First Sunday Of Advent, Year C
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT, YEAR C
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Ps. 25:4-5, 8-10, 14; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
The opening reading of the Year of Grace on the First Sunday of Advent is taken from the Prophet Jeremiah. This prophet was active in Jerusalem and surroundings from about 626 B. C. to shortly after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian army in 587 B.C. The Babylonians gave permission to Jeremiah to go into exile with the people of Judah or remain in what was left of the city of Jerusalem and its environs after the destruction of the temple by the Babylonian invaders. He decided to remain. The Babylonian king appointed a governor, Gedaliah, for the towns of the former kingdom of Judah. Gedaliah was assassinated by a group connected to the former kings by then in exile in Babylon. Fearing reprisal from the Babylonians, this group fled to Egypt, taking Jeremiah with them. There he disappeared from history.
Today’s first reading is an editorial recasting of an oracle of Jeremiah found earlier in Jeremiah 23:5-6. It is a promise of restoration of a king after the exile. The title the prophet gives to this king is “a righteous Branch to spring forth from David.” (The translation of this title in our current Lectionary, “a just shoot,” is somewhat pale in comparison.) The reference is to King David who established the first Israelite Empire and the royal line which ruled the Israelites from 1,000 B.C. until the Babylonian exile in 587 B.C. As is often the case, the meaning of an Old Testament oracle or historical figure is not limited to the time of that oracle.
Christian interpretation, as found in the Fathers of the Church, applied to Jesus the title “righteous Branch to spring forth from David.” See, for example, Pope Leo the Great, 440-461, Sermon 28:3. The Fathers found the foundation for the transferal of this title to Jesus in the genealogies of Jesus by Matthew and Luke. Since Advent anticipates the arrival of the King or Righteous Branch descended from David, our first reading is an appropriate choice to describe the awaited Branch. “He shall do what is right and just.” The Responsorial Psalm, 25, picks up the theme of the justice or righteousness of the Branch, as we read, “Good and upright is the Lord. He guides the humble to justice (righteousness), and teaches the humble his way.”
The second reading is taken from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. This is the oldest New Testament document known to us. It was written about the year 50 A.D. to a Christian congregation Paul founded in Greece. One purpose of the Letter was to lessen the anxiety of these new Christians about a problem that Paul caused. He was convinced of, and therefore proclaimed, the imminent return of Jesus for the final judgment. At his return, Jesus would pull up into the sky the Christians alive at the time. The problem: some of the Thessalonian Christians had already “fallen asleep in the Lord.” Will they be left behind? This commentary is not the time to examine Paul’s solution to their problem. It is rather for us to find the reason for the choice of this reading for the First Sunday of Advent. As noted above, Advent anticipates the coming of Jesus to the earth, either at his first visit, two thousand and some years ago, or his second visit, when he arrives for final judgment. The reason for this selection is found in Paul’s advice to “be blameless in holiness . . . at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . .” For Paul this meant the imminent arrival of Jesus from the sky for final judgment. By placing these words into today’s liturgy, the Church encourages us to repent as preparation for the commemoration of Jesus’ first arrival and to be ready at all times to meet Jesus either at our own departure from this life or at his final arrival on this earth.
The gospel reading is part of Jesus’ final discourse to his disciples before the beginning of the Passion Narrative. If Luke’s words relating Jesus’ final discourse remind us of the New Testament Book of Revelation, they should. Both are in a form of literature known as an apocalypse. An apocalypse often uses frightful imagery to describe the woes and punishments of those who are not part of the ingroup from which the apocalypse originates. The ingroup, of course, in the New Testament, is the Christian Community. For the members of this community the language of the apocalypse will usually include consolation and encouragement to persevere in the face of persecution and the final tribulations. Thus we read, “When these signs begin to happen, stand up straight. Raise your heads, because your redemption is at hand.” Christians are warned against “drowsiness,” meaning lack of awareness of the possibility of Jesus’ return. There is also a warning against carousing and drunkenness. More consoling is the reassurance about anxieties of daily life. This fits with Luke’s earlier reference to taking up one’s cross “daily” in Luke 9:23. Luke ends with a call for prayer “to have the strength to escape the imminent tribulations, and to stand before the Son of Man (Jesus).”
Note above the italicized word imminent. The problem is that those tribulations and the final return of Jesus were not so imminent (about to happen). Three centuries later, St. Augustine had this to say, “We know that the coming is near by the fact that we see certain signs of that coming (of the Lord), signs that have (already) been accomplished,” Letter 198. Augustine, who died in 430 A.D., thought the second arrival of Jesus was imminent. So did many other saints and sinners, sincere people and charlatans, popes and peasants, ancient and modern, up to the present time, going on two millennia of Christian anticipation. How are we to understand the setting of dates never fulfilled for the final intervention? Although not denying a final intervention of God through the return of Jesus, we do best to apply the warnings and encouragements of the final discourse of Jesus to each individual’s meeting with the final judge at the moment of our death.
Then indeed, “your redemption is a hand, as you stand before the Son of Man.”