Reflections on the 1st Sunday of Advent

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Extracts from Homilies and Catechesis

Isaiah 2:1-5 – Ps 121 – Romans 13:11-14 – Matthew 24:37-44

Beginning Advent

Today we’re beginning Advent.

It comes gently enough, but it’s not a small thing.

It comes in our northern winter. In one way, winter’s just a background music and our life goes on as it always does. But even backgrounds have their power. We never quite forget winter’s there. At other times it’s not just at the back, it pushes its way to the front; it’s determining. It determines our electricity and heating bills for one thing. It determines our clothing. It affects our work. It can keep us indoors. And just as nature’s seasons have their power, so do the Church’s. So does Advent: nature’s winter, God’s spring.

It’s not a small thing that the Church throughout the world should be beginning this season as one, everywhere hearing the words we hear, singing the same Psalm, praying the same prayers. Everywhere the same hope pressing upwards.

The vision of Isaiah, son of Amoz, is not a small thing. ‘In the days to come the mountain of the Temple of the Lord shll tower above the mountains and be lifted higher than the hills. All the nations will stream to it, peoples without number will come to it.’ That’s a prophecy of the Church, both the Church in time and the Church in eternity. In a way, as we begin this year, we join this streaming caravan of people. We climb the mountain of the Temple of the Lord each year through the liturgy. We climb it to Christmas through Advent. We climb it to Easter through Lent. And each year we come a spiral closer to the heavenly summit.

It’s not to be taken lightly when Jesus, God from God, Light from Light, says to his disciples, ‘Stay awake!’

Even the word Advent is a summons. It means ‘coming’. In the full sense, it covers not just the preparation for Christmas but the whole Christmas cycle. It embraces everything we do up to the feast of the Baptism of the Lord on 12 January. This is all a coming. All of it is a sacramental re-presentation of Christ’s first coming and a sacramental anticipation of his second coming. And because of the presence of the risen Christ in the liturgy of the Church it really is his coming. It’s a coming into the world of our eating and drinking, taking wives, taking husbands.

So, ‘stay awake!’ This doesn’t mean take amphitamines. It means be aware  of what’s really in the air and on the way.

In the ancient world the word Adventus was used when the image of a god was carried to a temple newly built for it. It was also used for the visit of the Emperor to a city in the provinces. As news of his approach reached the city, the citizens would process out, run out, to meet and greet him, with acclamations and lights, flowers and incense. He would come scattering money, liberating prisoners, conferring honours. It was a moment of salvation. This ancient civic ‘liturgy’ is present in today’s Collect:

‘Grant your faithful, we pray almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ’, that is the true Emperor;

‘run forth to meet him’ not with candles or flowers but ‘with righteous deeds’, that is deeds of mercy: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food.’

‘Run forth to meet him, so that gathered at his right hand’, caught up in his train, we ‘may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom’, we may be raised ourselves to royal status.

There is a great wealth in Advent, such a blessed clustering of themes. The whole relationship of the Old Testament to the New, the interplay of prophecy and fulfilment, the expectation of a Christ. The whole question, does history have a purpose, a direction? There’s the figure of John the Baptist calling us to remove the potholes and unnecessary ramps in our lives, to make them simple and level and honest and true. The figure of Mary, the daughter of Zion, the Holy Spirit coming on a Virgin, wrapping her in his light, making her the secret carrier of the hope of the world, all unknown to the world. There are the astonishing paradoxes of the Incarnation: God becoming man so that man might become God; God becoming a man without ceasing to be God so that man might become God without ceasing to be human. It’s mystery on mystery. A virgin becomes a mother without ceasing to be a virgin. How the awesome and the homely blend: theological profundities and enchanting stories, angels and shepherds, straw and dung on the stable floor and the Son of God in a trough. The intersection of eternity and time, the bewildering confluence of glory and humility.

So, let’s not let this be squeezed out by business. Let’s keep awake to all of this. Let’s take time for prayer and to come to Mass. Let Advent be a real Adventus for our hearts and minds, and make them a place of waiting and hope.

