Nov 27, 2016: 1st Sunday of Advent (A)

they-shall-beat-their-swords-into

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 (Easter).

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.  Thus, Advent is 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 2:1-5

This is what Isaiah, son of Amoz,
saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come,
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest mountain
and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it;
many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may instruct us in his ways,
and we may walk in his paths.”
For from Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and impose terms on many peoples.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
one nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again.
O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Isaiah, the most prolific writer of all the prophets, lived in Jerusalem and prophesied
from 742 to 701 BC. The name Isaiah means “Yahweh is salvation.”

Our reading for today contains a vision of universal peace and an invitation to participate in that peace by fidelity to the word of God.

This is what Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

The prophetic oracle opens with a standard superscription that identifies both the prophet and the subject of his pronouncement.  Although Isaiah mentions Judah (the southern region of Israel), we will see that the focus of his words is on the city of Jerusalem.

In days to come,

Not pointing to a particular event, it simply means “in the future.”

The mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills.

Like most major cities of the land, Jerusalem was built on a mountain for reasons of protection.  In the ancient world, mountains were also believed to be the homes of the gods.  The higher the mountain, the more important the god, and the very highest mountain was considered the axis mundi, the center of the universe from which all blessings flow.

Here, Isaiah claims that Mount Zion, a mount that is actually of medium height, will be established as the highest mountain.  This isn’t because of political prominence or military might; rather, Jerusalem will be revered because it is the dwelling place of God.

All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us climb the LORD’S mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob,

People will be drawn to the mountain in great numbers, as if in religious pilgrimage or procession.  They come willingly, not by force or decree.

Recall that Jacob’s name was changed by God to “Israel” in Genesis 32:28.

That he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.”

This invitation contains expressions associated with the Wisdom tradition of Israel: that he may instruct us in his ways (derek), and that we may walk in his paths (‘ōrah).

For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

Additional emphasis from the Wisdom tradition: from Zion, instruction (tôrâ) and from Jerusalem, word (dābār).

Note that Zion and Jerusalem are two ways of referring to the same place, Zion being the hill upon which the city of Jerusalem was built.

He shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.

Obedient to God’s word, a beautiful image is given of the nations converting their weapons of war and death into implements of peace and life.  The earth will no longer be a battlefield, but a place that brings forth the fruits of life.

This image is also found, with few changes, in Micah 4:1-3. It is impossible to say with certainty which of the two books is the original, or whether both authors borrowed from a common source.

Because of this future promise of peace, we can presume that the people to whom it was first spoken were not then enjoying peace.  Although the deep and abiding peace depicted can only come from God, note the important role the people play in its advent: they are invited to approach God and conform their lives, but ultimately it is their decision to actually carry out and complete this action.

O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

The final exhortation is given to all: let us walk in the light of the Lord!

2nd Reading – Romans 13:11-14

Brothers and sisters:
You know the time;
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 armor 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.

Today’s second reading today is an exhortation to the Christians in Rome that they are already living in the end times, and the time for action is now.

Brothers and sisters: You know the time; it is the hour now 

The Greek word Paul uses for “time” is kairós, not a reference to chronological or sequential time, but the supreme moment of decision and action, an indeterminate time in which an event of significance happens.  In Christian writing, kairós refers the period of transition from the present age of sin to the long awaited age of fulfillment.

In Jewish eschatological thinking, humans were powerless to bring about the fulfillment of the promises God had made through the generations.  It would be necessary for God himself to intervene in history and provide avenues for the accomplishment of his divine plan.  This intervention, in whatever form it took, would be the event that separated “this age” from “the age to come.”  The fundamental Christian claim — called out here by Paul — is that the anticipated intervention by God was the coming of Jesus, and “the age to come” has therefore arrived.

for you to awake from sleep.

“This age” is often characterized by sleep, or night, or darkness.

Paul doesn’t seem to be suggesting any wrongdoing or negligence on the part of the Christians in Rome, but that they have simply been living in the old age.

For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed;

This phrasing suggests that there has been an interval of time between the time of their first believing and the time of this exhortation.

the night is advanced, the day is at hand.

Paul seems to believe that Christ’s second coming was imminent, and that it was imperative that Christians take resolute steps to reform their lives.

“The time is short. … The day of resurrection and of the terrible judgment is fast approaching … If you have done everything that was asked of you and are prepared for it, then you have nothing to fear, but if you have not, then look out! Paul is not trying to frighten his hearers but to encourage them, so as to detach them from their love of the things of this world. It was not unlikely that at the beginning of their endeavors they would be more dedicated and slacken off as time went on. But Paul wants them to do the opposite – not to slacken as time goes on but to become even more dedicated. For the nearer the King is, the more they ought to be ready to receive Him.” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 391), Homilies on the Epistle to the Romans 23]

Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day,

Note the continued employment of the dark/light imagery.  Paul is urging them to leave their former lifestyles behind.  Christians cannot afford to remain in the unprotected condition of being dressed in bedclothes at a time when the situation calls for armor.  The military imagery of armor suggests spiritual warfare, indicating that there are hardships that Christians must be prepared to face.

