The Sundays of Advent
The Bible readings for Mass, following the Irish Liturgical Calendar. Texts from the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) are marked by consistently inclusive language. Homily notes, from a wide variety of sources, have already appeared in the ACP website, in the section edited by Fr. Patrick Rogers, Dublin, Ireland.
A happy future for all who seek the truth and work for peace
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
We are to wake from sleep and put on the armor of light
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.
Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
We must make ready for the day when Christ will come again
For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Advent is a time of heightened awareness that invites us to see ourselves as God sees us - insofar as that is possible. Both liturgy and life are pointing us towards the future. Isaiah calls us to confess our sins and hope for better days. Saint Paul's message in Corinthians is confident and upbeat. Mark warns us against complacency, since the end is coming sooner than we expect. Amid such disparity, we might go with the first and third readings, about being prepared for the day of the Lord.
God's Word invites us reassess where our ways may be leading us. This annual reminder that the world as we know it will one day end, is more appropriate during the northern Wintery season, when daylight is shorter and darkness seems to be winning over the light. But the positive side of this is that a new day is dawning, when Christ will come again into our lives with power to save us.
Recently in his letter about "The Joy of the Gospel" Pope Francis has warmly encouraged us all to remember what we have to be joyful about, as Christians. Advent would be an excellent time to take his message to heart and maybe even make a new beginning in our Catholic lives. Now is the time to open our hearts and invite the Lord to come more fully into our lives and lead us on.
We begin Advent with a great need for his coming. Our first reading puts this need into words, "We have all withered like leaves and our sins blew us away like the wind." The whirling, withered leaves of autumn are a familiar scene, these past few weeks. Isaiah proposes whirling leaves as symbols of all that is dried up and withered in our lives. But he also calls us to look for a better day. God is still in charge of creation, and our personal lives are under his loving care. We pray with fervour this Advent, "Come, Lord Jesus," and make our own the words of the psalm, "Visit this vine and protect it, the vine your right hand has chosen." It is a central plank of our faith that the Lord never abandons His people.
It's interesting to watch the behaviour of people at airports, waiting for loved ones to arrive from a flight? They seem excited, eager for the first appearance of the familiar face, ready with the broad smile of greeting. We too wait for the Lord's coming with anxious eagerness, because we long for his presence.. It is an alert, active waiting - in Advent spirit. In the gospel Jesus says, "Be on guard, stay awake". He wants us to have a clear purpose in life, to mature in our relationship with him and with others, to give time to prayer, and to live with his message in our hearts. That's what our Advent should be like. And while we wait, we can enjoy his promised gifts. St. Paul assures us: "You will not be without any of the gifts of the Spirit while you are waiting for our Lord Jesus Christ."
Let us use these coming weeks in a new spirit of hope and awareness, in the spirit of an Advent people.
Theme: John the Baptist's life work was preparing the way for our Messiah. Once Christ came, it only remained for John to disappear gracefully. Like John, we should make way for Christ in the lives of others.
The living branch from Jesse's stump is our hope of peace and salvation
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;
the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
How to live in harmony and share in the promises to the patriarchs of old
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, "Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name."
John the Baptist prepares us to welcome Jesus Christ
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"
Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
John the Baptist could be the central figure in today's homily. He prepared the way for the people of his time to understand the good news of their salvation. That is the way God normally works; He sends the message of salvation to us through each other. As St Paul once put it, how can people know the truth about God if they have never heard it; and how can they hear if nobody is sent to them?
Jesus found his first disciples among those who were influenced by the preaching of John the Baptist. He had showed them the value of self-control and of prayer; he urged them to listen to the inner voice of God, with repentance and a faithful heart. The high point of John's short ministry was his meeting with Jesus. Not only did he get to baptise Our Lord but he also helped some of his own followers to go with Jesus and become the first Christian disciples. Through him, Andrew and his brother Peter, and Philip and Nathanael became apostles of Jesus.
Clearly, God wishes us Christians also to help help other people to know and love him. If in the first place, we were more committed to our own Christian calling, we would be more effective in influencing others towards religious commitment. Parents have the first opportunity to point their children towards God. But their words will only be effective when backed up by the actual example of their own faith and prayer.
People can influence others, for good or ill, in all sorts of ways. A special kind of influence rests with the journalists and opinion-formers who work in the media, press, radio and television and through the internet. But ordinary people outside the media can also influence the views and values of those with whom they talk and live. When looked at in light of today's Gospel, does our way of speaking and behaving in any way help others to share our values, or do we confirm their suspicion that this world is a selfish and cynical place?
And what about fostering vocations to the priesthood and religious life, or to some active form of church service? The ability of our Church to go on as a visible, organised community continuing in the prayer-life and values of Jesus is under serious question today. But if enough people open their hearts to God's work, as did John the Baptist and those first disciples, Andrew and Philip and Peter, then a way will be found to keep the world aware of the saving message of Christ.
Theme: Society finds it so hard to tolerate dissent that those who step out of line are often harshly treated. John the Baptist dared to castigate King Herod for his immoral example, and paid for it with his life.
What God can do: he can open our eyes and turn the barren desert into a blossoming garden
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus
it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
"Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you."
