First Sunday Of Advent
The beginning of the Year of Grace is marked each year by the season of Advent. In the history of its origin in the dual official languages of the Roman Empire, “Advent” was a technical term for the visit of an important imperial official or of the emperor to a city or kingdom of the em-pire. The Latin form: Adventus: the Greek form: Parousia. Our own Advent of approximately four weeks refers to a past and a future visit to us earthlings by the King of Kings. During these weeks the readings of our Lectionary call us to a joyful commemoration of Jesus’ visit to us at his birth two millennia ago. The Advent readings also call on us to joyfully anticipate the final visit of Jesus at the end of time and the final judgment. Christians need to get into the spirit of the earliest Christians by joyfully anticipating that final visit rather than being terrified by the thought of it. They longed for that final visit to occur, as they prayed in their native Aramaic language, “Maran! Atha!” or “Come on, Lord!” Or better, “Hurry up, Lord!”
The readings of the First Sunday of Advent emphasize that final anticipated visit. The first read-ing is from a part of the Book of Isaiah which we call Third Isaiah, 530-520 B.C. The late sixth century B.C. context of the reading is a message of the prophet to the depressed people of Jerusalem. It was a time of threatening failure of a small community of Israelites. They had returned from exile in Babylon between 540-520 B.C. The prophet expresses the longing of this community for the Lord to intervene for their prosperity. Think the U.S.A. during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Hear the pleading, “If you would only tear open the heavens and come on down, the mountains shaking, and awesome deeds to mark your presence.”
The people and prophet put some of the blame on God for neglecting them, but they admit that they brought this neglect on themselves, “Our guilt carries us away. We are sinners, an unclean people.” A final plea, “Don’t forget that you are our Father. You are the potter that molded this clay. We are the work of your hands!” That sounds like putting blame on God, but they at least recognized their own sinfulness and its results. It is not difficult to adapt these ancient thoughts to our own lives, to our longing for help from above, and the Christian longing for Jesus’ return. The Responsorial Psalm continues the thoughts of Third Isaiah, “Listen to us, Shepherd of Israel! Stir up your power and come to save us. Then a recognition of dependence on God’s grace to bring about conversion and preparation for his visit, “Lord, make us turn to you. Let us experience your face, and we shall be saved.” St. Paul expressed the same thought in Philippians 2:12-13. After warning his parishioners that “You (yourselves) must work out your salvation in fear and trembling,” he recognizes that it is God who in some mysterious way makes it happen, “For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
The second reading is the introduction of St. Paul’s first letter to his difficult community of new and sometimes unruly Christians at Corinth. In the introduction Paul does not mention the troubles of the community. Nor does he resort to any of the scolding and threatening corrections he will make in the body of the letter. Here it is all very pretty. A gracious greeting of peace, thanksgiving to God because of them. He flatters their knowledge, their fullness of spiritual gifts, and promises that they will persevere “irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” So how is this all related to our Advent and the anticipation of the final Advent or Parousia of Jesus? Why was this reading chosen for this Sunday? For these words, “He will keep you secure to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul expected the return of Jesus in his own lifetime. We are still waiting for the fulfillment of that promise. Therefore those ancient words of Paul are as valid now as they were then. We wait in hope and faith.
The Gospel of this Sunday is all warning. There really is no joyful Christian anticipation of the return of Jesus in this reading as one finds in other parts of the New Testament. It is small won-der that Christians today, if they even think about it, are more in dread of Jesus’ return than in joyful anticipation. Why? The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke all include a version of Jesus’ last discourse or sermon. The ideas, the words, the phrases are to a great extent taken from the Old Testament warnings of the prophets about God’s anticipated (by the prophets, if not by the people) terrible intervention in the history of his people, with fire, storm, earthquake, wars, famine, sickness, destruction in the sky and on the earth. The prophets referred to this inter-vention as “The Day,” or “the Day of the Lord God.” Our Gospel adapts those ancient ideas and phrases to a new and final intervention of God, but now called “the Day of the Lord Jesus.”
These expressions of the various versions of Jesus’ last sermon have created throughout the history of Christianity not so much joyful anticipation by Christians of Jesus’ return but fear and dread. In every century of Christian times there have been those of high or low degree who have emphasized the fear aspect of the return of Jesus. Along with instilling fear came the setting of dates for Jesus’ Parousia. There have been many of those in the lifetime of most people living today. Some of these date-settings were sincere, but too many were “fake news.” There is one “Day of the Lord Jesus” that is certain for each of us, the day of our death. For that day we always need to be ready. Therefore the closing words of today’s gospel, “What I say to you, I say to all, ‘Watch!’” If we are ready for our personal Parousia with Jesus, the other long-awaited return of Jesus will be no problem for us.