The “armor of light” is described in 1 Thessalonians 5:8 and Ephesians 6:13 as faith, hope, charity, fidelity, uprightness, etc. (i.e., the virtues).

not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy.

Paul catalogs the vices that comprise the “works of darkness.”

“Paul does not forbid alcohol; he is opposed only to its excessive use. Nor does he prohibit sexual intercourse; rather he is against fornication. What he wants to do is to get rid of the deadly passions of lust and anger. Therefore he does not merely attack them but goes to their source as well. For nothing kindles lust or wrath so much as excessive drinking.” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 391), Homilies on the Epistle to the Romans 24]

But put on the Lord Jesus Christ,

Let Christ be our armor.  To “put on” Christ is to become identified with him, to live his life in one’s own flesh.  To live in this way is to live fully in the new age.

and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.

When Paul speaks of the desires of the flesh (sárx), he is referring to all human frailty, not just physical weakness.

It is essential to note that living the way that Paul describes does not bring forth our salvation; rather, the salvation that comes from God determines the Christian manner of living.  Everything is a gift from God.

Gospel – Matthew 24:37-44

Jesus said to his disciples:
“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.
Be sure of this: if the master of the house
had known the hour of night when the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and not let his house be broken into.
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

Our gospel reading today is a lesson from Jesus on the end times. He is in Jerusalem for his passion and is preparing the disciples for what is about to occur and what will happen afterward.

Jesus said to his disciples: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 

This is not a public discourse, but a private instruction given by Jesus to his disciples.  It is a lesson on eschatology, on the character of the paraousía, or the future coming of the Son of Man.  The literal meaning of the Greed word paraousía is simply “coming” or “presence,” but early on it gained eschatological significance in Christian theology.

The ancient Israelites believed that God would send someone to inaugurate the end of time, when the designs of God would ultimately be fulfilled.  This sermon speaks to the suddenness of this imminent time of fulfillment and of the need to be ready at all times for its dawning.

In his teaching, Jesus first draws an analogy with one of the stories of ancient Jewish tradition, the story of Noah.

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.

The people at the time of Noah were oblivious of the danger that faced them, and so they did not ready themselves.

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. 

Like the people in the time of Noah, the men and women were preoccupied with daily life.  We don’t know if the workers in the field or the mill were prepared, but the message is clear that they should have been.

Note the gender balance: the responsibility of preparedness is all-inclusive.

There is some ambiguity in the verb used here for those that are taken.  Elsewhere the verb paralambánetai is translated “take you to myself” (John 14:3); because of this, some scholars maintain that is the meaning intended here.  This has given rise to the notion of what some evangelical Christians refer to as “the rapture,” God’s scooping the faithful up and taking them into heaven.  However, since the consequence of the approaching day is negative in both the story of Noah and the experience of the householder that follows next, the verb should probably be understood in a negative way here as well.

In other places in Scripture, the coming of the Son of Man might be seen as a time of salvation; here, it is portrayed as a time of calamity.

Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. 

The first of two strong exhortations in this reading: stay awake!

Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into.

Unlike the workers in the field and at the mill, we know the householder was not prepared because the thief was successful at breaking into the house.

So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.

The second strong exhortation: be prepared!  Each depiction in its own way tell us to be ready, for we never know when the time will come.

Connections and Themes

  • The readings on the 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.
  • We often think of Advent as the time when we prepare for the coming of God, but the readings today also call attention to our own journey to God.  We are a pilgrim people.
    • First Reading: Isaiah tells us that there is a universal invitation to approach the mountain of the Lord, the place where God dwells in the midst of the people.
    • Second Reading: Paul outlines how we should live during our pilgrimage here on earth; namely, that we should put away our deeds of darkness and self-indulgence and clothe ourselves instead in the deeds of Jesus Christ.
    • Gospel: Jesus points out the need for us as pilgrims to be alert, attentive, and open to a change of heart. If we accomplish this, we will discover God in our own lives.
  • The pilgrims.  Expanding on the theme of pilgrimage, the first reading underscores the universality of the call to God.  All nations, many peoples, stream to the mountain as one community of believers.  There is no discrimination; no restriction on gender, race, culture, or age. The only qualifications for participation are found in the manner of life required while on the pilgrimage itself.
  • The destination.  Isaiah’s references to the mountain and the city of Jerusalem have a broader significance: the represent the presence of God in our midst.  This presence is our destination, the goal we are striving toward on our pilgrimage.  It is not some distant place, but in our everyday lives; we will find God in our midst, in the new world of justice and peace that we fashion with one another.
  • Life on the pilgrimage.  All three readings give clear direction on how we are to live while on this pilgrimage to God.  In Isaiah, we see that we must not only put away our instruments of violence and hatred, but also permanently fashion them into life-producing implements.  Paul exhorts us to put away our sinful lifestyle of the past and instead walk in the light of Christ.  Jesus instructs in the gospel to stay awake, prepared, and vigilant.  This life we are instructed to lead must be lived in the actual world in which we find ourselves.  We are called to journey deeper inside ours lives, not outside of them.  That is where God is present, and where we are striving to go this Advent season.

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