Advent has come round once again and I 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 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.”
Why do we need to prepare ourselves this Advent for the coming of the Lord? After all, most people today, probably the great majority in our supposedly ‘sophisticated’ countries which control the world’s purse strings, think that there is no God worth bothering about: if He is there, it doesn’t really concern us because we are very busy and He is very good and kind, or so Church people say; They must say that, of course; they cannot proclaim an unpopular God; He has to be good, kind, and forgiving … otherwise we, and all the others like us, won’t be going to Church again!! So, what do we need to prepare for, and why do we need to prepare for it?
Dear Catholic and Christian people, let us first of all be very clear about one supremely important fact:
WE DO NOT KNOW WHO WILL BE CONDEMNED, BUT WE KNOW MOST SURELY WHAT WILL BE CONDEMNED:
orgies and drunkenness, promiscuity and lust, rivalry and jealousy as St. Paul told us, and that unpreparedness of which Jesus Himself spoke in today’s Gospel:
For as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In (those) days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and 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 on which day your Lord will come.
So many want to die without having to think about religious matters on earth or about their eternal future in the world to come: they want to be happy and carefree concerning such matters because they like to think that GOD IS TOO GOOD TO PUNISH ANYONE JUST FOR BEING CAREFREE AND IGNORANT OF HIM.
Today’s readings serve to protect us wonderfully well against such folly, against such EVIL, 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.
The first main theme of our readings is the joyful expectations of those pilgrims going up to the Temple in Jerusalem:
Come, let us climb the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may instruct us in His ways, and we may walk in His paths.
We can almost feel the excitement and anticipation of those pilgrims journeying to meet Him Who, they most firmly believe, will guide them along the way of salvation. And surely, our sharing in such a God-given belief, such a hope and longing, stirs up in us a like determination and confidence as that which filled the breasts of those ancient pilgrims, who walked along, exhorting each other with the words:
Oh, House of Jacob come, let us walk In the light of the LORD.
Compared with them, we are -- as St. Peter said -- a privileged People, for we have already, and 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,
that He may instruct us in His ways, and we may walk in His paths.
Let us therefore pray now, gathered before the Lord, that we may indeed grow in understanding of His ways and learn to walk more steadfastly along 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 by Our Lord Himself -- that it will take place when we least expect it:
For, at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.
St. Paul, that most faithful apostle of the Lord Jesus, told us what this means for us, and how we might set about doing what Jesus requires of us in preparation for that meeting:
It is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.
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 our celebration of Christmas not merely with deep gratitude for the birth of the Messiah as the Infant of Promise but also with firm hope and joyful preparation for His Second Coming as the Lord of Fulfilment. She does this because, without repeated observance of such seasons of preparation, we might easily, indeed almost inevitably, drift into a habit of unthinking and – at the best -- merely material 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 ever more and more, from the ever enduring and constantly recurring 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, then when He comes, unexpectedly, at the end of our days, we will find ourselves unable to welcome Him. For, be sure, People of God, one cannot live a forgetful life and then, when suddenly challenged, come out with the right response of appreciation and love.
This is of great importance not only for us but with the Lord Himself, for He has quite deliberately and explicitly told us that His coming at the end will be unexpected, and so 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 thoughtlessness and insouciance 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 react violently; a weak-willed person, under threat, will be craven; a faithless disciple will always prove himself a hypocrite. No wonder Jesus said (v. 46):
Blessed is that servant whom his master on his arrival finds doing (his duty) when He comes.
Recognize yourselves, People of God: sudden trials, sudden and unexpected threats, leave neither the time nor the ability to act in an unaccustomed manner; in order to be found doing the Master's will when He comes we need to have seriously formed good habits and 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 impenetrable and irreconcilable for them.
So, dear People of God, use Advent to prepare yourself to welcome Jesus not only this coming Christmas but whenever He might choose to stand at the door of your soul and knock. 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 sensed, somehow, to be present there; and may your Advent character of awareness and appreciation, gratitude and trust, peace and joy help the Spirit further Jesus’ Kingdom of faith, hope, and charity in your souls.