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
James urges us to follow the noble example of courage shown by prophets
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is sanding at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11
From his prison cell, John is encouraged by the reports of Jesus' cures
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"
Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John : "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.' Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
""Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God". Today is Rejoicing Sunday. Today the candle on the wreath is pink, not purple as on the other Sundays of Advent; to express the joy felt at the nearness of the Lord. Some people seem to be happy by nature; others mournful by nature. Here is the story of a priest who always preached mournful sermons. He was asked by his parish priest to preach about St. Joseph instead, as he was a cheerful man. The following Sunday the priest spoke about Joseph who happened to be a carpenter and as a result spent a lot of his time making coffins and here we go again with sad, sad tales.
Three things about happiness: first, happiness is right now. We convince ourselves that life will be better when we get married, have a baby, then another. Then we are frustrated that the kids are not old enough and we will be more content when they are. After that we are frustrated that we have teenagers to deal with. We will certainly be happy when they are out of that stage. We tell ourselves that our life will be complete when our spouse gets his or her act together. The truth is there is no better time to be happy than right now.
Second, 'If you are happy, let your face know.' Maybe we could begin to be more joyful by taking a peek in the mirror and asking ourselves: does my face look like the face of someone who has heard the good news of the Gospel, namely that I am loved unconditionally by God?
Third, joy will come to us if we set about actively trying to create it for others. If I go about my life demanding that others carry me rather than seeking to carry them; feeding off others rather than feeding them; demanding that others meet my needs rather than trying to meet theirs, joy will never find me no matter how hard I party or try to crank up good cheer
Why did the Baptist send from his prison cell that urgent question to Jesus: "Are you He that is to come?" Hadn't John recognised our Lord as the Messiah several months previously, at the Jordan, when he proclaimed Him publicly as the Lamb of God? Did John, faced with almost certain death under Herod, have doubts or second thoughts about Jesus? Some say no, John only asked the question for the sake of his followers, who needed confirmation of their faith from Christ himself. But if John did have doubts, it was because of the peaceful way that Jesus behaved, not at all like the violent revolutionary the Jews expected as their Messiah. The answer to his question came when Jesus told him what God;s messenger would be like: healer of the sick, consoler of the suffering, preacher of freedom and truth to the poor. In this way, John's faith in Jesus was made strong, giving him courage to protest against Herod, and accept a martyr's death.
The prophecy about "Emmanuel — God with us" invites king Ahaz to trust
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.
Then Isaiah said: "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
This introduction to Paul's major epistle gives the earliest Christian beliefs about Jesus
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The virginal conception of Jesus is revealed to the just man, Joseph
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife.
What can it tell about the person who owns it? Not much, unless it happens to be a well-chosen nick-name. Names like Helen, Sharon or Jason are useful for distinguishing various members of a family; but they don't say much about the people themselves. A name seldom tells about the personality or life-work of the one who carries it. With some Biblical names it is different. For instance, Abraham meant "Father of a great people" (Gen. 17:5) and Moses meant "Rescued from the Waters" (Ex. 2:10.) Above all, our blessed Lord has names which tell us everything about him: "Jesus" means "God saves," "Christ" means "God's Anointed Messiah" and the name "Emmanuel" in today's Gospel, means "God in our midst."
How important is Jesus, really, for our religious belief? Be honest. Ask the man-in-the-street what Christianity all about, and what's the usual answer? Something to do with loving your neighbour; keeping the law; going to church on a Sunday? Not often will there be a direct mention of Jesus Christ, who is at the very centre of our faith. Ghandi once said, If you Christians took your Christ to heart, the whole world would be Christian.
Our Bridge-builder (Pontifex) Nowadays, one of the most positive trends is in building up community, sharing efforts and projects with others, seeking out ways find common ground with long-term enemies. In a word, bridge-building and reconciliation with our fellow human beings. The greatest bridge-builder of all, who spans the gulf between us and God, is Jesus Christ. (High-Priest: Pontifex.) "No man has ever seen God; the Only-Begotten Son, who is closest to the Father's heart, has made him known" (Jn. 1:18.)
He shares our Lot. At Christmas we will concentrate on the simplicity and poverty of Our Lord's birth: how human he was, born of a young woman, not in luxurious comfort, but in the discomfort of a stable. That shows him as one of us, the human side of "Emmanuel." This gospel however mentions the divine origin of Jesus. Although he has a human mother, he has not a human father, but was conceived in Mary by the power of God. This unique way of coming into life, with God as father, and the virgin Mary as mother, underlines who Jesus truly is: both God and man, one of ourselves and yet one with the eternal God.
St. Joseph's Faith. If this mystery seems deep to us, it must have been baffling for St Joseph. Close to Mary as he was, and yet seeing her pregnant without any action on his part, Joseph could only accept in faith what God's messenger told him, that the child was in Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. With great patience and humility, Joseph accepted the part for which God had chosen him, as human foster-father to the Saviour. This faithful acceptance is just what is required of each of us, when Christ comes into our lives, as "God-with-us.
Moments of crisis reveal aspects of ourselves that we don't face up to very often. They can show where our real self lies. Do we react defensively or aggressively out of self-concern, or are we able to see beyond ourselves to the care of others? Usually crisis also puts our faith to the test; are we really convinced about God's care and support for us?
