Nov 30, 2014: 1st Sunday of Advent (B)

Introduction

The first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of the Church’s liturgical year.  Through the yearly cycle of readings, we celebrate the whole mystery of Christ, beginning with his incarnation and ending with Pentecost and the expectation of his second coming.

During Advent, we prepare to celebrate the historical birth of Jesus of Nazareth at Christmas, which is second only in sacredness to our celebration of the paschal mystery.

At the time of Christ’s birth, the people were longing for the arrival of the Messiah who would restore Israel to her former power.  We identify with that longing as we also await Christ’s arrival in his second coming at the end of time.  Advent is thus a period for devout preparation and joyful expectation.

During Advent, both the content of the readings and the violet vestments worn by the clergy (with rose as an option on the 3rd Sunday) speak to the penitential aspect which invites the people to reform. The Gloria is omitted, as during Lent, but for a somewhat different reason, as the official commentary on the revised Calendar notes: “so that on Christmas night the song of the angels may ring out anew in all its freshness.” Simultaneously, a clear note of joyful expectation is retained, as the Alleluia is retained before the Gospel.

Advent begins on the Sunday falling on or closest to November 30th and ends at Christmas, encompassing four Sundays.

1st Reading – Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7

You, LORD, are our father,
our redeemer you are named forever.
Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways,
and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?
Return for the sake of your servants,
the tribes of your heritage.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
with the mountains quaking before you,
while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for,
such as they had not heard of from of old.
No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you
doing such deeds for those who wait for him.
Would that you might meet us doing right,
that we were mindful of you in our ways!
Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful;
all of us have become like unclean people,
all our good deeds are like polluted rags;
we have all withered like leaves,
and our guilt carries us away like the wind.
There is none who calls upon your name,
who rouses himself to cling to you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have delivered us up to our guilt.
Yet, O LORD, you are our father;
we are the clay and you the potter:
we are all the work of your hands.

Today’s first reading is a communal lament.  It is a prayer probably composed toward the end of the Babylonian exile, in which the prophet, after recalling God’s blessings on Israel in its past, begs the Lord to come once more to the aid of his people, who now humbly confess their sins.

You, LORD, are our father, our redeemer you are named forever.

Because of the mythological implications of physical descent from the gods, the God of Israel is seldom referred to as “father.”  Here, “father” is linked with “redeemer,” indicating that it should be understood in the sense of kinship protector, a financial resource in a patriarchal society.

Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage.

Consistent with the nature of the lament, the people bring a charge against God, actually blaming him for allowing them to stray from the path of righteousness.  While this may appear to be a shirking of the people’s responsibility for their own actions, it is also an acknowledgment of universal divine governance.  This latter view insists that whatever happens — whether good or evil — happens because God either wills it or allows it.

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old. 

The people maintain that just as their sinfulness was in some way in God’s hands, so now their redemption is dependent on God’s good pleasure.

No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him. Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways!

The attention shifts from the distress of the people to the mighty works of God, professing that the goodness of God is shown to those who are faithful.

Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean men, all our good deeds are like polluted rags; We have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.

They admit they have been unfaithful; hence, they suffer.  They describe in graphic metaphors the consequences of their evil.  The people have lost control of their lives and are buffeted by their own wickedness.  They are lost without God.

There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; For you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt.

They insist that they have sinned because God hid from them.  Such insistence seems out of place after the recitation of God’s goodness.  However, it may be less of an accusation against God than an acknowledgment that it is only through the goodness of God that they can be righteous in the first place.  Should God remove this favor and cease protecting them from their own wickedness, they people cannot help but sin.

Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.

A desperate appeal.  If only God would turn back to them, they would be able to turn back to God.

The reading itself does not contain an explicit message of hope.  However, the people have admitted their own culpability and have praised God’s past favors.  They now stand confident, waiting for a new manifestation of divine power.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Brothers and sisters:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always on your account
for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus,
that in him you were enriched in every way,
with all discourse and all knowledge,
as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you,
so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift
as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
He will keep you firm to the end,
irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God is faithful,
and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord.

