First Sunday of Advent

Good morning, good people.  I hope your Thanksgiving week was enjoyable.

I “bumped into” a much beloved pastor emeritus in the Diocese of St. Petersburg over the holidays.  He shared an edifying perspective that I want to pass along.  After I greeted him warmly with a “How are you doing?” he responded: “I’m well, thanks. But the house in which I live is dilapidated. It’s beginning to totter on its foundations. Its roof is terribly worn.  Its walls shake with every wind.  This old house is almost uninhabitable and I think that soon I will have to move out of it.  But I'm doing quite well, thank you.”

I appreciate his image: the body is beginning to break down but he himself is doing well. I empathize with that; do you?  Advent reminds us that one day we will have to “move out” but happily we have another home to “move into”: our heavenly dwelling place.

Especially during the Advent and Christmas season, many people seem to be searching for the secret to happiness.

One author writes that all it takes to be happy is to do the following: forgive, apologize (we all make mistakes); listen to advice; check your temper; share the blame; make the best out of situations (most things seldom work out perfectly); and put the needs of others before your own.

Let’s practice as many of these “secrets to happiness” as we can during this holiday season.  We’ll soon have a more positive outlook on life.  And that’s what Advent is all about: hope in the future—a glorious future.  And so we pray during the Advent season: Come, Lord Jesus and transfigure us into new creatures; and re-create this universe of ours into a “new heaven and new earth.”  “Come, Lord Jesus” is the so-called “maranatha prayer” in the last chapter of the Book of Revelation.

As we reflect upon global, political and “mother nature” challenges, e. g., the war in Syria, threats to peace from Russia and North Korea, random acts of terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, and recent floods and famines, we may recall the sentiments of William Butler Yeats who wrote in his great poem The Second Coming: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood dimm’d tide is loosed, the best lack all convictions, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

But Advent speaks loudly and clearly against those sentiments that Yeats captured. Advent invites  us to reflect on the threefold coming of Jesus.  Yes, Jesus came to us centuries ago in Bethlehem of Judea; He comes to us now sacramentally in the liturgy; and He will come again in great power and glory at the end-time.

So how might we celebrate Advent?  Some families create a wreath with four candles, and light one candle at the dinner table during the first week, two candles the second week, and so on.  

Upon lighting the candle, they pray in their own words for the coming anew of the Messiah into their own lives.

Other families make a Jesse or genealogy tree to recapture the story of our salvation as told in the Hebrew Bible.  And still others set up a Nativity scene and invite family members to take turns telling in their own words the meaning of Christmas or God-with-us, Emmanuel.  These are but a few family customs that can help us keep alive the meaning of Advent.

The Word of God in today’s liturgy describes the eighth century before Jesus (the 700s).  The Assyrian armies had overrun northern Israel.  Despite this catastrophe, the prophet Isaiah speaks about hope, a major theme of Advent.  

Some philosophers argue that hope is a fundamental characteristic of human existence.  In fact, some of you may be hoping that I will give a very brief homily!

In any case, the prophet proclaims that people everywhere “shall go up” to the Temple in Jerusalem—which symbolizes God’s presence—not only to hear the Word of God but to do the Word.  And everywhere there will be peace. Yes, nations will transform weapons of war into instruments of peace.  People will seek to do the right thing.  

As we reflect upon our own future, we might ask: Do we always hope in God, especially when what is happening to us is the opposite of what we want?   And yes, do we always try to do what is right?

Paul in his letter to the Christian community at Rome speaks about his life and ours drawing closer to the end every day—whether that be the day of Christ’s glorious return or the day of our individual entry into eternity. “Stay awake, be ready, live in the light,” writes St. Paul.  Practice virtue. Care for one another, pray earnestly, please God in your everyday behavior, and always be ready to meet Jesus.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus speaks to us about watchfulness or readiness.  Jesus may come to us suddenly, when we least expect Him.  And so live each day as though it were your last.

I close noting Thornton Wilder's classic play, Our Town. In one scene, in a small early 20th century town, the father is alone with his teenage son, to whom he says quietly something like this: “I looked in the yard and I saw something I didn't like to see.  I saw your mother chopping wood.  That's your job, but you hadn't done it.  She needed the wood, but she didn't ask you.  Your mother cooks your meals, washes your clothes, irons your shirts, cleans up after you.  But she's not your servant.  She's your mother.”  The teenager begins to get a bit teary-eyed with remorse, and his father lovingly brings the moment to an end saying, “I knew I'd only have to mention it to you.”

We take so much for granted, don't we?   We take one another for granted, without even a thank you.  We take God and His gifts to us for granted.  We take our freedoms and opportunities for granted, without even a word of gratitude.  We take tomorrow for granted, without a second thought.

Today's Word of God says loudly and clearly: don't take tomorrow for granted.  Like the scene in the play Our Town, it's easy to imagine God saying to each of us something like: “I looked recently and saw something I didn't like to see.  I've seen it before many times.   I saw your sisters and brothers in need of you.  Some went without what they needed because of you.”  And Jesus adds ever so gently, “I knew I'd only have to mention it to you.”

The great truth of our faith is that we are by grace what Jesus Christ is by nature: sons and daughters of God our Father, called to live a life worthy of that dignity.

This Advent season, may the Lord help us bring peace to those who are troubled; faith to those who doubt; hope to those who despair; courage to those who are weak; healing to those who are sick; joy to those who are sad; a compass to those who are lost;  and life everlasting to those who have died.

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