Today's first reading invites us to analyse what true faith is. We meet king Ahaz who could not rely on God in the great political crisis of his life. What he relied on were his military and political security systems. Is our faith much the same? Is the god we really trust the range of our own power and resources, only turning to the true God as an extra insurance, a vague something to look forward to when this world is over? But such faith is inadequate. Real faith is relying on God's continual presence with us, not just in those moments when human presence and support fails. Real faith accepts the reality of God in the strong as well as the weak moments of life. True faith sees God as a dimension of all our experience, the Emmanuel.
This reality of God-with-us is a deep mystery, and faith in this mystery is a gift. However, to say that faith is a gift should not be used as a "cop-out," a pretence that it is totally beyond us, a gift for the chosen few. We all have some dimension of faith in our lives, we are all offered some share in this gift. We are invited today to use what we have been given, to develop it through real searching for the truth in all things. We are also called to make the great decisions of our lives conscientiously according to the faith we have been given.
Faith may involve a leap in the dark, it may be the "conviction about things we do not see" (Heb 11:1), but seeking signs to confirm that conviction is not necessarily a testing of God as Ahaz would have us believe. It is only when we demand signs as a pre-requisite without which we refuse to believe, it is only then that the seeking for a sign is contrary to true faith (cf. Mk 8:11-13.) Signs can be sought legitimately and offered as confirmation for those who are truly open to the word of God and struggling to be faithful to what they know of him.
The promise that God is with us was not for Isaiah's time only, it is for our own. Even now the sign of that continuing presence is a young woman and her child, the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus. For Joseph the unexpected pregnancy of Mary was not a sign to confirm his trust either in her or God, it was a contradictory sign. In the hours of his darkness he found the enlightening Spirit of God, the Spirit who teaches us not to judge by what our eyes see or by what our ears hear (cf. Is 11:3.) This gospel shows us that the signs God gives are not always the ones we would choose for ourselves. He gives signs for those who are willing to take on the darkness of doubt in openness and sincerity. There are no signs for those locked into the need for security only on their own terms.
Ultimately faith is obedience, the gift of response to him who is both son of David and son of God (second reading.) Christ himself in his life, death and resurrection is the ultimate sign of God's presence in our world. It is he alone who can evoke the fullness of that presence. It is in our experiences and encounters with those who reflect Christ and his gospel that we find signs of God to confirm our faith. "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, ever at the Father's side, who has revealed him" (Jn 1:1-18.)
The prophet admits his people's sinfulness but recalls God's mercy too.
For you are our father,
though Abraham does not know us
and Israel does not acknowledge us;
you, O Lord, are our father;
our Redeemer from of old is your name.
Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from your ways
and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you?
Turn back for the sake of your servants,
for the sake of the tribes that are your heritage.
that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence -
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil
- to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
As we await the return of Christ, the grace of God keeps us steadfast
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him with all speech and all knowledge-even as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you-so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ; who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
We do not know the day or hour when the Master will return, to assess us.
Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.
Therefore, keep awake-for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."
There are various themes to explore as Advent begins. Isaiah calls us to confess our sins and hope for better days. Paul's thanksgiving to God is upbeat about the future. Jesus warns us against complacency, for the end is coming sooner than we expect. We might go mainly with the first and third readings, about being prepared for the day of the Lord.
Advent invites reassessment of where our ways are leading us. This annual reminder that the world as we know it will one day end, sounds more appropriate in the northern Wintry season, when daylight is short and darkness seems to be winning over the light. But the positive side of this is that a new Spring day is dawning over the horizon, when Christ will come again into our lives with power to save us.
Do you ever watch people at airports, waiting for loved ones to arrive from a flight? They often seem excited, eager for the first appearance of the familiar face, ready with the broad smile of greeting to embrace the returning traveller. We too wait for the Lord's coming with eagerness, because we long for his presence. The waiting is important because, during our life's pilgrimage, we are incomplete. As Augustine once said, "You have made us for Yourself, o Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You." At some deep level of our personhood we are in need, a need that only God can fill.
This is a time to open our hearts and invite the Lord to bring us to completion. We begin Advent, yearning for his coming. Today's first reading puts this yearning into an image, that "We have all withered like leaves… blown by the wind." The whirling, withered leaves of autumn are a familiar scene these past few weeks. Isaiah proposes the dead leaves as symbols of all that is dried up and withered in our lives. But he also calls us to look for a better day. God is still in charge of creation, and our personal lives are under his loving care. We pray this Advent, "Come, Lord Jesus," and make our own the words of the psalm, "Visit this vine and protect it, the vine your right hand has chosen." It is a central plank of our faith that the Lord never abandons His people.
Back to the people at airports waiting for loved ones to arrive. It is an alert, active waiting - keeping an eye on the time. In today's gospel Jesus says, "Be on your guard, stay awake". He wants us to focus on our task here and now. We are to grow more mature in our relationship with others and with him, paying attention to prayer, and living with his message in our hearts. That's what waiting for him should be like. And while we wait, we can enjoy his gifts, as promised, for as Paul assures us: "You will not be without any of the gifts of the Spirit while you are waiting for our Lord Jesus Christ."