The Readings for the Sundays of Advent

 Each Gospel reading has a distinctive theme: the Lord’s coming at the end of time (1st Sunday of Advent), John the Baptist (2nd and 3rd Sundays), and the events immediately prior to the Lord’s birth (4th Sunday).

The first readings, drawn from the Old Testament and principally from Isaiah, are prophecies of the Messiah and the Messianic age.

The second readings are principally drawn from St Paul and contain his exhortations to conversion, patience, perseverance and fraternal charity in the light of Christ’s coming.

This is Year A, the Year of the Gospel of Matthew.

Beginning a Liturgical Year

Today, beginning Advent, we’re beginning another Liturgical Year. We’re not quite the same as we were a year ago. Over the year that’s passed, we’ve had joys and sorrows we’ve not had before, we’ve done things and gone through things. Some friends and relatives may have died. And we are all a year older. We’re not the same as we were before. And who of us knows what this coming year will bring? And into this otherness, this uncertainty, Christ comes. We may be boring, but Christ is not. He is always new. He always has more of himself to give, and he gives it as he walks with us through a new liturgical year.

A good image is of a spiral. In one way, on a spiral, we go in a circle. We celebrate the recurring round of feasts. But each turn of the circle takes us to another level.

Let me just recall some basics about the Church’s year. It is a sacramental. It is the Church’s primary pedagogy, her original ‘spiritual exercises’. Entered into with faith and love, it gives a depth to our life and can carry us to heaven. It’s a way to climb that ‘mountain of the Lord’ Isaiah speaks of. Each year we wind round that mountain on the mystical path of seasons and fasts and feasts, and at the moment we don’t know it will deliver us to our destination.

It has wheels within wheels. It is at least tri-cyclical. First, there’s the Christmas cycle, with the four purple weeks of Advent, Christmas itself, and then the two or so white festive weeks that follow Christmas, Christmastide, with the wonder of Epiphany and its complement, the Lord’s Baptism. The Christmas cycle ends this year on 12th January. At the heart of it is the birth of the Son of God in Bethlehem, source of our own rebirth as children of God.

Then, there’s the Easter cycle, with the forty purple days of Lent onwards from Ash Wednesday and the fifty white ones of Easter. Its centre is the Easter (or better Paschal) Triduum, opening with the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday, passing through the celebration of the Passion on Good Friday, and climaxing in the Easter (or better Paschal) Vigil and Easter Sunday itself. Here we are at the radiant centre of our faith. Here we die and rise with Christ through baptism and its renewal. It is of course the centre of the whole year. The Lord was born in Bethlehem so as to die and rise in Jerusalem. Easter this coming year will be late, falling on 20 April. And this whole Easter cycle of more than ninety days in all ends with Pentecost / Whitsun. That will fall on Sunday 8 June. And here’s a parallel. The Christmas season ends with the Lord’s Baptism, when the Holy Spirit came on Jesus and sent him out on his mission as the Messiah. The Easter season ends with the Holy Spirit coming on the apostles and Mary and the other disciples; it’s the birthday of the Church and the beginning of her mission through time.

Then, there’s a third cycle, less arresting perhaps but an essential counterweight. It’s Ordinary Time. But Ordinary doesn’t mean boring. It means measured, rhythmical. Its centre, we can say, is simply Sunday. It is made of a regular beat of Sundays, each Sunday a little Easter. Its colour is green, the colour of things that live and grow. There is a first portion of Ordinary Time between the end of Christmastide and Ash Wednesday, quiet weeks between intenser times.  There will be eight of these this coming year. And then a second, much longer portion after Pentecost, running through twenty-five weeks to the Solemnity we kept last Sunday, Christ the Universal King, the final Sunday of the Church’s year.

