Scripture notes – 1st Sunday of Advent, A – 27th November 2022

The word advent means ‘coming to’ and the beginning of the church year reflects on the ways Jesus the Messiah comes to us. First was his birth into our human condition in Bethlehem. The ‘Second Coming’ is his promised return at the end of time to bring us into the fullness of his eternal reign. Jesus also comes right now, whenever we are open to the many ways he is may be present to us every day, every hour.

The liturgy uses the penance symbols of purple vestments and the absence of the Gloria as reminders that we are called to turn from sin and be aware that ‘the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near’. (Matthew 4:17).

The readings are available online here.

Isaiah 2:1-5
For these weeks of Advent, the liturgy gives us selections from the first part of this book which are the words of ‘Isaiah of Jerusalem’ who 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 nations seeking to conquer the Jewish people. 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. He also stressed 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. The description today is poetic in form, meant to inspire trust and hope in God’s care. Today’s selections emphasise that God who wants us to live in peace.

Isaiah also 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, timely also for our troubled times of active wars, and many forms of violence and oppression. Despite all the horrors around us, God is in charge. That calls for joy which is another theme of Advent. This joy is not the temporary pleasures we get from fun times but some awareness deep in our being that responds to God’s everlasting love.

Psalm 121/122:1-2, 4-9
These are more verses from the Psalm we prayed last week, used by happy pilgrims coming to celebrate in Jerusalem, and its emphasis on joy and peace fit those themes from Isaiah. The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, was taken as related to the name Jeru-shalem.

Romans 13:11-14
As did many in his time, St Paul expected the return of Jesus relatively soon, even in his lifetime. This picks up one Advent theme, and he uses this expectation 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, often 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’.

Matthew 24:37-44
Matthew is the gospel in focus during Year A of the liturgical cycle, but the first reading for the year does not start at the beginning of the book. Rather it is near the end, taking up the same idea as last week of the time when Christ will return in the fullness of his kingship. In his long 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. On the other hand, we are not to grow careless about this either, rather the insistence is 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 this gospel. 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 while the details are not be taken literally. All of these examples are a call to ‘watchfulness’. Christians who do not know the time Jesus will come should still live with some degree of expectation about his return. 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 too 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. We are living in a time of wars, earthquakes, and fears over what climate change and loss of biodiversity will mean. Even celebrating Christmas as the birth of Jesus can be lost in the flurry of the commercial and social aspects of buying gifts, cards, and going to parties. 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. Matthew 25:34-41 makes clear one way Christ comes to us in persons who are hungry, homeless, ill and imprisoned.

Note: We will shortly be posting an introduction to the Gospel of Matthew as background to understanding the Sunday readings in a historical and literary context.

Joan Griffith

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