Sunday, November 30, 2014

Year B First Sunday of Advent

Readings: Isa 63:16b-17.64:2-7; Ps 80:2-3.15-6.18-19; 1 Cor 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37

“It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.” So sang the band REM in a song from their album Document, which was released way back in 1987. With everything going on in the world from the outbreak of ebola in west Africa, to the takeover of large swaths of Syria and Iraq by radical Islamists, who gleefully kill our brothers and sisters, as well as other religious minorities who cross their path, to rioting and looting on the streets of cities in our own country, it can easily seem to us now and always that the end of the world is neigh.

There is a story told about St Francis of Assisi, likely apocryphal, in which one of the friars approached him as he toiled in the community’s vegetable garden, and asked him, “Brother Francis, what would you do if the Lord returned right now?” Francis, who was most likely a deacon, agreeing to be ordained only in order to be licensed to preach, said thoughtfully, “I’d continue working in the garden.” True wisdom is simple.

The Ecstasy of St Francis ca. 1437-1444, by Sassetta

We’re all familiar with the image of the street corner prophet standing there wearing his sandwich board that reads on the front and the back: “THE END OF THE WORLD IS NEAR!” Today I’d like to suggest that from the perspective of a disciple of Jesus Christ, St Francis’ approach is the correct one. It is far too easy to have a religious excuse for simply copping out, for writing everything and everyone off as hopeless, to hunker down and wait for the end to come. But this has never been the attitude of Christians, even the earliest Christians, who expected Jesus to return right away.

In his First Letter to the Thessalonians, which was likely the very first book of the New Testament to be written, St Paul wrote that community, which was experiencing a bit of a crisis because the Lord had not yet returned, saying:
When people are saying, ‘Peace and security,’ then sudden disaster comes upon them, like labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers, are not in darkness, for that day to overtake you like a thief. For all of you are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness. Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober (1 Thess 5:3-6)
Brothers and sisters, Christ came to relieve the anxiety of those who would accept the gift of salvation that He offers everyone freely. For those who believe and have received new life, which is eternal life (eternal life is now, not life that begins after mortal death), being a Christian does not induce anxiety, but gives us hope. St Paul in our second reading wrote to encourage just this realization when he wrote, God “will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus [Christ]” (1 Cor 1:8).

As followers, as disciples, of Jesus Christ, we are called to extend His work, to sow hope, through space and time until He finally returns in glory to judge the living the dead. But what does it mean to watch, to stay sober, and to remain alert? What this means for us is simply an extension of last week’s Gospel: we are to engage in the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. Rather than list them out, I’m going to give you a homework assignment. Go home and look up “Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.” I especially recommend finding a very useful a three-page document by Joe Paprocki entitled “Practical Suggestions for Practicing the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.” Use this, or something similar, during Advent to prepare yourself for Jesus’ return and/or our observance of His nativity in a little more than three weeks’ time.

In our first reading, taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we hear the lament: “Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” (Isa 63:16b-17). We are all familiar with the proverb: “Fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). But let’s not forget these inspired words of hope from the First Letter of John: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:18-19).

Love is what gives us hope and hope, in turn, relieves our anxiety, our existential angst, our cynicism toward others and toward the world. So, before we get all worked up about keeping Christ in Christmas, let’s endeavor to cooperate with God’s grace and observe a holy Advent. Advent is the season of waiting in hopeful anticipation for the fulfillment of our deepest longings, desires, and aspirations, which are expressed well in the hymn “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring”-
Through the way where hope is guiding,
       Hark, what peaceful music rings;
Where the flock, in Thee confiding,
      Drink of joy from deathless springs.

Theirs is beauty's fairest pleasure;
Theirs is wisdom's holiest treasure.
      Thou dost ever lead Thine own
      In the love of joys unknown
If we heed Jesus’ words- “Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming” (Mark 13:35), the end of the world should make us feel just fine. My dear friends in Christ, we should eagerly anticipate the Lord’s return, not fear His coming, His Advent. Rather, let's be engaged in the task He gives us: to prepare for His glorious return by setting the banquet table for the great wedding feast. Hence, as we begin the holy season of Advent today, let us pray with added fervor: “Marana’tha!” “O Lord, come!”

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