The 1st Sunday of Advent

The First Sunday of Advent [A]
Isaiah 2:1-5  +  Romans 13:11-14  +  Matthew 24:37-44
November 27, 2016

“For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.”

But you do know, of course, when the celebration of Christmas will take place:  December 25th.  That never changes.  We can count on that just like we can count on the sun rising in the east every morning.  So much of our preparation for December 25th is customary, and customs are like well-worn slippers:  comfortable and without surprises.

But surprise leaps off every page of the Gospel accounts of the nine months leading up to the birth of Jesus.  Surprise also surrounds His birth at Bethlehem, and surprise follows His birth as others try to get a good look at the new-born king.

Of course, we might be tempted to think that all those surprises are just part of history.  Sure, Mary and Joseph and the parents of John the Baptist—Elizabeth and Zechariah—were surprised.  The innkeepers were surprised, as were the shepherds, the wise men, and King Herod.  “But that’s all ancient history,” we might say.  Today, we know better.  You and I know exactly how that story unfolds, just like we know how all the customs surrounding our own celebrations of Advent and Christmas will unfold over the next several weeks.

            But if we think we know the whole story, we’re in for a big surprise.

God has surprises in store for you, in your spiritual life.  It’s true: you have it within your power to maneuver so as to avoid these surprises.  God allows us, with our free will, to engage in a spiritual life that consists only of customs, habits and comforts.  But God has more in store for us than that.  One of the hard facts about the Christian spiritual life is that if we don’t accept God’s surprises, we’ll never be ready to accept God Himself.  The Annunciation will show us that.

You do not know on which day your Lord will come.  Nor do you know in what form the Lord’s grace will come into your life.  Nor do you know how, or though whom, the Lord’s grace will come into your life.  God has spiritual surprises in store for you in this new year which begins today.  Some of God’s surprises may challenge you, some may console you, some may give you needed support, while some of God’s graces may lead to make difficult decisions.  God’s grace can surprise us in more ways than we think.  But the Season of Advent is about being ready for God, no matter where, when, how or through whom He wishes to be present to us, for us, and finally within us.

There are three very practical ways that you can engage the Season of Advent.  These three practices will help you, if you choose to enter into them, to recognize and accept the Lord on the day when He chooses to come into your life.  These three are poverty, silence, and penance.  Just remember the first letter of each.  Poverty, silence, and penance:  P-S-P.  Not E-S-P:  if you had ESP than you would know on which day the Lord will come.  The letters P-S-P stand for poverty, silence and penance.  Scripture and Tradition both show us how these three can help you as a Christian prepare for God.

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Poverty is not usually something that we think of as drawing us closer to God.  Of course, usually when we think of “poverty”, we’re thinking of destitution, where families do not have food to eat, or shelter from the elements.  When God, in His sacred Scriptures and Tradition, commends poverty to His children, He’s not talking about destitution.  But we are familiar with how Jesus commends spiritual poverty to His own disciples, saying to them:  “every one of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” [1]

On the one hand, when Jesus ask us to enter into the spirit and practice of spiritual poverty, he’s not asking us to become destitute.  Jesus Himself was never destitute.  But on the other hand, we should never water down Jesus’ commendation of spiritual poverty by thinking that it’s nothing more than a vague “spirit of detachment” from our material possessions.

Our standard-bearer when it comes to spiritual poverty is Jesus Himself.  Jesus never had a bank account, but His needs were taken care of by His disciples.  But He never sought material possessions as a way to grow in the sight of Himself, others, or His Father.  This is one of the first principles of spiritual poverty:  to realize and believe down to the bottom of our heart how little value material possessions hold.  The second principle of spiritual poverty is trust:  trust in the providential care of God our Father.

Practically speaking, we can ask God to increase our trust not by praying a petition made of words, but by making a sacrifice.  We can grow in the conviction that material possessions hold so little value by making a sacrifice of what we do possess.  A simple sacrifice can open our heart to the grace by which God helps us to trust and to act in all things as Jesus did in His earthly life.

Here’s one example:  tithe your wardrobe.  Maybe some have never heard of doing such a thing, but it’s a simple practice, and should take less than a day, or perhaps a set of Saturday mornings.  Tithing your wardrobe means giving 10% of your clothes and accessories to the poor.  It might take one morning to go through your shirts, slacks, dresses, coats, shoes, and so, boxing them up.  It might take another morning or two to deliver this tithe to worthy causes such as the Guadalupe Clinic or St. Anthony Family Shelter.

Although that practical sacrifice is one that the whole family can participate in, I’d like to offer a second challenge just to young people, by which I’m referring to anyone who still lives at home.  This may not make me very popular with our young people, but a priest who speaks and acts in order to be popular is not being faithful to his vows.  Young people, when you make your Christmas list, put down only three gifts that you’d like to receive at Christmas.  And if, for some reason, you receive more than three gifts, resolve now that you will choose only three of the gifts that you’re given, and donate the rest to children who are poor, and who might well receive fewer than three Christmas presents if not for you.

Taking up the practice—or deepening one’s practice—of spiritual poverty has a single aim:  to conform oneself to the person of Jesus.  That is, spiritual poverty is practiced by Christians in order to dispose themselves to the grace by which God wishes to conform each of us the Image and Likeness of Jesus.  Jesus became one of us when He was conceived at the Annunciation, so that you and I could become like God by opening our hearts and minds to God’s grace.  This “opening” we accomplish through our good works, especially virtues such as spiritual poverty.

Poverty, along with silence and penance, are ways in which we can “put on the armor of light”, as Saint Paul exhorts us in today’s Second Reading.  Let’s practice what St. Paul commends to us:  through poverty, silence and penance, “let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day”, putting “on the Lord Jesus Christ, and [making] no provision for the desires of the flesh.”

[1] Luke 14:33.