Wednesday, November 26, 2014

"Already and Still More": The First Sunday in Advent

In this first Sunday of Advent, the Church invites us to prepare in a rather urgent manner for God’s coming in the person of Jesus Christ. If you are anything like me, it is tempting to view the Advent Season as celebrating something that is “in the rear view mirror”, that is, a definitive event of the past that defines the salvation we can now rejoice in as believers in Christ.

While this is true, it is nonetheless incomplete at best and dangerous at worst, for the coming of God in Christ requires an ever-present vigilance, one that is always ready for the coming of God.

FIRST READING: Isaiah 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 this first reading, the prophet Isaiah speaks of the coming of God in rather apocalyptic terms, that is, that Yahweh would “rend the heavens and come down” and bring salvation. In context, Yahweh does indeed come down and bring salvation, for he comes and liberates Judah from Babylon and brings them back to Canaan.

However, as Loren Stuckenbruck rightly notes, apocalyptic salvation in the faith of Israel entails an “already and still more,”[1] and this dynamic can be seen within Isaiah itself, for reading the book as a whole helps to reveal that not all aspects of Isaiah’s promised salvation is completely fulfilled with Judah’s return from exile.

Among the various aspects that could be mentioned, Isaiah prophesies that in the latter days Mt Zion will be the highest mountain in the cosmos, such that all nations could stream to it (Isa 2:2-4). Moreover, in the Isaiah Apocalypse, Yahweh promises to come to Mt. Zion and defeat death itself, feeding his people with the choicest of wines (Isa 25:6-9).

However, with Advent in mind it is perhaps most important to mention Isaiah 7 and 9, two passages that highlight the “already and still more” suggested by Stuckenbruck. In Isaiah 7, a child is promised to a young maiden who will be Immanuel (Isa 7:14), while in Isaiah 9 one is promised who will be a prince of peace, a mighty God (Isa 9:6).

While it is valid to suggest that each of these prophecies find something of an “already” in the person of Hezekiah, nonetheless the rule and reign of Hezekiah did not completely fulfill the promise of an ever-increasing, everlasting reign, highlighting a "still more" dynamic, something Benedict XVI has called “a word in waiting.”

RESPONSORIAL PSALM: Psalm 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-1
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.
In this responsorial psalm, the desire for God rending the heavens and coming down is expressed in moving liturgical prose, for here the Psalmist invites Israel to ask Yahweh to come forth from his heavenly throne and save Israel. 

When this occurs, Israel will not only be protected, they will find new life, one defined by no longer withdrawing from God. However, this Psalm highlights the flip side of that coin, namely, we are frequently tempted to withdraw from God, and this entails the loss of life and the need for salvation.

In turning to the second reading, Paul speaks of the Corinthians having received the long-awaited salvation promised to Israel, yet in a manner that still highlights an urgent, future expectation.

SECOND READING: 1 Corinthians 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.
In this second reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, both sides of the “already and still more” aspects of salvation are able to be noted, for Paul speaks of the present evidence of salvation in the lives of the Corinthians, yet they are also awaiting the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, it is Jesus himself who will keep the Corinthians firm to the end, that is, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Along with the gifts that the Corinthians have received in Christ, Paul continues in the letter and calls the Church itself the “temple of God,” and those who belong to her are “one spirit” (I Cor 6:17) and “one body” (I Cor 10:16-17; 12:12-13) with Jesus.

However, even with such a great salvation, it seems that the Corinthians were not ready for the second coming of Jesus, for some in the congregation believed that there is not to be an embodied resurrection of believers at the second coming of Christ. Paul is absolutely clear that there is a bodily resurrection for those in Christ and this will occur at the second coming.

This leads nicely to the Gospel reading, for here Jesus declares that his second coming requires an unwavering readiness on the part of those who follow him, one that cannot be postponed without great risk.

GOSPEL: 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!’”
In this Gospel reading we return to a point mentioned in the introduction to this post, the need to be continually ready for the coming of God. With the incarnation of the Word, it is always a temptation to simply look back on the time when God “rended the heavens and came down” as a thing of the past and now merely breathe easy in light of such a salvation.

With the Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Advent, the Church is calling us to be ready for the “still more” of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, awake and ready for his return. This preparation belongs not simply for the end of the liturgical year but also at the very beginning, for it is clear that the Church desires that Advent be a time not simply of celebration but also preparation.


In conclusion, how should we prepare for Advent? I would suggest viewing the coming of Jesus Christ as “already and still more,” such that our celebration of his first coming is tied to a ready expectation of his second coming. What could this entail?

Here is the question I would suggest we ask ourselves: am I ready for the coming of Jesus Christ? If you are anything like me, the answer would be “yes and no,” for while I am eager for his coming, I am not entirely prepared for standing before Him in all his glory.

Therefore, let us embrace the encouragement of the Church to prepare for the immanent coming of Jesus Christ, knowing that being prepared to embrace him in the manger will serve as excellent, even necessary preparation for embracing him when he comes again with his angels and saints in glory.


[1] During the “Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination” section of this year’s Society of Biblical Literature (November, 21st, 2014), Loren Stuckenbruck highlighted that the apocalyptic aspects of Israel’s faith entail this “already and still more” dynamic. For more from Stuckenbruck, see The Myth of the Rebellious Angels (WUNT 355; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014).

1 comment:

Clay said...

Nicely and succinctly put, Kincaid.