1st Sunday of Advent
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7 | 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 | Mark 13:33-37
Grant your faithful, we pray, Almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming so that gathered at his right hand they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
ON the First Sunday of Advent I always like to say "Happy New Year." I know that seems strange, but this is the beginning of a new liturgical year. I’m not sure why it doesn't coincide with the regular yearly calendar. Well, I do know why. It's because this first season, the first focus of our liturgical year, centers on the coming of this incredibly interesting, mysterious God/man, Jesus, into the world. And why that’s so important and why it’s so crucial is that throughout the Old Testament, as rich and as full as it is, we didn’t have an example that was even close to the example we have in Jesus. You have many prophets, many patriarchs, many kings — interesting, powerful people often flawed and messed up — but always struggling. You can feel it in that first reading from Isaiah, when he’s talking about the struggle that human beings had with God entering their lives. He was powerful. He was awesome. He wasn’t very well-known yet by the Israelites, but they knew him as a powerful force, as one who was calling them to something more than they were. They knew the feeling they had when they were failing. They begged him, over and over again, “Please come to us. Please come to us. Please come to us.” I don't know if they realized what they were saying, because what they were saying was an invitation on the part of God to respond to that prayer with the most shocking and amazing event, that God himself would come. He would come in the presence of a human being — 100 percent human, 100 percent divine — the greatest mystery we’ve ever had, which touches on the mystery of who we are ultimately called to be.
God the Father is the goal of all religious seeking, all longings in the human soul for a relationship that is fulfilling to the point of intoxication, and it’s important not to focus on his gender, but just that this awesome, loving force is totally and completely dedicated to you and to me with the most amazing fidelity. He wants nothing more than to be inside of us, to work with us, to marry us, to be a part of our lives, not in the sense of just being there to take care of us, but to partner with us so that we can do the work that he longs for us to do, that he sees us accomplish in the world … this evolution, spiritual evolution of the human race, our becoming more and more like our Creator. So it’s interesting that this image of the Old Testament, in the Old Testament of today’s reading, is really a cry for something that has been given. It has been given, but the reality is that God is there longing to enter into us in the most intimate way; there was no guarantee it would happen, because we have to allow it to happen. We have to say, “Yes. yes, come. Be a part of me.” It makes total sense when you think of intimacy, of something that isn’t forced on us, but something we long for and desire, and such intimacy with God that he reveals himself completely to us as he is. And we are asked to do the same to him or for him, and that is to be honest with who we are. We need to see ourselves as we are, with all our failings and our faults. So it’s interesting to me that, when I think about the work of Christianity, I realize that there are two major elements in it, two major relationships: our relationship with God, God’s relationship with us; and our relationship with ourselves.
I know we consider the work we do with one another, the way we treat each other — we’re called to be lovers, and therefore love is the primary goal — but we tend to think of love primarily as loving our brothers and sisters. But it actually means loving, accepting, believing in, seeing the beauty of God, self, others, the world and the universe. Love is a disposition of radical trust, openness and receptivity to the world we live in. That’s real love, to see the beauty in someone and to be open to his or her presence inside of us. One of the big problems we have in the world, I think, is the way we see it, and so you can hear in the second reading, from St. Paul, that he’s saying, unlike the first reading, where it was the cry of the people saying, “We’re just no good. We don’t have any chance. Our works are like polluted rags. We’re just a mess. We’re guilt-ridden, dirty, smelly,” and then Paul talks about, “No, we have dignity and power and strength, because God has filled us with his presence and his power.” And I know that Paul, who never saw Christ in the flesh, but experienced him in a way that might have been even more powerful, as a vision, when he came, and in the midst of the polluted rags of Paul’s life, meaning that he was going around trying to stop Christianity from growing and trying to destroy it and destroying people who chose it — in the midst of being, in a way, looked at by God for who he really was and God seeing him as he was, Jesus seeing him as he was in the vision and yet calling upon him to be a partner in his work. It didn’t have anything to do with the fact that he lived such an exemplary life. It’s important to know that. God will choose anyone who is willing to do the work in a partnership with him and to accomplish the work of the world, evolving and becoming what God wants it to be. So he takes us to the gospel, and the gospel for this First Sunday of Advent is like the gospels of most of the — well, we have three cycles, cycle A, cycle B, cycle C of our set of readings. As you know, we just finished cycle A, and that was focused on Matthew’s gospel. This is cycle B, focused on Mark, and then cycle C is focused on Luke. That’s a change that only happened in the last 50 years after Vatican Council II, that we had a chance to focus on all three synoptic gospels in more detail, which has been a boon to preaching, as well as adding an Old Testament reading, another boon to preaching. But what’s interesting about all of these First Sundays of Advent is that the theme is always the same: Wake up. Be alert. Watch. Pay attention.
