Thursday, November 30, 2017

Staying Alert: 1st Sunday of Advent

The last month of the liturgical year was spent reflecting on the Last Things, culminating in the Feast of Christ the King last week, when we pondered the Final Judgment, the separation of the “sheep” and the “goats.”

There is actually a fairly smooth transition from the end of the liturgical year to its beginning, because the first week of Advent is spent meditating not on the First Coming of Christ, but on his Second. By next week, the perspective will shift, and the liturgy will anticipate the coming celebration of the incarnation.
In any event, although it is a new liturgical year this week, the end-times focus of previous weeks continues.

Reading 1 Is 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7:

You, LORD, are our father,
our redeemer you are named forever.
Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways,
and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?
Return for the sake of your servants,
the tribes of your heritage.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
with the mountains quaking before you,
while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for,
such as they had not heard of from of old.
No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you
doing such deeds for those who wait for him.
Would that you might meet us doing right,
that we were mindful of you in our ways!
Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful;
all of us have become like unclean people,
all our good deeds are like polluted rags;
we have all withered like leaves,
and our guilt carries us away like the wind.
There is none who calls upon your name,
who rouses himself to cling to you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have delivered us up to our guilt.
Yet, O LORD, you are our father;
we are the clay and you the potter:
we are all the work of your hands.

In the First Reading, the Church hears the Prophet Isaiah calling for God to come to earth in judgment.  Once again, the liturgy presents excerpts, and it is helpful to read all of Isaiah 63-64 to get the context.  One of the themes that emerges is the call for a New Exodus. The skipped verses in Isaiah 63 make explicit reference to Moses, the flight from Egypt, and the mighty miracles God wrought at that time.  The call of the prophet included in our liturgical reading—“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, the mountains quaking before you””—is an allusion to the Sinai theophany, God’s revelation of himself at the holy mountain. The prophet is likening the condition of God’s people to the situation in Egypt so long ago: once again, the people are oppressed by foreigners who despise them and in need of divine intervention to be restored to freedom and proper worship. At the same time, however, the prophet realizes God’s people themselves are stained with sin.  Although he wants God to establish justice, he fears that God’s justice may lead to the condemnation of many among God’s own people.

For all the distance in time, the situation of God’s people seems not much different today than it was in the days of the prophet. Living in a secular society that mocks our faith and scorns our morals, we cry for justice from God—at the same time realizing that we have contributed to, and been complicit in—the sins of our culture and society.  Catholics don’t seem significantly more charitable, or chaste, or faithful to their spouses, or pro-life than their fellow countrymen in whatever nation they reside. Non-Catholics don’t see a different lifestyle being lived among Catholics, and conclude that the Gospel must not have any answers to the confusions of modern society.  Yes, Lord, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!”, reforming and purifying your Church and in this way giving hope and witness to the world. 

Responsorial Psalm Ps 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19:

R. (4) Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.
O shepherd of Israel, hearken,
from your throne upon the cherubim, shine forth.
Rouse your power,
and come to save us.
R. Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.
Once again, O LORD of hosts,
look down from heaven, and see;
take care of this vine,
and protect what your right hand has planted
the son of man whom you yourself made strong.
R. Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.
May your help be with the man of your right hand,
with the son of man whom you yourself made strong.
Then we will no more withdraw from you;
give us new life, and we will call upon your name.
R. Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.

The Responsorial Psalm continues themes from the First Reading. It is helpful to read the entire psalm, which is another vine-parable of Israel.  The history of Israel is retold under the metaphor of a vine that God planted, caused to grow, but eventually abandoned.  The psalmist speaks during the time of the exile, praying to God to return and grant new life to the vine, his people.  In particular, there is a prayer for the king, the son of David:

May your help be with the man of your right hand,
with the son of man whom you yourself made strong

The palace of the Davidic King was to the south of the Temple.  The Temple was thought of as the throne of God, and the word for “south” in Hebrew is “right,” since directions were indicated from an east-facing perspective.  Therefore, the throne of the Davidic King was at the “right hand” of God: the “man of your right hand,” the “Son of Man” (Hebrew ben-adam), is the King, the anointed Son of David. The health and well-being of the people are intimately tied to the fate of the anointed king.  His triumph means triumph for the whole nation. In a sense, nothing has changed: last week we prayed for the exaltation of Christ the King, knowing that where he is exalted, we will experience peace, justice, and freedom.

