Sundown today marks the beginning of a new year of grace. Today we begin another liturgical year. It feels nice to turn a temporal page right now.
Many of us, myself included, have joked about 2020 being apocalyptic, having the feel of the end of the world. Apokalupsis," in Greek, is a feminine noun that refers to "an unveiling." It is with reference to this unveiling that we translate the word into English as "revelation." What is revealed? God's Kingdom, which is ruled by Christ the King. God's Kingdom is not located up in the sky. Rather, the city of God, the new Jerusalem, will come "down out of heaven from God" (see Revelation 21:10-27).
It's easy to get caught up in all kinds of end-time nonsense. None of this has anything to do with the revelation of God in Christ Jesus. When I think about the things Jesus says will precede "the end," it is impossible for me not to think of any era of history in which those things did not occur. They are certainly happening now.
The new liturgical year marks a shift in the Sunday lectionary from Year A to Year B. During Year B we read primarily from Saint Mark's Gospel. According to the four-source hypothesis, Mark's is the first of the canonical Gospels to be written. Mark was used by the inspired authors of Matthew and Luke as a source. In chapter thirteen of the Gospel According to Saint Mark Jesus tells about events that will precede "the end" (Mark 13:4). This comes from the same chapter from whence our Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent is taken.
The first sign of the end is that the Jerusalem Temple would be thoroughly destroyed. Jesus says of its destruction "There will not be one stone left upon another that will not be thrown down" (Mark 13:2). He goes on to tell about the proliferation of false prophets, about persecutions his followers would endure, about wars, famines, and earthquakes (see Mark 13:1-8).
Of course, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. The nascent Christian community, however, fled from Jerusalem to avoid the brutal Roman siege of the holy city, which preceded the Temple's demise. Without a doubt, the destruction of the Temple must've seemed to many like the end of the world. It was certainly the end of the world as they knew it. Judaism as it is understood and practiced today is the result of this event.
My point is that it is always the end of the world until the end of the world. This is the point of at least the first two weeks of Advent. This is why, in the first Gospel reading of this liturgical year Jesus urges us to "Watch!" (Mark 13:37). In this same passage, the Lord uses an allegory. In this allegory we, his followers, are the servants the man who traveled abroad left in charge.
Identifying with the servants in Jesus's allegory, the question we should ask ourselves is "Am I being diligent in the building of God's kingdom or am I just lazing about?" Just what God's kingdom entails was spelled out beautifully in the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer for last Sunday's Solemnity of Christ the King: "a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace" (Roman Missal, "Solemnities of the Lord," Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe).
The Master, according to Saint Paul in our New Testament reading, has not left us without the resources necessary to carry out the tasks he's entrusted to us. This why Paul assures the Christians of ancient Corinth- "you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 1:7). Each of us possesses spiritual gifts, call them "talents," for the building up of God's kingdom. If you seek only to save yourself, you are already lost.
I am not suggesting something along the lines of "Look busy. Jesus is coming!" What I am saying is that each one of us needs to have a change of heart, a conversion. We need to repent, which means to turn around and walk in a different direction. Such a conversion makes seeking daily to build up God's kingdom your joy, your delight, your raison d'etre. As the witness of many martyrs have shown us, it is worth your very life. Having the necessary change of heart is what allows you with Saint Francis to keep tending your garden or with Martin Luther to plant that apple tree. You see, urgency be the agent of anxiety.
Perhaps the best way to express the shape of this hope is through the poetry of the Psalms:
How lovely is Thy dwelling place,Anticipating God's kingdom, which end of liturgical year and the beginning of Advent bids us do, doesn't give us hope. Living the tension between the already and the not yet is our hope. Being a Christian means loving God with all your heart, might, mind, and strength by loving your neighbor as you love yourself. While love of God and love of neighbor can be distinguished in certain ways, they are inextricably bound together. Being a Christian is about loving in self-sacrificing ways, loving in the same manner that caused God's Only Begotten Son to become incarnate in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
O Lord of hosts to me.
My soul is longing and fainting
the courts of the Lord to see.
My heart and flesh, they are singing
for the joy of the living God.
How lovely is Thy dwelling-place,
O Lord of hosts, to me
(Psalm 84, translation from Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbira Community, 69-70)
With the psalmist, we implore God to "take care of this vine, and protect what your right hand has planted" (Psalm 80:15-16). But can't just pray to be preserved. The Church of Christ is about mission, not maintenance. And so, we should not only pray to be preserved from the tribulation that marks every age but to shine as a light in the darkness. We pray that when the Lord comes he "might meet us doing right" and being "mindful of [him] in our ways" (Isaiah 64:4).
This reflection on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent brings the penultimate (a good time to use this word) month of 2020 to a close.