John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ by raising expectations. Once Jesus had arrived, there only remained for John to disappear gracefully from the scene
God is coming to save his people and to open up our way into the future.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord's hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
"In the desert prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken."
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!"
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
God gives us time to repent and so be ready to meet him when he comes.
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.
John the Baptist prepares the people for the coming of their Saviour
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the desert: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'" John the baptizer appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
John the Baptist could be the central figure in today's homily. He prepared the minds of people in his circle to welcome the bringer of salvation. That is how God seems to work: sending the message of salvation and meaningful living to us through each other. St Paul once asked two vital questions, "How can people know about God if they have never heard? and how can they hear if nobody is sent to them?" So the vocation to proclaim or preach religious truth is vital, if God is to be known and loved.
Jesus found his first disciples among those who heard John the Baptist preach. It was John who showed them the value of self-control and of prayer, who urged them to listen to the inner voice of God, with a contrite and faithful heart. The high point of John's short ministry was meeting with Jesus. Not only did he baptise Our Lord but he sent some of his own followers to join the Jesus movement. Through him, Andrew and his brother Peter, and Philip and Nathanael became apostles.
God still wants us to help help other people to know and love him. If we were more committed as Christians, maybe we could do more to influence others towards faith in God. Parents can introduce their children to God, with words about trust and prayer. But their words will only be effective if built on the example of their actual life. In all sorts of way, people are in position to influence others, for good or ill. This is clearly so for those who work in the communications media, press, radio and T.V. But ordinary people doing ordinary jobs can also influence the views and values of those they interact with. In light of today's portrayal of John the Baptist, does our way of speaking and behaving help others to share our values, or do we confirm their suspicion that this world is a selfish and cynical place?
And what about promoting vocations to the priesthood or other ministry, or any form of service to the church of Christ? The future of our church as an organised, priest-served community handing on the prayer-life and values of Jesus is under serious question today. But if enough people open their hearts to God's work, like John the Baptist and those first disciples, Andrew and Philip and Peter, then a way will be found to keep the world aware of the saving message of Christ. In the process, our bishops may need to be urged by many practicing Catholics to open up the priesthood to well motivated, devoted married people, as well as to the traditional but diminishing cadre of the voluntarily celibate.
The call of John the Baptist is challenging but, ultimately, it is a consoling word, because the Lord to whom John calls on us to turn our hearts is not one who is here to judge us. Rather, he is one who has come to heal and renew us. The voice crying in the wilderness is, ultimately, a voice of consolation. In the opening words of Isaiah in today's first reading, 'Console my people, console them. Speak to the heart of Jerusalem.' At the end of that reading, Isaiah declares, 'Here is the Lord coming with power.' The word 'power' can have negative connotations for us. It can suggest some kind of overbearing presence or a determination to dominate. Yet the power of the Lord that Isaiah speaks about is of a different kind altogether. He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast, and leading to their rest the mother ewes who are soon to give birth. This is a very tender power; it is the power of a faithful and enduring love, a love that gathers and nurtures and gives rest. This is the God whom John the Baptist invites us to rediscover this Advent. It is this God who comes to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In the gospel, the Baptist refers to Jesus as 'more powerful than I am.' He is the more powerful one, in the sense that the first reading defines power. It is Jesus who gives full expression to God's tender love that brings healing to the broken, strength to the weak and rest to the weary. It is this adult Jesus, now risen Lord, whose coming towards us and present to us we celebrate at Christmas. The Baptist calls us this Advent to prepare a way in our lives for the coming of this Lord, this Shepherd, in whom, as Responsorial Psalm says, mercy and faithfulness have met, justice and peace have embraced. This is the one we are called to meet this Advent, who can give meaning and depth to all our other encounters.
The Messiah, guided by God's Spirit. This text describes Jesus' ministry
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
The spirit of fervour encouraged among the early Christians
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
John the Baptist's testimony to Jesus
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?"
He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Today's readings are brimful of joy and hope. Israel radiates as a joyful bride coming to her bridegroom adorned for a lavish, oriental wedding. Paul's words to the Thessalonians continue the theme of hope and joy in a community that lives by the life of Christ. And St John, in the gospel, pictures the work of John the Baptist, who came to witness to God's light upon this earth. This is not a joyousness without responsibility. It's a joy that is found when people find and carry out their true mission in life. Isaiah speaks of one anointed and sent to bring good news to the oppressed - words that were adopted by Jesus to describe his own life's purpose - just as they should also be made real in the life of every Christian. Those privileged to share in Jesus' spiritual life must also share in his concerns and desires.
Two key ideas in today's readings go well together:
1. The spiritual joy that marks the Christian faith, that we are waiting for the coming of the Lord, and our entry into a life of eternal communion with God. The other is the willingness to bear our share of the Christian work-load, to do our bit, in our time, to realise the goals of Jesus in our world. I'd like to hear a homily focussed on one of these, without totally forgetting the other. In these times of economic austerity and budget cuts that are endlessly debated, is no harm to be reminded of the blessings in our lives, our reasons to be joyful. Mention, for example, the love we enjoy with our family and friends, the pleasure of meeting new people, of awakening some dormant talent by taking a course of adult education; the solidarity we feel in our local community when people willingly help their neighbours in their needs; the consolation to be found in prayer. Many examples can be named, to illustrate God's blessing in our lives: reasons to be joyful. Like the northern Irish writer C.S. Lewis, we too can be "surprised by joy," and re-discover gladness and meaning in life.
