths, guide me in your truth.”  In the Old Testament, God performed this teaching through the written law of the Mosaic covenant, which taught the fundamental principles of divine morality.  In the New Testament, however, God teaches more directly, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, received in faith.  So we can take this Psalm on our lips at Mass, and thank God for teaching us his ways by giving us the gift of Himself.  The indwelling Holy Spirit produces in us fruit that fulfill all the laws of God: “love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control” (Gal 5:23-24).

David thanks God for his “friendship,” or perhaps better, “intimate counsel” (Heb. sôd).  There is no closer friendship or counsel than for God to infill us with his Spirit.  This is not just “using the Force,” but the internal communion of persons, a true friendship between ourselves and God.  What better friendship could there possibly be?

2. Reading 2 1 Thes 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.

The epistles to the Thessalonians contain much teaching about the second coming, which was a pressing issue for the Thessalonian church.  In this reading, we see many themes discussed earlier.  The theme of divine instruction from the Psalm: “you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.”  The Spirit makes use of the example and teaching of the Apostles to instruct us.  The theme of the indwelling of God’s “righteousness” or “love”: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love…  be blameless in holiness before our God.”

Basically, St. Paul is instructing the Thessalonian church on how to behave as they await the second coming of Christ “with his holy ones.”  The main elements he mentions are: continuing growth in love and in holiness, which are closely related to each other; and following the example of the lifestyle of the apostles (“as you received from us … what instructions we gave you”).  Imitation of the apostolic lifestyle is actually a theme that recurrs multiple times in St. Paul’s epistles, and it reminds us that Christianity is not just a body of teaching but a way of life that must not just be “taught” but also “caught” by modeling ourselves after holy “practitioners” of Christianity.  This is an aspect of Tradition, which along with Scripture constitutes a “mode” of the transmission of God’s Word to us. 

4.  Gospel Lk 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.”

Jesus speaks to us about the end of human history and his return in glory.  Many of the natural signs that Jesus mentions as associated with the end of the world actually occurred and were provisionally fulfilled in the events surrounding the destruction of the city of Jerusalem in AD 70, which marked an irrevocable transition from one “world” (the old covenant era) to another “world” (the new covenant era).  Yet this seismic movement was also a sign and foretaste of the upheaval that will take place at the end of time, when we move from the new covenant era, where the kingdom is manifest under mysteries perceived by faith, to the era of fulfillment, when all things will be perceived in their reality, and the Kingdom will be manifest not by faith but by sight. 

The great danger for disciples of Jesus is that we get sidetracked while waiting for the return of the LORD and fail either in temperance or fortitude.  Failure of temperance is to give in to “drowsing, carousing and drunkenness,” that is, just start seeking physical pleasures and comforts in this temporary life.  Failure of fortitude is to succumb to “the anxieties of daily life.”  The struggle of the Christian life is to capitulate neither to fear nor pleasure as we wait for Our Lord to return for us. 

Our Lord’s words here remind us of the parable of the sower and seed, in which there were four classes of people: those “on the path” who never receive the seed/word; those who are shallow soil who cannot withstand tribulation; the thorny soil who give in to “cares of this world and delight in riches” (Mt 13:22); and finally the good soil that produces fruit.  Notice the same twofold trap that snares those who are almost to the point of being fruitful: fear (cares) and pleasure (delight).

Jesus warns that tribulations will precede the coming of the “Son of Man”  “in a cloud with power and great glory.”  This is a reference to the vision of the end times in Daniel 7.  The “son of man” is the one who receives the kingdom of the whole earth.  Reading the Scriptures synthetically, we realize this “Son of Man” is the same as the “Son of David,” because to the Son of David was promised a universal kingdom (see Psalm 2:6-12; 89:25-27).  Jesus is both the Son of Man and the “shoot of David” promised in our first reading. 

First World Christians perhaps do not take quite seriously the reality that the Christian life is a struggle that requires exertion and sacrifice.  In some parts of the First World Christianity has been part of a comfortable cultural phenomenon, and the attitude has been a sanguine one that pretty much everyone goes to heaven as long as you don’t do anything “really bad,” like mass murder or something. 

Jesus doesn’t describe the path to salvation in terms like this at all.  He constantly says it is difficult, and implies or states that many will try and fail to enter “the kingdom of Heaven.”  We can choose to believe either Jesus, or the contemporary prophets of optimism, concerning the nature of the path to heaven.  I would recommend taking Jesus’ words with utmost seriousness, since he probably has more personal experience of the realities under discussion than modern theologians and intellectuals. 

Jesus’ words to us are “be vigilant at all times.”  That is a lifestyle of attentiveness, that lives each day as if it could be our last, knowing that Jesus may come for all of us—or just for one of us personally—at an hour we do not expect.  Vigilance means a lifestyle of prayer, temperance in physical pleasures (including acts of mortification), fortitude (courage in the face of persecution), and love (self-sacrificial giving).  These are the “ways of the Lord” in which he instructs us.  He gives us His Spirit to enable us to live in this superhuman fashion.

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