First Sunday of Advent (A)
(Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44)
Advent has come round once again and I would imagine that all of us here who are mature adults will be thinking how the time since last Christmas has flown. I really should say the time from last Advent, but perhaps many of you would not remember the beginning of Advent last year, whereas you will certainly remember last Christmas: how the time has flown since then!! People of God, I want you to think on that: how quickly the last year has passed by! I ask you as disciples of Jesus to do this because it is so easy for people to live through their whole life and, when it comes to an end, find themselves not only surprised -- the years having passed like a dream, as the poet puts it – but also quite unprepared for what awaits them. That is why, in God’s Providence, the Church’s liturgy has periods of preparation – Advent and Lent -- that recur annually and thereby remind us: “Look, another year has gone by! How many more do you think you have? You need to prepare yourself.”
Today’s readings fit wonderfully well into that purpose by reminding us of the ultimate significance of our life here on earth and how supremely important it is for us to make good use of the time at our disposal. These readings have two main themes: first of all they evoke the joy of pilgrims going up to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifice and praise in the messianic times to come.
Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.
We can almost feel the excitement and anticipation of those pilgrims journeying to meet Him Who, they believe, will guide them along the way of salvation.
They then tell us of the need to be truly prepared for that final, solemn, meeting with the Lord coming to judge the nations and reward His faithful servants:
Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one will be left. Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know (when) the Lord will come.
Surely such a belief, such a hope, should stir up in us -- who today are still living in a war-torn and terror-stricken world -- a like determination and confidence as that which filled the breasts of those ancient pilgrims, who walked along, exhorting each other, as we have heard, with the words:
Come house of Jacob, (People of God), let us walk In the light of the LORD.
We are, as St. Peter said, a privileged People, for we have already, in a far truer sense than those pilgrims could ever have imagined, reached Jerusalem, the dwelling-place of the Most High, because we have the privilege of being children of Mother Church. For, in her, the letter to the Hebrews (12:22-24) tells us:
You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant.
Therefore, being so privileged, we should come -- each and every Sunday -- with even greater joy and expectation to the house of the Lord,
(Who) will teach us His ways, (that we may) walk in His paths.
The Jerusalem which Isaiah foresees is a figure of Mother Church since in her the faithful disciples of Jesus have already been given a share in heavenly life, and are being continually guided towards the fullness of Christian maturity. That will enable them attain to the heavenly Jerusalem and to join the general assembly of the blessed gathered there, the Church of the righteous made perfect, as fully living members of the Body of Christ -- sons in the Son -- able to be presented to, and stand in the presence of, the God and Father of us all.
Let us then pray that we may indeed learn the ways of the Lord and come to walk in His paths in accordance with the second theme of our readings today:
Stay awake! For you do not know on what day your Lord will come.
For, not only do we not know the day of the Lord’s coming, but we have even been warned, quite explicitly, that it will take place when we least expect it:
The Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
St. Paul, that most faithful apostle of the Lord Jesus, tells us what this means for us, and how we are to set about doing what Jesus requires of us in preparation for that meeting:
It is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfil its lusts.
We human beings are creatures of habit: we can do something one way, and then, by repetition, allow it to become first of all a tendency for us, and then finally develop into a firmly fixed habit that we do almost instinctively. Now, in God’s Providence, the liturgy of Mother Church each year invites, indeed, urges us, to observe Advent as preparation for the celebration of Christmas, the birth of Christ; just as she also gives us Lent to prepare for the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord. And she does this because, without repeated observance of such seasons of preparation, we might easily drift into a habit of unthinking observance of feasts of great moment for the Spirit at work in our lives, instead of establishing a truly Christian habit of preparation that will enable us to appreciate, celebrate, and profit from, the enduring goodness of the Lord.
Consequently, People of God, I urge you to use this Advent well: try to form a habit of welcoming the Lord into your life. We have a month in which to start a new habit, or in which to strengthen a habit we have already been trying to build up over several, perhaps many, years. The whole point is that if we do not have a habit of recognizing, welcoming, and gratefully responding to Jesus, a habit diligently practised and firmly established over years of observing the Advent preparation for Christmas, then when He comes, unexpectedly, at the end of our days, we might find ourselves unable to welcome Him. Be sure, People of God, one cannot live a forgetful life and then, when suddenly challenged, come out with the right response or show the right attitude. His coming at the end will be quite unexpected, there will be no time to collect our thoughts and weigh up what should be our attitude; we will find ourselves responding instinctively, at that unprepared moment, either in accordance with the character we have carefully built up by faithful devotion over the years, or with that thoughtlessly allowed to develop over years of selfish, careless, and faithless living. And that response will, for better or for worse, prove to be our final response and our last opportunity: a violent person, under pressure, will always react violently; a weak-willed person, under threat, will always be craven; a faithless disciple will always prove himself a hypocrite. No wonder Jesus said:
Blessed is that servant whom his master finds doing (right) when he comes.
Recognize yourselves, People of God: sudden trials, sudden and unexpected threats, leave us neither the time nor the ability to act in an unaccustomed manner: to be found doing the Master's will when He comes, we need to have seriously formed good habits and the right instinctive attitudes. Advent is an opportunity given us by Mother Church to try to establish the supremely good habit of recognizing and welcoming the Lord into our lives this Christmas. Therefore, the way we prepare during the course of this Advent could be the mirror image of our state of preparedness when He comes – suddenly -- to settle accounts with each of us personally at the end of our time of preparation and formation in Mother Church.
In Psalm 53 we read:
God looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek God.
And, according to the Psalmist, He found none:
Every one of them has turned aside; there is none who does good, no, not one. They do not call upon God.
That was the situation, even in Israel, before Jesus, Our Lord and Saviour, came to redeem us; and that is still the situation of many today who turn away from, reject, Jesus: they do not acknowledge God; they do not seek or call upon Him; they have not understood the probationary nature of their life experience on earth, where both the wonder of God’s creation – so beautiful with all its natural powers and sublime human potential -- and the depth of mankind’s needs seem to be so irreconcilable for them.
So, dear People of God, use Advent to prepare to welcome Jesus fittingly: try to recognize all those occasions, both great and small, clear and only glimpsed at, where truth and beauty, goodness and love, sympathy and help, power and fragility, fear and wonder, impinge on your consciousness and invite you to respond to God somehow present there, and may your Advent character of awareness, gratitude, trust, peace, and joy further Jesus’ Kingdom of faith, hope, and charity in your souls.