This Sunday marks the beginning of the new Liturgical Year with the First Sunday of Advent. Advent is the season wherein we ask ourselves, “Are we ready for the coming of Christ?” While our secular culture is frantically running around making sure that everything is ready for Christmas (which they think is just one day), the Church is asking us to slow down, take a pause, and look into our own hearts to make sure that we are ready to meet the Lord when he comes again.
The Word for the 1st Sunday of Advent
Psalm 122:1-2, 3-4, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9
Our first reading comes from the second chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah. The book of Isaiah is one of the longest of all the prophets, and spans a period from before the Assyrian attack on the Northern Kingdom, all the way through (and long after his death) to the end of the Babylonian Exile. This Sunday’s reading opens with a vision of Zion… the ideal, Heavenly Jerusalem where God reigns and his people serve as an example to all nations. It’s place here a the beginning of Advent reminds us of both what is expected of us, and what we can look forward to. While this is indeed a glorious vision, Isaiah’s purpose in showing this is to remind the kingdoms of Israel and Judah of how far they have fallen from God’s graces. Without a change of heart, the promise of Zion could be lost.
In our second reading, the often poetic Paul doesn’t mince words in this excerpt from his letter to the Romans. He flat out warns them that the time of Jesus’ return is at hand, and that they need to behave accordingly. He specifically warns against “desires of the flesh.” and the sort of behaviors we often associate with the excesses of the Roman Empire. While it is unlikely that the behaviors Paul warns against were rampant, they were still prevalent (not surprising in a metropolis like Rome), giving Paul cause for concern, and wanting to reinforce for this young Christian community that a life following Jesus requires that one look outward to a life of service, not inward to a life of self-gratification.
This takes us to our Gospel. As we start the new Liturgical Year our Lectionary (the book of readings selected for all Masses for this year) goes back to Cycle A with the emphasis on the Gospel of Matthew. This week's reading gives us a very vivid image of (for lack of a better term) the Judgment Day. Matthew, who's audience was primarily Jewish, makes use of the stories and characters in the Hebrew scripture not only in to help draw a connection to Jesus with the stories and traditions that are part of their cultural identity, but to also show them that Jesus is indeed the messiah... the chosen one foretold by the prophets. In today's Gospel he draws on the memory of the story of Noah, asking them to remember what a terrible day it was when the flood came and why. Jesus uses this example to warn his disciples that such dark times could come again if for those who are not prepared for when he returns. Those who do not "stay awake" and live their lives for God are at risk of loosing their souls. It is a very challenging reading, particularly as we prepare for the Holiday season... but this is what Advent is all about... asking ourselves if we are ready for Jesus' next coming.
While readings like this are meant to "put the fear of God" in us, as Catholics, we also need to remind ourselves that we have nothing to fear if we are doing our best to live according to Jesus' teachings... which are quite simply, to love God and love our neighbors. Through Jesus' death and resurrection we are already reconciled to God... through our baptism we are already saved. Our job now is to stay on the side of light. If we slip, Jesus also reminds us that we can be forgiven. So while our readings this week are stark reminders of what happens to those who turn away from God, we also need to remember that God wants us to be saved, and we should take this season of Advent as an opportunity for some self-examination, and see how we can live better... for God, for ourselves, and for everyone else.
Thanksgiving: It’s What We Do All Year
The Liturgical Year: Simple Facts, Deep Truths
Advent Day by Day: Opening Doors to Joy