When I think about consciousness, which is a way for me now to understand holiness, I realize that consciousness is a gift we have from God, enabling us to grow into an awareness of the world we live in, the God we believe in, the self we live with. We have the ability to look deep into that and discover what’s there, and that’s a choice, a conscious choice, I think. And when one doesn’t make that choice, it seems one falls into two traps in the world, and one would be your sort of just keeping busy with ordinary things and not thinking much about what anything really means or what’s going on or what the future is, other than how it affects you in your life or the people you love. You have that kind of limited experience with life, or another one that is probably more common, which is more frightening, is that often we become judges about everything. “That’s wrong. That’s good. That’s right,” almost falling into a binary world where everything is either good or bad, right or wrong, and we write off people and programs and politics and all that kind of stuff, because it’s not the way we want it to be, or it’s not the way we have decided it is.
So if we’re not just going to be kind of unconscious and kind of floating through life and if we’re not going to become judges, what are we supposed to become? Well, the image is, in the story of the gospel —it’s like, if we are people who pay attention, stay alert and watch — and in the image, what are we watching for? We’re watching for someone coming to a house, and what the story talks about is that there’s the owner of the house, the man who is responsible for all of his servants and takes care of them and all that. So the person who is benefitting from the lord of the house is supposed to open the door and let him in so he can take care of the servants and do the work of the house, oversee it. It’s an interesting image, and so it’s clear that you can see that the watching is, again, waiting for something to come into our awareness, our presence. It’s interesting also to me that there are so many stories in the Scriptures about Jesus coming again. He was going to come while everybody was still alive. Almost everybody believed that Jesus was coming again. The world would end within their lifetime. Fascinating when you think about it, that it was such a strong belief. Still people have a way of predicting it. “The end of the world is coming in 20 years or 40 years,” they say. But I don’t think most people believe that as much as they think maybe about the fear of a nuclear war or some kind of major climate change that’s going to make life impossible on this planet. We worry about things like that taking life from us, but I don't know how many people really think about God stepping in and stopping this whole thing as it is and then dividing us into two groups: sheep and goats, good guys and bad guys, good girls and bad girls. That seems so naïve and so oversimplified, because if God has made the promise that he’s made to you and me, if he’s the one who says, “I have come into the world to bring about something wonderful and marvelous for you,” I know we could say, “Well, that’s heaven. That’s where we go to the next place.” But it just doesn’t seem right, in my imagination, to think that God is doing all this work with us and engaging us in our becoming more like our Creator to fail at it. I just don’t think it’s going to work that way. Maybe that’s overly optimistic, but when you’re looking, when you’re watching, and you’re watching for the comings of God into your life, the coming of the truth, the coming of insight, when you’re doing that work, it seems there’s hope that all this is going to work. Otherwise, I don't know if you could really pay that much attention. A lot of times people say, “I just don’t want to hear anything more on the news. I just have too much information right now. I just can’t handle it.” And it’s true. It feels that way, but then, what if you’re watching the news, not just hearing bad things that are happening or good things, but really watching it, wondering about it? All this stuff coming out of the darkness, out of being hidden and being exposed, all that is a sign the world is worse, or is that a sign that the world is getting radically better because what was hidden before is being shown for what it really is, and people aren’t able to do as many negative things to each other than they did before? There’s a way to read the signs that gives us a tremendous sense of where life is going, and it’s going to a place that I believe is good.
So Advent, a new year, a new beginning, we have a chance to look at the way we look, look at the way we watch. If we’re watching with a critical eye, if we’re looking for affirmation that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, that’s what you’ll see, but if you’re looking for life, transformation, evolution, growth in consciousness, it’s there. It really is there. So it’s a good way to begin the year, with new eyes, new hope, new trust in God, whose goodness is greater than we could ever imagine.
Father, your grace carries us, flows around us, over us and continually takes us on this journey of fullness of life. Awaken in us a way of seeing, a way of watching the world as we participate in its salvation. Help us to trust in the promises that God has made to us that nothing that has been given to him will ever be lost, and we ask all this in Jesus’ name, amen.