2. Our advent-mission to help the needy, if we are to carry on "the project of Jesus" - the commitment he always showed to people on the margins. Practical examples of his "good news for the poor" can be pointed out, according to the life-situation of the worshippers. Our homilist must try to persuade those whose lives are peaceful and prosperous not to be afraid to let the pain of the needy come through to them and touch them. The sort of carefree joy that lets us shut our eyes to the seamier side of life, and "pass by on the other side," is not the authentic joy announced in today's reading. Care for our neglected neighbours may stand in a certain tension with our personal sense of joy, but the two can and should be blended into the lifestyle of anybody who wants to build their life on Jesus.
Children are great with questions. As any parent knows they can ask the most profound questions in the simplest of ways. We all ask questions because, at heart, we have an instinct for seeking and searching after truth. This is a life-long search. We can never get to the point in this life where we can say, 'I now have the total truth.' The gospel declares that God is truth — and God is always beyond us. We can never fully grasp God with our minds or our hearts. Yet we have to be faithful to the search for truth, even if along the way we find ourselves making painful discoveries that involve letting go of long-held and cherished convictions. We keep trying to come closer to the truth, the truth about our world, about each other, about ourselves as individuals, and about God. We keep questioning in the hope that our questioning will bring us closer to the truth.
In our search for our own personal truth, two of the big questions that drives us are, 'Who am I?' and 'Why am I doing what I am doing?' We seek after our identity, in the broadest sense of that term, and we try to clarify for ourselves the ultimate purpose that drives all we do and say. In today's gospel, those two big questions are put to John the Baptist by the religious authorities, 'Who are you?' and 'Why are you baptizing?' In answer to the first question, John began by declaring who he was not. He was clear that he was not the Christ, the Messiah. John did not try to be more than he was. Later on in the gospel of John, using an image drawn from a wedding celebration, he would say of himself that he was not the bridegroom, only the friend of the bridegroom who rejoices at the bridegroom's voice. In this morning's gospel John declares himself to be the voice crying in the wilderness; he is not the Word, only the voice; he is not the light, only the witness to the light. When John was asked why he was doing what he was doing, why he was baptizing, he declared that he baptized to make known the 'one who stands among you, unknown to you.' He did what he was doing to open people's eyes to the person standing among them, to the Messiah who was in their midst without their realizing it. There was a great light shining among them that many were unaware of, and John had come to bear witness to that light. John did what he did because of who he was. The answer to the question, 'Why are you baptizing?' flowed from the answer to the more fundamental question, 'Who are you?'
'Who are you?', is a question we can answer at many different levels. We can simply give our name, or give or parents' names; we can answer it by giving our professional qualifications, or by naming the role or the position we have in life. Yet, the deepest level, the most fundamental level, at which we can answer that question is the spiritual level. Who am I at that deepest, most spiritual, level of my being? Who am I before God? Who is God calling me to be? Here, John the Baptist, the great Advent saint, can be of help to us. He articulates for us who each one of us is in virtue of our baptism, who God is calling us to be. No more than John the Baptist, we are certainly not the Messiah. We are not the light. We know only too well the areas of darkness in our lives and in our hearts. However, like John the Baptist, we are a witness to the Light. Even though we are all far from perfect, we are, nonetheless, called to be a witness to Christ.
John the Baptist says in today's gospel, 'there stands among you, unknown to you, the one who is coming after me.' The Lord stands among all of us, but he remains unknown to many. Our calling is to make him known, to allow him to shine forth in our world through our lives. John spoke of himself as a voice crying in the wilderness. John used his voice to make known the light. We too are asked to use our voice to make Christ known. It does not mean that we stand in the main street and preach. Rather we use the gift of communication that we have, the gifts of speech and writing, to proclaim the person of Christ, his world view, his values and his attitudes. In what we communicate and how we communicate it, we allow the Lord to communicate through us. Who we are as witnesses to the light, as the voice for the Word, shapes how we live and explains why we live the way we do. The answer to the question, 'Who are you?' grounds the answer to the question, 'Why are you doing what you are doing?' Advent is a good time to reclaim our fundamental identity, our Christ identity. If Jesus is to be born anywhere today, it will be in each one of us.
The prophet Nathan promises that God will raise up the house of David - a dynasty completed by Jesus.
Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent." Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you."
But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.
I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
Praise of the God whose salvation is revealed in Jesus Christ. This good news must be spread everywhere
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith-to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.
The annunciation to our Lady, and her total Yes to God.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel as sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God."
Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.
If you were to ask a married couple how they came to fall in love, or asked two good friends how they came to be friends, they may have difficulty answering and might say something like, "It just happened." In one sense that may be true. In another sense it didn't just happen. If two people are in a significant relationship with each other, be it marriage or friendship, it is because they have chosen each other. Why does someone choose one person rather than another as a spouse or friend? Why does someone choose to share his or her life with someone else? This is the mystery of human freedom, human preference. The more significant relationships cannot be forced. Love is freely bestowed by one person on another; the other freely receives what is bestowed and freely reciprocates, and a new relationship is born. There is a depth about all that.
