The First Sunday of Advent [C]
Jer 33:14-16 + 1 Thes 3:12—4:2 + Lk 21:25-28,34-36
December 2, 2018
The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made….
In the Old Testament, the greatest enemy of ancient Israel was not the Babylonians, or the Philistines, or the Persians. The greatest enemy of Israel was Israel herself, split between two kingdoms, Judah and Israel. Nonetheless, these kingdoms were united in their longing for the coming of the Messiah.
We hear this longing in our First Reading, where Jeremiah foresees the Lord raising up a “just shoot” who “shall do what is right and just in the land.” This “just shoot” was the Israelites’ hope. But in time, when the Messiah did come, their waiting was not fulfilled in the way many had hoped. Unfortunately, their hopes had not been fixed on the Messiah whom God the Father was sending, but instead on the Messiah whom they wanted to come. Here we can learn a first lesson regarding Advent and our own hopes of God. Consider what this lesson teaches us.
“A house divided cannot stand.” This has been as true of the Church throughout the 2000 years of her history as it was of Israel. It has never been the Turks, or the Visigoths, or the Huns centuries ago—or the moral relativists, atheists, or materialists today—who posed or pose any real threat to the Church. All those worldly powers are doomed to pass away. The Church, and each of us as a member of the Church, has nothing to fear from earthquakes, hurricanes, stars falling from the skies, or from any human beings who oppose what we believe… if Jesus Himself is the Messiah we are waiting for.
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus does not tell us to be on guard against physical disasters, since all they can destroy are material things. Jesus instead says: “Be on guard lest your spirits become bloated with indulgence and drunkenness and worldly cares.” It’s ironic, then, that as Jesus’ Church prepares for His coming at Bethlehem, the secular culture that surrounds us has gone into overdrive in tempting us to indulgence in sweets, food and drink, and material gifts.
God created us in His image and gave us a free will. Like Israel, we can use that free will to split ourselves in two: to give ourselves to the love of finite realities, while God calls us to love Him alone. By our freely chosen sins, we divide our selves in two, dividing the house where God wants to dwell by His grace. That house is not the Temple of Israel, but the body and soul of each member of the Mystical Body of Christ.
In contrast to the secular culture, then, how does Jesus’ Church call us to prepare for His coming at Bethlehem? During Advent, God calls us to unity through the practice of penance. He calls us not only to the Sacrament of Penance, but also to the practice of penance, which is to say, acts of self-denial. Mortification—another term for the practice of penance—helps to bring integrity back to a divided house.
We tend to associate the practice of penance only with Lent, but it’s likely that we need it even more during Advent. After all, the constant temptation during these days before the Christmas Season is to focus on material things: to believe that material gifts satisfy what others most need in life, and to believe that the foods we prepare nourish what is most important within us.
Every mother knows that there is “penance”—trials and sufferings—that are built in to the experience of bearing an unborn child, not to mention giving birth and child-rearing. For this reason among others, then, Mary is a model during Advent of what it means to wait patiently, and to bear difficulties, for the sake of unity. The Messiah who is coming wants to bring unity back into the life of each of us, and among all of us. Accepting the grace of unity, we can love God more whole-heart-edly, and serve our neighbor with an eye to greater communion among God’s children.