Despite being a short liturgical season, Advent has a twofold character. Extending from the Feast of Christ the King, which is the final Sunday of each liturgical year, Advent begins by focusing on Christ’s Second Coming and the final judgment. Hence, during the first two weeks of Advent, we are exhorted to repent and live in readiness, to be watchful because we know neither the hour nor the day of the Lord’s return.
In human terms, two thousand years seems like an awfully long time. As our reading from Second Peter reminds us, for God a thousand years is like a day. This reading also bids us to be mindful that one way God makes his mercy manifest is through patience. God gives us time to repent. While God is infinite, by its very nature, time is not.
God graciously gives you time to acknowledge your sins and, moreover, to endeavor, with his help, to change. This scripture passage not only tells us that repentance makes you ready for Christ’s coming (Advent means to come or to arrive) but that it hastens “the coming of the day of God.”1
A Christian, that is, someone who repents and believes, far from living in fear of Christ’s return, eagerly awaits, anticipates, even longs for this day. This is why the one-word Aramaic prayer Maranatha was often on the lips of the earliest Christians. Translated it means something like “Come, Lord.” As Christians living nearly two millennia later, we should make this prayer our own.
Discussing the hypothetical, “What would you do if you knew the Lord was returning tomorrow?” is often telling. Of course, the first problem is, you will never know the hour or the day of his return- this is precisely the point made over and over in the New Testament by Jesus himself and a variety of inspired authors. But the answer is usually something like a laundry list of things you should already be doing and know you should be doing but perhaps aren’t and then feverishly doing those things in the brief time you would have.
Advent reminds us that, since Christ’s Ascension, it is always the end of time until the end of time.
The call to repent and to be repenting is not a rebuke. Rather, it is a generous invitation, an offer of genuine hope. It is, as our reading from Isaiah says, “good news.”2
Our Gospel today is the first eight verses of Saint Mark’s Gospel. In this passage, the inspired author identifies John the Baptist as the messenger from Isaiah sent to herald the coming of the Messiah, to prepare the way for Jesus’ earthly ministry.
Throughout most of the Church’s history, along with the Blessed Virgin Mary, John the Baptist has been highly revered, much more so than he is today. Sadly, he is often relegated to a minor figure. But he is a major figure in salvation history and should be venerated as such. During each year of the Sunday cycle of readings, on the Second Sunday of Advent, we hear the Baptist’s call to repentance.
So, the question is not “Have you heard the call to repentance?” Rather, have you listened to it and heeded it? Hearing is different from listening. I can hear someone speaking without listening to what s/he is saying. In other words, I can relegate someone’s voice to something like that of Charlie Brown’s schoolteacher, or I can pay attention to what s/he is saying. The Baptist’s cry is as urgent and necessary now as it was when he first made it on the banks of the river Jordan. Listen to him!
A few verses on in the first chapter of Mark, after being baptized himself by John and emerging from his desert sojourn, Jesus’ message echoes the Baptist’s: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”3 Translated more literally, the words of Jesus as handed on in this Gospel are “Be repenting and be believing in the good news.” Note the present active tense, which gives these words a dynamism and an urgency the standard English translation lacks.
There are two things worth noting in both John's and Jesus’ call to conversion in Mark. First, it is a mode of life, not a one-off event. What emerges from this is a dialectic: you are both always already saved, and every day is the day of salvation- no "once saved always saved," which relegates salvation to a static past event instead what God is always doing right here, right now. Second, repenting comes before believing. It was Saint Anselm of Canterbury, the same one who noted that theology is faith seeking understanding, who pointed out that one does not know in order to believe; one believes in order to know.
Christianity is not a philosophy or a theory but a mode of existence, a way of being in the world. Christ leads you, via the Paschal mystery and the events that constitute your daily life, into the very heart of reality.
This is dramatically illustrated a bit later in the first chapter of Mark, which is without doubt one of the densest chapters in the New Testament, when Jesus calls his first disciples: Peter and his brother Andrew. Seeing them fishing, Jesus says to the brothers, with no greeting, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”4 The following verse simply says, “Then they abandoned their nets and followed him.”5
Jesus did not say to the brothers, “I ‘d like for you to follow me. So, go home and give it some thought and get back to me.” Neither did he lay out for them an irrefutable argument as to why they should drop their nets, all their commitments, everything and follow him.
As the Gospel According to Mark, which we will be reading during this liturgical year, unfolds, it becomes clear just how much Peter, Andrew, and the rest of the twelve had to learn and how slow they were to grasp it both in whole and in part. This is what repenting and believing looks like existentially. To follow Jesus is just that, following him without knowing the twists and turns along the path all the while trusting him to lead you to your destination, to the realization of your destiny, that for which you are made and redeemed.
And so, my dear friends, let us heed the exhortation found in the reading for Morning Prayer for this Second Sunday of Advent, taken from Paul’s Letter to the Romans:
…it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand<6/sup>Or, if you prefer- “Be repenting and be believing in the good news!”