The Church liturgical year begins not with the civil year on January 1, but four weeks before the Feast of Christmas. Advent is derived from the Latin words meaning ‘coming to’. Is a time of preparation for celebrating the coming of Jesus on earth, and also still looking towards his ‘Second Coming’ at the end of time. The first Sunday of the year has the same message as the last – how Christians are to act while waiting for the return of our Lord and Saviour.
Year B focuses on St Mark but we do not start today at the beginning of that Gospel.
Isaiah 63:16-17, 64:1, 3-8
The book of Isaiah is heard frequently during Advent. Although it appears to be one prophet’s work as we find it printed in our bibles, scholars detect at least three different time periods and literary styles. There seems have been a group who continued to write under the name of Isaiah of Jerusalem whose ministry began in 742 BCE before the exile in Babylon. Today’s selection is near the end of our book, and has been called Third (or ‘Trito’) Isaiah. It was written after the Jews had returned to Jerusalem from exile, which had been seen as a joyous event in Second Isaiah. At the time of this reading, the people had not lived up to the earlier hopes of living rightly under God’s rule. Their failings are the people’s own fault although in the style of the Old Testament writings, God is challenged as ‘causing’ this. Yet prophet continues to trust in God’s love and hopes for a dramatic change.
If we think of the Advent of Jesus, this selection reminds us of the depth of redemption needed by a sinful world. If we look at the shortcomings of our time, it stresses our continuing need for God coming into our present lives.
The image of ‘tearing open’ the heavens is based on the beliefs of that time that the dome of the sky was a more or less solid surface – just as it still appears to our naked eyes, though astronomy has taught us to know it differently. For God to reach the people of earth, Trito-Isaiah imagines breaking through the barrier. It also draws on the imagery used for the appearance of God to Moses at Sinai (Exodus 19:16-19). The image of the potter and clay was a theme for several prophets, and a vivid one for people who had watched potters at work: a pot does not make itself: it is created by the potter – as we are totally dependent on God for all aspects of our existence. A reminder of our limitations, but with the assurance of God’s loving care for us.
(The opening of Mark’s gospel picks up the idea of the heavens being torn open, when describing the baptism of Jesus.)
Psalm 79:2-3, 15-16, 18-19
Our response continues in the same direction. The urgency of the plea, even the idea that God has to be ‘waked up’ to respond is a frequent image of the psalms, which are often blunt and vigorous. This may sound odd to those are used to more reverent prayers, but it is a poetic expression of how abandoned people may feel in trouble, yet still have a basic trust in God.
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
The last sentence makes it easy to see why this was chosen to carry out the idea of Jesus’ return. St Paul had a long – and sometimes stormy – relationship with the church he had founded in Corinth and when he had left there, he wrote to answer their questions and to deal with some of the problems he had heard about. Here he praises them for their ‘spiritual gifts’, but these are not the virtues he praises in other sections like faith, hope, love, but the ‘charisms’ that the early Church experienced. (For details of these gifts, see the description in 1 Corinthians 12, also the account of Pentecost in Acts 2.) In this letter Paul will go on to teach them not to overvalue these external manifestations but to seek the better gifts, especially love.
Our first selection from Mark is close to the end of the Gospel and occupies the same place in Mark as last Sunday’s did in Matthew. These are the closing remarks of Jesus’ ministry before the Passion account begins. In chapter 13, Mark has a long complex address concerning both the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem – an event Jesus predicts and which happened in 70 AD – but also Jesus’ coming again at the end of time. Mark’s conclusion is much shorter than Matthew’s several parables we have been reading in recent weeks, and that brevity is characteristic of Mark’s writing.
This is hardly a parable in the way of a story, but a short comparison for a time of waiting. The word ‘watch’ is a better translation than ‘stay awake’ for the point is not about not sleeping – hardly to be expected for whole days and nights. Rather we were to ‘watch’ in the sense of expecting God’s coming, ready to meet Jesus whenever he comes. Edward Schweizer writes of this: ‘No moment is unimportant.’ For we are not ‘whiling away’ the time before Christ appears again, but making good use of it. What has he given us to do? where do we meet him in daily life? where are we to serve him in others? (as in Matthew’s parable of the Last Judgement read the previous Sunday.)
The words describing the four night-time divisions (evening to dawn) come
from the Roman system. Mary Healy in her commentary notes that these four time periods will be part of Mark’s narrative of the Passion of Jesus, when three of these disciples he was speaking to here will fail when Jesus asked them to ‘watch and pray’ with him in Gethsemane. But the passage extends the audience of the call: ‘What I say to you I say to all: Watch!’
An alternate opening prayer for today is a good one for all of Advent.
‘Father in heaven, our hearts desire the warmth of your love, and our minds are searching for the light of your Word. Increase our longing for Christ our Saviour
and give us the strength to grow in love, that the dawn of his coming may find us rejoicing in his presence and welcoming the light of his truth.’