If there is mystery in the relationship of one human being with another, even more so in the relationship between God and us. Why did God choose Mary to be the mother of his Son? Why this particular woman in this small village at this particular time of human history? It was the mysterious freedom and preference of God. Yet, there is a difference between God's choice of Mary and the choice any one of us might make of another. When any one of us chooses another to love or to befriend, there is always, of necessity, an exclusive element to that choice. We choose this person rather than any number of others. Although we choose several people in the course of our lives in each case our choice of one excludes others.
God's choice of Mary was not exclusive in that sense. In choosing Mary, he was choosing all of us. He chose Mary for all our sakes. God chose her to carry God's Son on behalf of us all, because her future child was God's gift to us all. That is why how Mary responded to God's choice of her was not just a matter that concerned herself. It concerned us all. We all had a vested interest in how she responded. Her response would also be our response. In a sense we looked to her to make an appropriate response on behalf of us all to God's choice of us.
The good news is that Mary did not let us down. Although initially disturbed and perplexed by the message, she eventually surrendered fully to that mysterious choice of God. Having been graced in this mysterious way, she responded wholeheartedly, "Let it be to me according to your word." God freely chose her, and she in turn chose to place her freedom at God's service. God's choice of Mary, and her choice of God in response had the most wonderful consequences for all of us. She went on to sing, "the Almighty has done great things for me." And because of her response to God's choice, we can all sing, "the Almighty has done great things for us." We have all been graced through Mary's response to God's choice of her.
The readings today draw attention to God's gracious initiative towards us. Their focus is not what we must do for God but rather what God wants to do for us. In the first reading David wanted to do something really big for God, no less than to build a beautiful temple as a house of worship. King David was an achiever who had accomplished a great deal. Yet, the prophet Nathan says that God did not want the king to build him anything. Rather, it was God who would do something for David; into the future David's descendants would lead God's people. David had to let go of his great plans and learn to allow God to grace him.
Receiving from others can be difficult for us. We like to be the givers, the organizers, the achievers. To let others give to us is to acknowledge our need, our dependence, our limitations, and that does not always come easy. Maybe we sense that to allow ourselves to be graced by others is to put ourselves under obligation to them and we are slow to do that. That reluctance to receive can carry over into our relationship with God.
The heart of the good news is that God is a gracious God who wants to give us all things. As Paul says in his epistle, 'God who did not withhold his won Son, but gave him up for all of us, will also with him give us everything else!' This is the special time of year when we allow God to be the God of abundant grace in our regard; it is a time when we come before him in our need and open ourselves to his gracious love and presence.
A few days before Christmas a woman received a beautiful string of pearls in the mail. She could only guess who sent the gift. But when she didn't find any message with the present she burst into tears. Three times she turned the packet inside out and upside down. But there was no note, no words, and no message, wrapped up with the gift. What she really wanted was a card that said 'You mean a great deal to me. I love you!' That message would have meant more to her than the pearls themselves. By contrast, when Gabriel, God's messenger, greets Mary, the first thing Mary hears is words of love from God (words made slightly more explicit here): 'Rejoice, Mary! The Lord is with you. God has chosen you. You are special, you are precious, and you are loved.' God, then, doesn't leave out the important words.
On hearing those words of God's special love for her, Mary can only rejoice. But joy is not her only response. Here she is, a girl about fourteen, living quietly in an out-of-the way village of Galilee, far from the rich and famous and the movers and shakers of this world, and yet hearing those amazing and stunning words from God! 'What is God up to?' she wonders. The gospel could not be clearer when it says: 'She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what the greeting could mean.'
The messenger of God reassures her: 'Don't be alarmed! Don't be afraid, Mary! Listen to what I have to say! Of all women on earth, God has chosen you to be the Mother of the Saviour of the World!' But Mary is a virgin and so she asks the perfectly obvious and reasonable question: 'But how can this come about, since I am a virgin?' The messenger answers: 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow.'
Mary doesn't ask any more questions. She doesn't need to. She simply responds freely and deliberately to the God of surprises, the God who has picked her out for the greatest mission in the world: 'I am the servant of the Lord,' she says, 'I say "yes" to God. I accept my part in God's plans. Let what you have said be done to me.' From that moment Mary conceives the child Jesus in her womb. From that moment 'the Word of God became a human being and dwelt among us.' St Augustine comments that Mary first conceives her child in her heart and only then does she conceive him in her body. Our Preface today makes the beautiful observation: 'The virgin mother longed for him with love beyond all telling', i.e. with indescribable love.
We are living in an age when many people find it difficult to make permanent commitments to others, commitments that require life-long love, fidelity, perseverance and endurance. So it's particularly appropriate for us to wonder and marvel today at Mary's total commitment to God, and to all the changes her pregnancy will bring to all her plans for the future. What a striking example she is, then, of living that motto for life, 'Let go and let God.' She teaches us to put our faith and trust in God at all times, but especially in difficult, demanding, and seemingly impossible situations. But she also teaches us to be people who bring Christ to others, just as Mary set out immediately to bring him to her elderly cousin, Elizabeth.