This short passage forms the opening salutation from Saint Paul to the church in Corinth.  It follows the conventional form for the opening of a Hellenistic letter, but Paul expands the opening with details carefully chosen to remind the readers of their situation and to foreshadow some of the issues the letter will discuss.

Brothers and sisters: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul begins with customary greetings from both Greek society (“grace to you”) and Hebrew tradition (“peace”).  In combination they are more than a simple greeting; they reflect Paul’s own faith.

Grace suggests unmerited blessing from God, and peace is the fundamental reward of fidelity to the covenant.  For Paul, all of this comes from God, but through Jesus Christ.

Therefore, as Paul greets his companions in faith, he is also expressing a prayer for their spiritual benefit.

I give thanks to my God always on your account for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus,

The salutation continues with a brief prayer of thanksgiving.  Paul expresses gratitude for blessings that were granted in the past to the Corinthians, stating again that these came from God through Christ.

that in him you were enriched in every way, with all discourse and all knowledge, 

Paul, without envy, rejoices in the gifts that the Corinthians have received from God.  Although it is not clear what specific gifts he has in mind, he refers to two different kinds: first, rhetorical eloquence and knowledge, “worldly” abilities that would be held in high esteem by Greek society.

He reminds them that these proficiencies come from God and not merely from human enterprise.  This may be an indication that the Corinthians had developed a certain smugness about their abilities.

as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you,

This defines the purpose of Paul’s mission.  The forms of his testimony include oral preaching and instruction, his letters, and the life he leads as an apostle.

so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift

Paul refers to the second kind of gifts the Corinthians have received, but in a general way: as spiritual in nature. Without enumerating them, he claims that this community has been richly endowed with every spiritual gift.

as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul’s greeting and thanksgiving give way to the theological point of the passage: the community’s waiting for the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Corinthian Christians are living in the “time between.” Christ has been born, has died, and has risen from the dead, but they believe the day of his final revelation is yet to come.  In the meantime, they live in anticipation of his return.

At issue is the manner of their lifestyle and the character of their commitment during this “time between.”

“Although we lack no gift, nevertheless we await the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will then keep us secure in all things and present us unimpeachable when the day of our Lord Jesus Christ comes. The end of the world shall arrive, when no flesh may glory in His sight.” [Saint Jerome (A.D. 415), Dialogue Against the Pelagians 2,8]

He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable

The spiritual and worldly gifts they have received from God are meant to aid them in living faithfully until the Lord’s coming.  They are not meant to build up personal self-esteem or as means of competition within the community.

on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The “day of the Lord” has a long theological history in Jewish tradition.  It referred to a time in the future when the reign of God would be definitively established on the earth.  This would include reward for the faithful but also judgment for the unrighteous.

“Paul is confident that the Corinthians will persevere in righteousness during the day of judgment. People who could not be shaken in spite of so many turmoils and disagreements proved that they would remain faithful to the end. In praising them, Paul is also challenging those who had been corrupted by the errors of the false apostles, for in proclaiming the faith of the former, he is calling the latter to repentance.” [The Ambrosiaster (ca. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles, 1 Corinthians 1,4]

God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Paul has the judgment on the day of the Lord in mind when he assures the Corinthians that the God who has blessed them so abundantly will provided them with what they will need in order to be found blameless when the Lord finally returns.  Having initially called them in Christ, God will continue to bless them.

Gospel – Mark 13:33-37

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.
It is like a man traveling abroad.
He leaves home and places his servants in charge,
each with his own work,
and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.
Watch, therefore;
you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming,
whether in the evening, or at midnight,
or at cockcrow, or in the morning.
May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.
What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”

The start of a new liturgical year also marks the transition from one lectionary cycle (A, B, or C) to the next. Today we begin Cycle B, during which the Gospel of Mark is featured prominently.

Saint Mark’s gospel is the most compact of all the gospels, concentrating not on Jesus’ teaching but on the mystery of his person. The paradox is that Jesus is acknowledged as Son of God by the Father and by evil spirits, and yet he is rejected by the leaders of the Jews and is even misunderstood by his own disciples.

