November 28, 2021 –
The First Sunday of Advent
“… pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are immanent and to stand before the Son of Man.”
You might have heard the saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In fact, history is important for many reasons. History roots our lives in a reality deeper than the passing moment, preventing us from being like the seed in the Parable of the Sower that withers for lack of roots [see Luke 8:4-15]. Or to use a similar metaphor, history is like the long, thick roots of a huge, ancient tree, which not only provide nourishment from the ground, but also ground the tree during violent weather.
This offers one reason why, on today’s start of the Church’s new year, she beckons us to look to the past. More specifically, the Season of Advent that begins today draws our attention to the right way and the wrong ways to prepare for a visit from God.
God’s plan for visiting His People began at the dawn of human history. “In the beginning,” when Adam and Eve committed the Original Sin, God could in justice have abandoned His fallen creature. In love, however, God made them a promise of redemption [see Genesis 3]. The many centuries stretching from Eve to Mary—from Adam to Christ—are one long Advent. That historical advent consisted of both man preparing himself to receive the Messiah, and God preparing man to receive the Messiah. We hear of this long plan, with all its fits and starts, in the First Readings at Holy Mass during Advent.
The long arc of Old Testament history, however, is not the only lens through which Advent looks at how to prepare for God’s visit. The Gospel Readings offer perspectives that complement that of the Old Testament. The most obvious difference between Advent’s First Readings and Gospel Readings is in the spans of time that they cover. The Old Testament’s preparation for the Messiah’s arrival ranges over many centuries of history. The Gospel Readings focus upon three different spans of time.
The most obvious focus of the Gospel Readings during Advent is the nine months preceding Jesus’ birth. The Blessed Virgin Mary offers us the perfect example of how to prepare for the Messiah’s visit. Unlike the sinful priests, prophets, and kings of the Old Testament, Mary not only accepts God at His Word: she accepts God’s Word with such faith that that Word becomes flesh within her. She not only follows the Word, but bears the Word. If there’s a single quote of Mary that sums up her preparation for God’s visit, it’s: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done unto me according to thy Word.”
A less obvious focus of the Gospel Readings during Advent is the “birth” of Jesus’ public ministry. St. John the Baptist is the herald of the Messiah’s mission among the People of God. John prepares them to accept not only God’s visit, but more specifically the mission that’s the reason for His visit. If there’s a single quote of John that sums up his preparation for God’s visit, it’s: “Behold, the Lamb of God! Behold him who takes away the sins of the world!”
The least obvious focus of the Gospel Readings during Advent is the Second Coming of Jesus at the end of time, and its accompanying Final Judgment. Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel Reading relate to His Second Coming, accompanied as that distant day will be by “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,” with earthly nations “in dismay”.
Those events might seem to have little in common with the peaceful scene in our Nativity sets. Yet conflict and violence accompany each period of preparation for God’s visit to His People: the long arc of the Old Testament filled with unfaithful earthly pilgrims; Mary’s pregnancy during which King Herod and his retinue lurk in the shadows; John’s heralding the Lamb of God for whose sake he will be martyred; and the preparation of every human person for the Final Judgment. The last words of Jesus in today’s Gospel Reading apply to each of these periods of preparation: “pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are immanent and to stand before the Son of Man.” The King of Kings drops down from Heaven to bring peace and salvation, but no one ought to overlook the costs that these gifts bear.