The First Sunday of Advent – 1 December 2019
Lectionary Readings: Isa. 2:1-5; Ps. 122,1-9; Rom. 13:11-14; Mt. 24:37-44
Theme: The Art of Waiting
The Advent season that begins the Church’s year calls us to slow down, even at a rather hectic time, but also to live in expectation of the various ‘arrivals’ of Christ: in the future, at the end of time, hinted at in today’s gospel; his coming as a human being like us in history which we will celebrate at Christmas; and his ongoing entry into our personal history, our very lives. In the coming weeks, as we experience this waiting liturgically, the Church sets before us three figures of expectation from whom we can learn the art of waiting: the prophet Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Mary.
All the Isaiah readings this Advent contain visions of hope, filled with the utter holiness of God. The first section of Isaiah [chapters 1-39], written at a time of great suffering when Jerusalem was under siege, calls in strong language for repentance. Chapter 1 is full of it: “Take your wrongdoing out of my sight,/Cease to do evil. Learn to do good, search for justice …” (vv. 16, 17). But today we read from chapter 2, which is the beginning of a series of promises for the end times, giving a message of justice and a time when violence will cease: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares/and their spears into pruning hooks”. Although it seems a sudden change from the harsh language of chapter 1, it is characteristic of Isaiah always to move towards hope. The nations will want to come to Jerusalem, he says, because there God is fully present as the source of all life for the world, for in Jerusalem is God’s Torah, God’s secret for peace, a sentiment echoed in Psalm 122: “For Israel’s law it is/there to praise the Lord’s name … For the peace of Jerusalem pray”.
Just as Isaiah speaks of Jerusalem being the place of God’s Torah par excellence, Paul in the verses immediately preceding the passage we read today from his Letter to the Christian community in Rome speaks of the essence of Torah. The gospels sum this up as love of God and love of neighbor; it is the latter that Paul stresses and this leads into his call to live according to such a law of love. He looks to the end times, but focuses on the present, which is ‘a time between the times’, using the metaphor of light turning to day: now is still a time of darkness, but the one who believes knows it to be the darkness preceding the dawn.
Our gospel reading from Matthew is also part of a chapter concerned with the end times and is preceded by a declaration of ignorance by Jesus: “… as for that day and hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, no one but the Father only.” (24:36) This grounds what follows: we must be prepared for what may come at any time. The focus is on living according to God’s Torah of love always. Images of day-to-day existence are used, which could be said to stand in stark contrast to the earlier images of wars, famines, earthquakes, the darkening of the sun, the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven. But the transition from the extraordinary to the ordinary serves to make us focus on the here and now, which indeed has its own problems and anxieties, pointing to the importance of living fully every single moment of our lives. It is the same call that we heard in Isaiah to learn from God’s ways, “so that we may walk in God’s paths” (Isa. 2:3). This is the call that we hear throughout all our readings today: “Let us walk in the light of the LORD.” (Isa. 2:5)
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