During the past year we have become aware of how much darkness there is in our world as well as how much light. In the rituals we have watched on TV for people killed or maimed in particular catastrophes, we have noticed that grieving people always light candles of remembrance. Those small pieces of self-consuming wax and flame say that the light in our world is stronger than the darkness. That is the message too of the lighting of the four candles today of our Advent wreath. Those candles will burn out, but our commitment as his followers to be the light of Christ in the darkness of insensitivity and indifference, ignorance and malice, should never burn out or never be put out.
During the rest of our Eucharist, we can renew our commitment to be that Light of Christ that drives out the darkness of evil, and especially for those for whom Christmas is more a time of darkness, sadness, depression and desperation than an experience of light, joy, love and peace. I'm thinking particularly of people who are homeless, separated, bereaved, friendless, or abused. At this time of Advent and Christmas they especially need our commitment to be the light and love of Christ to them. May we, like God, surprise and encourage them with our loving words and loving care!
Theme: Advent is a time for new thoughts, new beginnings, new projects, as we start a new year of Christian prayer and worship. The Gospel calls us to be ready to welcome Jesus as the anchor of our lives, our true Saviour, and prepare for his return at the end of time. It's an open invitation to make a new start in our personal spiritual journey.
In those days [my people] will live in safety
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The Lord is our righteousness."
Paul's prayer for Christians to grow in fervour and holiness
And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Finally, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.
Making ready for the final day when Christ will come as judge
[Jesus said to his disciples]: "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."
There is a note of urgency and summons to alertness in both the second reading and the gospel today. These might provide one with a jumping-off point for some reflections on the start of the liturgical year.
Conversion: One might adapt or make use of Paul's imagery of throwing off the bed-clothes and dressing for the daytime. The whole image is one of getting ready to take on another day. There is a hint here of the struggle that some people experience in trying to get up in the morning — a symbol for conversion. The day that has to be faced is the new day of Christ's final coming. The real question to be faced is "Can we face Christ?" "Have we really cast off the deeds of darkness/self-interest, in favour of living in the light of the gospel?" The gospel faces us with this question about how alert we are to our real selves. We are supposed to belong to Christ; have we really lived as if that were true? Part of the struggle of taking on a new day is the struggle to hope that it may be better than the failures of the day before. The process of conversion, turning from the darkness to the light, is only made possible by the gift of the light itself. It is the rising of the sun that calls us to get up. It was the coming of Christ into the world as its light that makes true conversion possible.
The renewal of the old: Part of the process of beginning a new liturgical year is a reflection on time, the relationship between past, present and future. The "time" that we celebrate in Christian liturgy is not the static time of repeated patterns that never change from year to year. What we celebrate centrally in our worship are events from the contingency of history; events that we claim to represent. Starting a new year we need to remember that the saving events of Christ's life, death and resurrection, have to be made present in life as well as liturgy. It is in the changing circumstances of new life and new history that the mystery of salvation will unfold. In this new year we will all change, both individually and as community; we pray today that the change will be for the better realization of Christ's presence among us. It is important for us to be able to focus on this hope-in-change for the sake of the young people in the community who sometimes experience the church community as a relic of the past, "unreal" and isolated from the dynamics of history.
Seeking a new world: Today we are presented with an old vision of a new world. It is so old that some people think it will never become real. It is the vision of a world at peace (first reading.) The challenge of that lesson is addressed to each of us, the challenge to walk in the light of the Lord. It is only through seeking his revelation and living it out that the peoples of the earth will find the way to this new world of peace. The task of building this reality is given to all people but especially to Christians who follow the ultimate peace-maker (cf. Eph 2:11 ff..) The challenge and the urgency of the call to build peace is not confined to the scriptural word of God. Contemporary analysts tell us of the importance of transforming the instruments of war into tools for the development of a world at peace.
The new liturgical year offers us the hope that we will be better peace-makers in the future. It offers us the hope that if we do "put on Christ" our young people will not lose heart, and our liturgical celebrations will be turned not merely towards the past but towards a living presence and a real future.
Advent reminds us of the three comings of the Lord — the coming in history over 2000 years ago; the coming in glory at the end of time when God's dream for human kind will be realised; the coming in mystery in the happenings of daily life.
Somebody has said that if we can learn in these weeks of Advent the importance of patient waiting we have learned one of the greatest lesson in life. This is hard for us, especially in the West. We live in an instant age — instant food, instant this, that and the other. We even speed up nature: with artificial light we fool the hens to lay two eggs a day! We are in too much of a hurry in having every possible experience too early in life — the morning-after pill for eleven year olds!
The most important things in life cannot be rushed and require patient waiting. Patient waiting is required from the mother to bring the child to birth, and then from babyhood to adulthood; the teacher requires it with the slow learner; the politician requires it not to give up on the peace process, and everybody requires it to build loving relationships. We wait not mournfully, but in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Today, the first Sunday of Advent , marks the beginning of a period of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ, our Saviour, at Christmas. All the readings in the Mass advise us most urgently to make ourselves ready, to be on the alert, to turn aside from our sinful ways, and give more time to God in our lives."Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord," Isaiah says in the first reading. We must not live lives of darkness and of sin, St Paul admonishes his listeners; but let us put on the armour of God's grace, and appear in the light, meaning that our consciences should have nothing to hide at any time, but rather be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit directing them."Be vigilant, stay awake," the gospel warns, at any moment you may be called upon to make an eternal choice, and that as unexpectedly as the people who were swallowed up by the Flood, in the time of Noah.
