The word advent means ‘coming to’ and the church year begins with several ways Jesus Christ comes to us. First was his birth into our humanity in Bethlehem. The ‘Second Coming’ is his promised return at the end of time to bringing the fullness of his kingship in heaven. Jesus also comes to us every day – when we are open to the many ways we can be aware of his presence. The purple vestments and the absence of the Gloria are reminders that we are called to turn from any sinfulness to be ready for this.
For all the weeks of Advent, the liturgy gives us selections from this prophet, and they are a guide into the themes of the season. Isaiah wrote during the reigns of four kings of Judah, from 783 to 687 BCE. It was a time of turmoil and political crisis with threats of aggression from powerful surrounding nations. Isaiah was concerned about moral corruption as well as the potential compromises to the people’s faith coming from political alliances. Much of his message was a call for reliance on God for protection. To be fit for such care, he saw the need for the urgent reform of sinful lives. Alternating with sections of warning and condemnation, Isaiah includes poems rejoicing in God’s love and mercy. These words are poetic and meant to inspire trust and hope, often in a general way. Today’s selections show a God who wants us to live in peace. And they emphasize living also with a sense of God in charge of our lives and our times.
Isaiah foresees a time when God’s presence in Jerusalem will attract foreigners to come and learn His ways. Christians have seen it as Christ’s presence reaching out to all nations.
Living with the threat of war, Isaiah was especially attracted to the theme of God’s peace, a message also for our troubled times of wars, violence and oppression. It also full of the joy that is one theme of Advent. This joy is not the pleasures we get from fun times but something deep in our being that responds to God’s love.
Psalm 121/122:1-2, 4-9
These are more verses from the Psalm we prayed last week, used by pilgrims coming happily to Jerusalem, so joy and peace fit that theme from Isaiah. The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, was seen as related to the name Jeru-salem.
As did many in his time, St Paul expected the return of Jesus relatively soon. This emphasizes one Advent theme, but he uses this idea to suggest how we should live in the meantime. The comparison of ‘light and dark’ is a common one and often a metaphor for knowledge versus concealment. As Paul looks at the common sins that he is warning against, he notes how many such behaviours were things concealed from public view, and frequent in night hours.
He next calls us to ‘arm’ ourselves, another common metaphor, suggesting the spiritual efforts we must make, as well as the protection needed as we experience ‘attacks’ of temptation. In 1 Thessalonians 5:8 the ‘armour’ of God is said to be faith, hope and love. In Ephesians 6:10-17 there is an extended metaphor of protective virtues to ‘put on’.
Our first reading for the year of Matthew does not start at the beginning of his gospel, but is close to the end of the book with the same theme of ‘End Time’ we heard from Luke two weeks ago. In his full section on the ‘last days’, Matthew takes a ‘both/and’ position. First he warns against taking natural disasters and false messiahs as signs the end is immediately at hand. But we are not to grow careless about this either, rather to be ready for whatever may come. It is typical of Matthew’s Gospel to highlight Old Testament themes in relation to Jesus. Here the comparison is to the people who lived lives careless of God up to the time when the ‘great flood’ came. (See Genesis, beginning in chapter 6, for this story.) Jesus warns that self-indulgent carelessness is not the attitude his disciples should have, echoing the ideas of the previous reading from St Paul.
‘The Son of Man’ is a designation that Jesus will use for himself many times in the gospels. Here he seems to compare himself to a sneaky thief, which David Stanley S.J. in his commentary says is ‘an analogy which no Christian would dare employ’ had Jesus not invented it himself. This is a reminder that parables are making an important point but not always to be taken literally in all their details. All of these warnings are a call to ‘watchfulness’ – that is, Christians who do not knowing the time Jesus will come, should live with some degree of expectation about the return of Jesus. We are not to put all our efforts and reliance on what does not endure, rather to welcome the coming of the Kingdom of God It is both ‘here now’ with the presence of Jesus in our lives, and ‘to come’ in all its fullness of love and peace. There is a solemn note that some will be ‘left’ although this is not spelled out. It can be taken even as encouragement to be ready for Jesus.
While waiting for this final coming, we can also look at our present lives and ask, ‘how does Jesus come to me today?’ For a few, death will come during this time as abruptly as the night time thief. While we are not called to be fearful about dying, no one is to be complacent thinking ‘there is plenty of time to repent or change for the better.’
A challenge for our times is that it is not always easy to fit the moods of the Advent liturgy into what is going on in the world around us. Even the birth of Jesus can be lost in the flurry of the commercial and social aspects of buying gifts, cards, and going to parties tempting an excess of drinks and expensive foods. There is, however, one important theme that is shared: it is a time when people are reminded to give to the needy, oppressed and desperate. We may make some of our Christmas giving a gift that we give to Jesus. This year Cafod has stressed this by donations for the hungry. Matthew 25:34-41 makes clear what we do to help others is done for Christ.