This Psalm also cries out for us to be saved from sin.  There is a difference between being saved from sin, and being saved from the results of sin.  Everyone wants to be saved from the results of sin, which is death and hell; but few people want to be saved from sin.  This is in part because we don't realize how evil sin is, and how it is its own punishment.  Sin is a turning away from Love, which is a turning away from God, since God is Love.  Strangely, many people (including ourselves) wish to be reconciled with God and Love, while still choosing against God and Love by continuing to sin. But sometimes we come to our senses and realize that we are sin addicts, and the addiction is its own punishment.  We realize we can’t break out of our sinful habits without the help of God, which we call Grace.  The ancient author of our responsorial psalm realized already that without God’s grace, he and his people could not even repent of their sins.  So he says, May your help be with the man of your right hand (the Messiah) … then we will no more withdraw from you ….”  In other words, “Oh God, send us the Messiah so that we will stop turning away from you!” 

And this is still what we need.  We need Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, to come to us and change our hearts, so we will no longer wander away from God. 

As we move on to the Second Reading, St. Paul teaches us that, like the people of Israel of old, we are waiting for the coming of the Messiah: we “wait for the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ,” anticipating the “end” which is the “day of the Lord Jesus Christ”:

Reading 2 1 Cor 1:3-9:

Brothers and sisters:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always on your account
for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus,
that in him you were enriched in every way,
with all discourse and all knowledge,
as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you,
so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift
as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
He will keep you firm to the end,
irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God is faithful,
and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord.

Although we are like the Old Covenant people of God in that we are waiting for the return of the Messiah, we have a consolation in this waiting that was not shared by those under the Old Covenant: all “discourse,” all “knowledge,” and every “spiritual gift” has been given to us through Jesus Christ as we “wait”! St. Paul refers here to the body as a whole: not every believer has every spiritual gift, but the entire body is not lacking anything. We have the power of the Holy Spirit to live a life of holiness; this is not from ourselves, it’s God’s gift to us through the sacraments. Therefore, our waiting is not pathetic and forlorn: we are equipped to wage a spiritual battle for the kingdom (Eph. 6:10-20) as we await the return of the king.

Our Gospel is Mark 13:33-37:

Jesus said to his disciples:
"Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.
It is like a man traveling abroad.
He leaves home and places his servants in charge,
each with his own work,
and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.
Watch, therefore;
you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming,
whether in the evening, or at midnight,
or at cockcrow, or in the morning.
May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.
What I say to you, I say to all: 'Watch!'"

The Gospel teaches us to cultivate an attitude of anticipation. My father once served as chaplain for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy—this Gospel reminds me of the US Coast Guard motto: semper paratus, “always prepared.” This should be the motto of the Christian life as well. We do not know the time of the return of Christ, no matter what the most recent Bible guru claims in his “New York Times bestseller.” Neither do we know the time of our own death and particular judgment. 

What should we be doing in the meanwhile? Our Lord refers to “placing servants in charge, each with his work.” As we wait for the Lord, it is best to be busy about the work that God has left in our charge, trying to be faithful in our own generation. 

Doing our professional work well and with excellence; 
fulfilling our duties to family with care and love; 
speaking of Christ to any who will listen; 
living a lifestyle of prayer, modesty, and acts of self-denial
—if we are busy about these things we can anticipate the coming of Christ with joy, not foreboding.  We don't have to go out to find some special task which is the Lord's work:  the Lord's work that he has assigned to us is right in front of us.  It is our duties of state, our daily tasks in the place God has put us.  This faithfulness right where we are, is how we are going to achieve the holiness that leads to eternal life.  But we don't do this in our own power: we do it empowered by God, by his Grace, which is waiting for us in abundance in this Eucharistic celebration.

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