Wheeling its way through these three is yet another pattern. It’s the succession of feast days of the saints. This is sometimes called the Sanctoral. It’s not by chance that the celebration of the saints is on the whole restrained during the first half of the liturgical year, and then bursts into flower after Pentecost. In the saints, the Spirit of Pentecost takes on a kind of visibility; they are his signs in the Church. And among the saints, of course, Mary stands out, especially in her four great solemnities: the Immaculate Conception on 8 December, her divine motherhood on 1 January, the Annunciation on 25 March, and her Assumption on 15 August.

The Holydays of Obligation in Scotland this year – apart from the 52 Sundays! – are Christmas Day which falls on a Wednesday, the Ascension of the Lord on Thursday 29 May and the Assumption of our Lady on Friday 15 August. The Solemnity of Ss Peter and Paul, 29 June, will fall on a Sunday anyway. All Saints falls on a Saturday, and therefore this year will not be of obligation.

I remember the house of an uncle and aunt. It had a long corridor. And their son, my cousin, as a little boy, used to call it ‘the exciting journey’. Well, that’s the liturgical year! It’s Christ travelling alongside us, Christ sharing his story with us. It’s Christ making our lives, not a downward spiral, not a sad succession of empty, dreary days, not a meaningless struggle, but a story, a narrative, an epic even, an upward journey to heaven. It’s Christ being born and living and fasting and preaching and healing and gathering disciples, suffering, dying and rising and ascending into heaven with us and for us. It’s Christ giving us his Mother and the saints as friends and fellow-travellers. It’s Christ allowing our lives, our year, our time, our sufferings and joys, our daily dyings and risings, to be taken up into his. It’s Christ making us his disciples as he once drew Peter and Andrew and James and John and all the rest. It’s Christ slipping the Holy Spirit, the Giver of life, into our own spirits and lives.

So, let’s embark on this year with good intentions. This is the way to climb the mountain of the Lord. This is one reason St Paul can say, ‘our salvation is nearer than when we first believed.’ These hours and days are the best possible preparation for being awake for that hour we do not know, when the signs and symbols of the liturgy will suddenly part to let the glorified Christ appear.

A little Theology of Liturgy

Every time we celebrate the Mass, we are keeping the memorial of Christ’s life-giving death and risen presence.

Every Sunday, the 1st day of the week, the day of the week Christ rose, we are recalling his resurrection from the dead.

Every Holy Week and Easter, we live through the events of his passion and death, his burial, and his rising.

When we celebrate a saint, we usually do so on the day he or she died, the day, we can say, when they shared finally in Christ’s death, often by martyrdom, and passed to the eternal life opened for us by Christ’s resurrection.

According to St Paul, when we are baptised we are baptised into Christ’s death, we were buried with Christ so as to rise with him.

So we see how everything holds together. It’s what we sing after the consecration: ‘we proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection, until you come again’. At the centre of the liturgy, of our faith, of our lives, is the great paradox / truth / reality / event / Passover / turning-point of Christ’s death and resurrection, his Paschal mystery. It’s the centre of history. And here’s the rub. The liturgy doesn’t just recall Christ’s life, death and resurrection. It’s not just a play or a film or a trip down memory lane. In the liturgy, Christ is present. He’s present in our being here together. He’s present in his ordained ministers. He’s present in his word. He’s present in our prayers and praise. He’s actively present in every one of his Sacraments. He’s substantially present in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. And he is present always as the crucified and risen One drawing us all to the Father through the Holy Spirit.

‘In the liturgy of the Church, it is principally his own Paschal mystery that Christ signifies and makes present. During his earthly life Jesus announced his Paschal mystery by his teaching and anticipated it by his actions. When his Hour comes, he lives out the unique event of history which does not pass away: Jesus dies, is buried, rises from the dead and is seated at the right hand of the Father “once for all”. His Paschal mystery is a real event that occurred in our history, but it is unique: all other historical events happen once, and then they pass away, swallowed up in the past. The Paschal mystery of Christ, by contrast, cannot remain only in the past, because by his death he destroyed death, and all that Christ is – all that he did and suffered for all men – participates in the divine eternity, and so transcends all times while being made present in them. The event of the Cross and Resurrection abides and draws everything towards life’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1085).