First Sunday of Advent
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
November 29, 2020
A New Beginning
As the year 2020 stumbles towards its final month, we find ourselves hoping for a new beginning. We are hoping that the pandemic, which has taken far too many lives, separated us from family and friends, and even curtailed our livelihoods – will soon come to an end. We are hoping for an end to the bitter divisions that exist in our society, and for renewed and peaceful efforts to achieve justice in our land. We are seeking a season of profound renewal in the life of the Church itself, our Church which has been beset by scandal and division. And in our heart of hearts, we may even hope for a profound personal renewal, a renewal and deepening of our relationship with Jesus Christ, an end to the vices that trouble us and a new birth of virtue, coupled with a newfound vigor in professing, living, and bearing witness to our faith.
Very often, people associate such hopes with the coming of the New Year. As the Christmas-cheer of December gives way to the gloom of January, people often make resolutions, those soon-forgotten promises we make to ourselves and to one another. On this, the First Sunday of Advent, however, the Church is telling us that the time for reform and renewal, is now. The time for increased urgency and vigilance in the practice of our faith, is now. For, as you know, Advent is the beginning of the Church’s liturgical year. Advent marks the beginning of the Church’s New Year of Grace. As such, it offers us a precious opportunity to turn the page in our personal lives, in our life together as Catholic Christians, and in the influence we are called to exert upon the world around us. The Scripture readings for this Sunday most assuredly pull in exactly that direction.
Isaiah 63: 16b-17, 19b; 64: 2-7
Take, for example, the prophetic word of Isaiah just proclaimed. Although those words were written long before the coming of Christ, they somehow manage to capture how we think and feel at this moment in history. Like the people of Isaiah’s day, we believe in the living and true God. Even more so, we believe that, in the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s Son continues to share the Father’s love for us. Yet, in spite of God’s many blessings and favors, we may sometimes feel as though our faith is slipping through our fingers, that our faith is fading away in our lives and in the lives of loved ones, and that we have become unmoored from the truth and love God has revealed to us.
This disconnection expresses itself in a culture that is angry and divided, in the rejection of moral norms that have hitherto guided us and our society, and in the all-too-evident need for a restoration of trust in the life of the Church. Thus, we feel keenly the lament of Isaiah when he says to God, “Behold, you are angry and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people… we are like withered leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind…” Truly, we can say that Isaiah speaks for us just as he spoke for the people of his day.
Mark 13: 33-37
If Isaiah sounds the clarion cry for repentance and renewal, Jesus tries to shake us out of our torpor by calling us to be watchful and alert. Jesus addresses this urgent call to us as individuals and to the whole Church when he speaks of “the hour” of his passion and death, as well as “the day”, the day when he will return in glory “to judge the living and dead”. While we know when it was, that Jesus suffered for our sins as our servant, we do not know when Jesus will return as our judge. In the meantime, whether it be a matter of days, or years, or aeons, Jesus advises us to be “on high alert”, in a state of constant readiness. At the same time, he warns us against complacency, presumption, and self-indulgence, and against the mistaken view that we can make things right with God on our own terms and in our own good time.
And, as I have said this warning is addressed to each of us individually, but also to the whole Church: to every parish and diocese, and to the Church Universal. This is the point of the parable about the man who went on a journey, leaving his servants in charge of his household, each with his own work. As he departed, he gave the gatekeeper special instructions to be on the watch. As you may have guessed, the household to which this parable refers is the Church. The gatekeeper represents those who exercise authority in the Church, and who will be held especially accountable for what they do or fail do. To be sure, this part of the parable makes me keenly aware that I am accountable to the Lord and to his people for the way I exercise my office. But let us also remember that the Lord gave each of us work to do in his Church. As St. John Henry Newman said, “God has created me do him some definite service which he has not committed to another . . . . ” Moreover, Jesus has not informed us exactly when we will have to give an accounting of our lives, nor has he told us exactly when the consummation of the world will take place. All he has told us is to be watchful and vigilant, and why? Because what he wants from us is not calculation but a vigilance of daily prayer and of Sunday Eucharist that prompts us to commit at all times the whole of our lives to him and to his love.
1 Corinthians 1: 3-9
So, with all of this in mind, let us ask how can we profitably enter into Advent, this season of hope and fresh beginnings? St. Paul answers that question in today’s reading from his 1st Letter to the Corinthians. Addressing the congregation at Corinth, a church that was often opinionated and unruly, Paul reminded them of how richly God had bestowed his grace upon them. God put in their hearts sentiments of praise, thanksgiving, and adoration. God put on their lips the ability to give testimony to their faith in Christ. Indeed, as Paul says, the Corinthians were not lacking in any spiritual gift. What’s more, Paul expressed confidence, that despite their present shortcomings, God would strengthen them, that the Risen Lord would progressively overcome their weakness by his strength, such that they would form a bond, a fellowship of faith, and be found “irreproachable” on the day of judgment.
Brothers and sisters, St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians must resonate in our hearts! God has blessed us with every imaginable spiritual gift, with the ready availability of his Word and his Sacraments, with women and men outstanding in holiness as his witnesses, and with spiritual gifts that the Holy Spirit freely distributes among us. Accordingly, God is calling us, even amid this pandemic, even amid all our troubles, to shake off our torpor, to open our eyes to the gifts he pours out upon us, and to be united in love with one another in the life of Church. This means leaving no neighbor behind, serving the needs of others ahead of our own, and striving by prayer and penitence to purify ourselves and our Church “as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ”. In this way, too, God is calling us to exercise a constructive influence on society itself, and to help create a world that respects human dignity and the common good.
If, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we enter into Advent in this way, then we will experience newfound joy in the celebration of Christmas, and we will look to the future, not with dread, but with authentic hope. May God grant us a holy Advent and a joyous Christmas, and, may God bless us and keep us always in his love!