Nov 29, 2020: 1st Sunday of Advent (B)

Surprise!

Introduction to Advent

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.

The General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar describes Advent in this way:

Advent has a twofold character: as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ’s first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation (No. 39).

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 of the season. 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.” Unlike Lent, however, the Alleluia is retained before the Gospel as a clear note of joyful expectation.

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

This Week

When placed side by side, this week’s readings interpret each other, presenting a clear Advent theme of expectation for the Lord’s coming:

Isaiah:  Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!
Paul:  We wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus:  Be watchful! You do not know when the time will come.

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.

The Old Testament readings during Advent are prophecies about the Messiah and the Messianic age. Isaiah’s prophecies in particular are emphasized.

Today’s first reading is a communal lament composed during a very difficult time, the period immediately following the Babylonian Exile (587-537 BC). When the Israelites returned from exile to resettle the holy land, their circumstances were extremely difficult. Jerusalem had been destroyed; the land had been ravaged. Rebuilding was arduous, and life was full of hardship.

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

The lament begins by recalling God’s previous blessings on Israel.

Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?

In addition to the difficult conditions surrounding them, the people were not living in fidelity to their covenant relationship with God. The prophet acutely feels God’s absence.

Consistent with the nature of the lament, the people complain to God for allowing them to stray from the path of righteousness. While this may look like the people are shirking responsibility for their own actions, it is also an acknowledgment of universal divine governance. This latter view acknowledges that whatever happens — whether good or evil — happens because God either wills it or allows it.

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. 

Having acknowledged their sins, the people beg the Lord to come once more to their aid. Just as their sinfulness was in some way in God’s hands, so now their redemption is dependent on God.

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.

The people admit they have been unfaithful; hence, they suffer. They describe in graphic metaphors the consequences of their evil. They 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.

The prophet uses an anthropomorphic image of God (describing God as though he were a human being) to describe God’s absence.

The people acknowledge that it’s only through the goodness of God that they can ever be righteous at all. Should God remove his favor and cease protecting them from their own wickedness, they 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.

The people call upon God as their father and creator in a desperate appeal to move him to action. If God would turn back to them, they would be able to turn back to God.

Being a lament, the passage 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.

For the first three weeks of Advent, the second readings help us interpret the mystery of Christ and provide guidelines for awaiting his second coming.

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”).

Combined in this way, 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. 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 have been granted to the Corinthians, reminding them that these came from God through Christ.

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

Paul 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: rhetorical eloquence and knowledge, worldly abilities that would be highly esteemed in Greek society.

Note that in their powerful gift of the presence of the Lord, the Corinthians are experiencing the very thing that Isaiah prayed for in our first reading.

as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you,

Paul’s mission was to testify to Christ. The forms of this testimony included his oral preaching and instruction, his letters, and the life he led as an apostle.

so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift

Paul refers to a 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.

This points to the fact that they (and we) have everything they need to succeed in their mission on earth.

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 while they wait.

“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 (415 AD), 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, especially as a 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 assures the Corinthians that the God who has blessed them so abundantly will provide them with what they will need to be found blameless when the Lord finally returns.

“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.

Having initially called them in Christ, God will continue to bless the Corinthians. Experiencing God’s power and presence, they are to be faithful as they wait.

So are we.

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.

Each year on the first Sunday of Advent, the gospel that the Church proclaims is not about Jesus’ coming as a babe in Bethlehem, but about Jesus’ coming as the Son of Man. We are being urged not to simply remember the birth of Jesus many years ago, but to prepare today for the coming of Jesus at the end of time.

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.

Kairos, the Greek word translated here as “time,” does not refer to mere chronological or sequential time (chronos), but to a decisive moment.

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. 400 AD), 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 employed 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 nighttime sleep, when enemies have the opportunity 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. 400 AD), Apostolic Constitutions, 7,2,31]

Despite the disconcerting description of the end of the world, the selection of this gospel reading for today is intended to reassure the faithful that God’s promised salvation will indeed come to pass. It is not a question of if, but merely when, the Son of Man will return in glory. With this assurance in mind, disciples are to remain alert and vigilant, calm and sober, giving in neither to despair nor to frenzied activism, keeping hope burning brightly through prayer and purposeful action.

Advent is not simply a season to remember one coming (the Incarnation) and hope for another (the Second Coming). Rather, we are to prepare for and celebrate a present coming: the coming of the Lord into our daily lives.

Connections and Themes

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.