In today’s gospel reading, a thrice-repeated command, “Watch!” surrounds a parable that emphasizes the need to be ready at all times.

Jesus said to his disciples: Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.

The Greek word that is translated “time” (kairos) refers to propitious time, a special time above all other times, rather than mere chronological time or sequential time (chronos).

Kairos is uncommon time, and uncommon events occur within it.  Because it does not follow chronological patterns, those to whom Jesus’ is speaking had no way of knowing when it would break in upon them, and so they were admonished to stay alert.

“A person does not go wrong when he knows that he does not know something, but only when he thinks he knows something which he does not know.” [Saint Augustine of Hippo (ca. A.D. 400), Letter to Hesychius 52]

It is like a man traveling abroad.

Jesus uses a parable to illustrate his point.

He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.

Life “between the times” is like servants who remain behind when the owner of the house travels abroad.  Each servant is given a certain authority within the household.  They are not to wait idly for the owner’s return, but are to fulfill their responsibilities conscientiously until that special time arrives.

One servant, the gatekeeper, is singled out and told to be on the watch.

Watch, therefore; you do not know when the lord of the house is coming, 

Beginning with this verse, the verbs used switch to second person plural form, indicating that the injunction to watch is directed toward all those hearing the parable.

whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. 

The four periods of time that are listed are the four night watches of the Roman military.  Like soldiers standing guard, Christians are exhorted to stand watch and not be caught asleep.

Special care should be paid to those times of greatest vulnerability, the hours of darkness.  Nighttime sleep provides an opportunity for one’s enemies to accomplish their villainous purposes.   Diligent watchfulness, however, serves to protect one’s property and interests.

What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”

Although life between the times will go on as usual, it must still be lived with the realization that this is a time of vigilance.

“Watch therefore, and pray, that you do not sleep unto death (see Luke 21:36). For your former good deeds will not profit you if in the end of your life you go astray from the true faith.” [(ca. A.D.400), Apostolic Constitutions, 7,2,31]

Connections and Themes

The readings on this first Sunday of Advent set the tone for our reflections throughout the season.  It is a time of great anticipation, when we reflect on the wondrous fact that through Christ, God has entered world history and became part of our existence.

The placement of this set of readings at the beginning of Advent shapes the context for understanding the entire season.  The first Sunday of Advent fixes its gaze on the world of human pain and then moves beyond it to the hope of a brighter future.  Lamentation and expectation find fulfillment in the Day of the Lord.

Lamentation in the midst of suffering. Lamentation is a prayer of faithful people in the midst of suffering.  Although we seldom incorporate such a formal complaint in our public prayer, ancient Israel did.  And why not?  To whom else, if not God, can we turn when we are oppressed, overburdened, hopeless?  Religious souls lament the absence of God.  Tender hearts lament the fate of those who have been marginalized.  Broken spirits lament the suffering that touches every life.  Through the ages, believers have cried out: “Where is God?” or “How long, O Lord?”

Waiting.  Waiting is the prominent theme for this Sunday.  Some people wait to be released from suffering, others await the second coming of Christ, still others, the return of the householder.  Waiting saps our energies and stifles our enthusiasm.  Yet wait we must, and as we wait we wonder: “What should I be doing?”

The readings suggest that we should wait with patient expectation for the day of reconciliation and peace; we should wait in joyful hope that what is to come will come soon.  While we wait, we should faithfully fulfill our responsibilities.  We believe that we have a future worth waiting for, that there are promises that God will keep.  And so we look expectantly to the Day of the Lord, that future day of ultimate fulfillment.

The coming of the Day of the Lord.  Hopeful believers do not wait idly.  In the gospel story, the servants are responsible for the work of the household.  Paul reminds the Christian community that they have all the gifts and talents they need to live faithfully in this world, awaiting the coming of the Day of the Lord.  We too, pregnant with expectation, do everything in preparation for the day of release, the day of return, the day of fulfillment.  We must wait for that day in partnership with others who wait.  We must be vigilant for justice, faithful to the promises, and compassionate to those who lament.  As trustees of the one who is coming, we live in the “in between” time of ambiguity and hope.

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