This week we jump from the end of Mark’s gospel to the beginning. The idea of “waiting” is still present, but we are introduced to John the Baptist. His message is to repent and prepare. He baptises as a sign of forgiveness. In doing so, he adds a new word to our Advent as we repent and prepare. That word is change. It is a word that most don’t like to hear or do. Mostly, we are all set in our ways and pretty much satisfied with whom we are. In the comfort we feel, sometimes we forget that we can hurt others by what we do or say. It is easy to say repent and get ready for Christ’s coming, but do we really step back and take a close honest look at who we are. Jesus came at a time there was turmoil and disillusionment in the Jewish community. Many had wandered off from the teaching of the prophets, the priest, the temple and yearned for communing with God. John was an intriguing figure and they accepted him as a prophet or even maybe the promised Messiah. He was the attraction of his time drawing people from everywhere. His message was clear, repent, change, and wait for the one to come. I have always wondered why we use John in the desert preparing the people for Jesus’ ministry in preparing for Christmas. Yet, the liturgical year uses his message of repent and change at the beginning every year to prepare ourselves by calling on us in our season of wait to repent and change. Christ is certainly coming, first symbolically at Christmas, but also most assuredly to each of us in the future either near or far.
1st Sunday Advent, year B 12-3-17
It’s easy to come to church in the summer and fall, and listen to one of the old, familiar parables of Jesus each week. In November, we had those 3 weeks of parables about “end times”, which we’ve heard before, but they’re a little different. It’s harder to make sense of them and the idea of “end times” is not so familiar to us. And then we go to the grocery store, and the pumpkin coffee and donuts have all been replaced with peppermint tea and candy canes, and the Salvation Army guy is ringing his bell. Our email is flooded with Black Friday bargains and the mailman brings stacks of ads. We come to church, and find the Advent Wreath out and the Christmas tree up. But in the Gospel, Jesus is still telling us to watch and be alert just like the last 3 weeks. It’s confusing!
Adding to the confusion is that the Church calendar is NOT the same as the School calendar, the governmental fiscal calendar or the yearly calendar we use. The church calendar serves to remind us that if school, finances or schedules are the sole focus of our lives, we took a wrong turn somewhere; we have lost sight of the larger realm of eternity.
A second issue is that few of us can participate in the weekday Masses and Marian Feasts, such as the Immaculate Conception or Assumption or Annunciation, which help us “connect the dots” and fill out the story of the Incarnation of Jesus. Also, our readings through the year do not run chronologically. We follow the church seasons instead of the time line of Jesus’ life on earth. So the church year starts with Advent, moves to Christmas – ok so far, but then jumps to Jesus’ life, and quickly moves on to Lent and Easter, reading about Jesus’ death and resurrection, then reverts to Jesus’ teachings in Ordinary time, and finishes with anticipating the 2nd coming. Add a few Feasts in, like Christ the King, and the order of events becomes blurred.
The other thing that is happening is that the church has drawn a parallel between the birth of Jesus (Historical event) and the 2nd coming of Jesus (future expectation). But we get a little help with this one! The liturgy gives us an overlap this first Sunday of Advent to make the transfer back from end times/ second coming to the birth of Jesus.
Notice in Isaiah we read, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down (that is both the 2nd coming and birth, yet it also reminds us of the sky opening at Christ’s baptism), with the mountains quaking before you (a scene from the crucifixion), while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old (miracles of the historical Jesus, the resurrection, and expectations of the new heaven and new earth).” So all the images of past and future mingle together. Then we read the last sentence of that reading, which says, “Yet, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.” It is a prayer to our creator to keep us soft, moldable, open to the nuances of the scriptures, to be able to see God in new ways and new events, always ready to learn new lessons and truths about God how God acts in our lives and in our world.
Just as we go to the closet under the stairs and bring out the lights and tinsel and ornaments that transform that old artificial tree into a Christmas tree that brings us joy and comfort, so our Psalm proverbially goes to the closet and brings out the memories that bring us into a new season. The Psalmist says, Remember that God is the shepherd that searches after the one lost sheep. Remember that God is light, who shines into the darkness, who dispels fears and uncertainty. Remember we believe that God came to save us; that God sees us and is aware of us. God is the gardener who protects the fragile young plants, who protects and makes us strong enough to face the storms of life. Finally, we recall the understanding that living with love, and staying close to God is the way to life at its fullest and best, despite what is happening around us.
