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 passage comes from the beginning of Isaiah, showing us 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. That promise of Zion is echoed in our Psalm when we sing, “Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.” If this Psalm sounds familiar, it should. We sang it last week for our celebration of Christ the King. Now it serves as a bridge between the old year and the new.
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 culture. While it is unlikely that the behaviors Paul warns against were rampant, they were still very prevalent in the metropolis that is Rome, giving Paul cause for concern. Thus he wants remind 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 Sunday Lectionary (the book of readings selected for all Masses) goes back to Cycle A with an emphasis on the Gospel of Matthew. This week's passage gives us a very vivid image of 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 them 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 is warning his disciples that such dark times could come again for those who are not prepared for his return. Those who do not "stay awake" and live their lives for God are at risk of losing 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.
For as much as our secular culture has embraced the idea of “Christmas,” the fact remains that they’ve gotten it all wrong. For our secular culture the “Christmas Season” begins the day after Thanksgiving with “Black Friday...” with everyone rushing around shopping and preparing for holiday gatherings. All too often all this creates feelings of stress and anxiety culminating with Christmas Day, after which they can relax and put everything away. Brothers and sisters, that’s not us.
This isn’t the “Christmas Season” for us. Right now, this is Advent. A time for prayerful reflection. A time to examine our souls and ask ourselves if we’re ready to meet the Lord when he comes again. A time for us to slow down and reflect. For us the Christmas season doesn’t start until December 25th, with a celebration of the commemoration of Jesus’ birth, and carries us through the New Year and all the way to Epiphany on January 8th… so don’t you dare start putting away those decorations on December 26th.
Christianity has always been counter-cultural. We walk to a different beat… the heart of the Lord. So why not try these ideas:
- Celebrate Thanksgiving in all its fullness. Thanksgiving, after all, is what lies at the heart of the Mass. Go to Thanksgiving Day Mass. Celebrate with family and friends. Eat well and offer thanks to God for his blessings on us. More and more this celebration gets marginalized, seen not so much as a chance to take time off with family, but marks the starting line of the shopping season. Instead, avoid the stores, and spend it with loved ones.
- Don’t rush into the Christmas decorating. There is no rule that says you need to turn your home into a winter wonderland overnight. Prior to World War II and Vatican II most Catholic families didn’t put up their Christmas trees until Christmas Eve… after the Advent wreath was put away. Advent is a time of preparation, so use the full 4 weeks of Advent to slowly bring your home into the Christmas season. For example, it’s my family’s tradition to wait until the 3rd Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday) to get our Christmas tree.
- Celebrate the Christmas Season to the fullest. Go to a Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve or at Midnight. Keep those decorations up all the way through Epiphany. Use the time off to visit with family and friends. Don’t think of Christmas as one day that needs to go off perfectly, but think of it as a series of gatherings, over a few weeks, allowing you to spend time with those you love.