St Paul echoes the Psalm, as he so often does, writing, “In Christ Jesus…you were enriched in every way…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation if our Lord Jesus Christ.” In that I hear shades of the Birth of Christ, 2nd coming, before, in between, and after.
One thing I always wonder is this: if I had met the historical Jesus on the road, would I have known him to be the Son of God, the Messiah? Would I have been open to his divinity, willing to look past his humanity and see more? Our Gospel asks this question: “Are we ready to see the Christ child as more than just another infant? How will we learn to discern, and recognize him if he is “not what we expect”? Or will we be asleep in the to-do list for the day, the complications of life, difficulties with relationships, concerns about health or finances? Will we somehow delude ourselves into thinking that Jesus would never return without at least texting us first? How will we live so that the greatest joy possible in life, being at the gate to welcome Jesus with open arms when he returns, becomes a reality? How can we be fully watchful and alert to Jesus, regardless of our surroundings, our mood, and our presumptions?
These are questions that draw us into the time of Advent, make us sit down and re-consider how available we are to God. They make us more aware that we are in the midst of God’s actions; that we make this journey through life together with each other and everyone past and future. It nudges us to sense the greater goals and purposes of life. Welcome to Advent.
Today we start the new Liturgical Year, but we start it by going to the end part of Mark’s gospel to the prophecies of persecution and the times of tribulation and the destruction of the Temple. One thing standing out is the word in our liturgy today is the word and idea of “waiting.” Waiting for the Master who has gone away and will return at any time in the near or far future. Waiting for him to come at any time, any hour and to be prepared to open and let him in.
The first reading from Isaiah is from a time Israel had returned home to devastation and the ruins of their Temple. Very definitely there were gaps in their trust and faithfulness to God , gaps that they had to fill in to once again become his faithful people. The situation and state of the world seemed so hopeless for them, that giving trust and hope was difficult. God, however, responded to them giving them a “YET” in the promise of a coming of a savior. The when and where was unknown, but the “YET” was his only son Jesus who came to the world and to the Jewish people during a later time of occupation and subservience to Rome. The gospel today is from Jesus’ last days and after his account of the coming persecution and destruction of Jerusalem. It follows that as he tells them of the Master leaving and returning at an undetermined time. Ironically or unfortunately, almost every century has experienced the signs persecution and disorder and being cut off from God. Christianity has never been perfect, as mankind has never managed to fully and completely to be faithful. Our saving grace is that same “YET” we are reminded will come again to all who await God’s call. His call to wait, to be awake, to weather the times and persecutions to greet him when he comes, is still there. The season of Advent is here to remind us to watch and wait as we celebrate once again Christ’s coming as an infant in Bethlehem.
This week’s readings again speak of waiting and accountability and the end or return of Jesus. The parable of the talents comes at the end of Matthew and is part of Jesus final days and preparation of his apostles. Three servants are entrusted with either 5, 2 and 1 talents. A talent was a very large sum, an amount far surpassing a lifetime of wages for a typical Jew. The most interesting and at the same time, puzzling thing, was the reaction of the Master to the servant who had 1 talent and was afraid to act and use it for fear of his Master. The first two acted correctly and made a nice return on what was given them. Now this parable was meant for the apostles and the early church which was waiting for Christ’s imminent return. So we might ask, what is it Christ could have given to the early church that they could fail him in an accounting on his return. In fact, what today also? That one thing has to be love and sharing the faith, the foundation of church and community. All his followers are called to love and spread and teach the faith and spread Christ’s love to the world. So what our parable tells us, is that if we in some way bury or stifle our love we are not using our talent. Love is a thing that must be worked at to grow and spread. Growth and change are important parts of loving, as people in a loving relationship will tell you. When stagnation sets in, growth can stop and in Christ’s church the result can be harmful to it mission. The Holy Spirit is alive in the church to keep it active in its growth to bring all into a loving community. The church is a people, a community, not an institution or buildings. Change has always been in the church, yet never without many different voices challenging one another that lead to the many splits in the body of Christ through the centuries.
As individuals, we have been given our faith and are called to love as best we can. Surely the questions of the larger community is beyond us in a sense, but nothing prevents us from loving and sharing person to person on a daily basis as we go about our daily business. Nothing prevents us from be that loving person we are all called to be.