Outwardly, people may appear the same, like the men working in the fields or the women grinding at the millstone, but inwardly they have responded differently to the graces God has given them. So they are in varying states of preparedness for what is to come, with the result that while some will be taken into God's kingdom, others will be left or rejected. This is true of every single individual, for as we pass through life we are all being faced with a choice between two ways, either that of slavery to evil tendencies in our lives, which we call sin, or, on the other hand, that of grace, which is allowing Jesus Christ be our guide and exemplar in all that we do.
It is only when we sincerely try to model our lives on that of Christ that our spirits will experience real freedom. Jesus himself said to the Jews (Jn 8:32), "If you persevere in my word, you will indeed be my disciples. You will learn the truth, and the truth will make you free." Persevering in the word of Jesus demands that we listen to it, as it comes to us from out the scriptures and from within our consciences; also that we think about it and study its requirements, and that we put into action what we have learned. The true disciple of Christ asks the question, "What am I setting before myself as the main purpose of my life?" My career, the gaining of material possessions, the pursuit of pleasure, or the service of God and my neighbour? The truth of Jesus will teach us what things are really important and what are not. Furthermore, discipleship of Christ brings its own rewards. It brings freedom from fear, fear about oneself, fear about one's ability to cope with life, fear about contradiction and opposition from others, fear about death and the uncertainty of life thereafter."In love there can be no fear," St John wrote (1 Jn 4:18), "but perfect love casts out fear; because to fear is to expect punishment, and anyone who is afraid is still imperfect in love."
If we end up having no love or reverence towards God, no respect or consideration or pity towards others, then we will have reached the stage of choosing to be lost, as Jesus, in his prayer at the Last Supper, said of Judas."Father, I kept those you had given me true to your name. I have watched over them, and not one is lost except the one who chose to be lost." This is what should really frighten us, that the choice of our own destiny for all eternity rests entirely with ourselves.
Advent is a time for listening."Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord," the first reading tells us, "so that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths." The second reading is the one that finally brought about the conversion of St Augustine after he had opened the New Testament at random at that very passage, and please God it will help us to look into our own lives and, if needs be, change them too.
God will level out a highway for the exiles to return
The Lord says this:
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.
Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God;
put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;
for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven.
For God will give you evermore the name,
"Righteous Peace, Godly Glory."
Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height;
look toward the east,
and see your children gathered from west and east
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that God has remembered them.
For they went out from you on foot,
led away by their enemies;
but God will bring them back to you,
carried in glory, as on a royal throne.
For God has ordered that every high mountain
and the everlasting hills be made low
and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,
so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.
The woods and every fragrant tree
have shaded Israel at God's command.
For God will lead Israel with joy,
in the light of his glory,
with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.
Unity, perseverance and witness to Christ and the Gospel.
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Prepare a way for God, through sincere repentance
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.
He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
"The voice of one crying out in the desert:
"Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
We are in a very dark time of the year. The mornings are dark and the evenings darker still. Light is at a premium, and we have yet to reach the shortest day of the year. It is within that darkness that we have lit our second Advent candle today. The days may be getting shorter, but our Advent wreath is getting brighter. The growing brightness of our Advent readings says that we are drawing closer to the great feast of light, Christmas, the birthday of the one who declared, 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.' With the birth of Jesus, the light of God's love shone over us in a special and wonderful way. In today's first reading, the prophet Baruch looks forward to a day when 'God will guide Israel in joy by the light of his glory.'
Advent is a hopeful season. Hope is such an important Christian virtue, something deeper than simple optimism of temperament. We can feel cheerfully optimistic about all kinds of things, but, strictly speaking, the true object of hope is union with God. We are hopeful because we believe in a God who can bring life out of death, light out of darkness. It is above all in dark times that we need hope. And we pray for hope and help for those going through dark days at the present time, for people insecure in their jobs or their health or their home life, and even more for those who have been displaced as refugees, and are waiting in the cold at barbed wire borders, hoping to get to Europe and a better life.
The second reading (from Philippians) was written out of a very dark situation. St Paul was in a Roman prison somewhere. It is clear from that letter that he wasn't at all sure of getting out alive. Yet, even though the situation in which Paul wrote that letter was dark and unpromising, the letter itself is one of the most hopeful and joyful of all Paul's letters. The mood of this letter tells us that it is possible to be full of hope in even the darkest of situations. Even in his prison, Paul looks at life with hopeful eyes. When thinking of his friends in Philippi, he recalls all the good they have done. That local church was no more perfect than any other group of people, but Paul chooses to celebrate the good that is there among them. He remembers with joy the ways they have helped to spread the good news from the days they first heard it right up to the present. We can be tempted in dark times to look at everything and everyone with jaundiced eyes. Paul encourages us to look at life, and, especially, at people with hopeful eyes, even in dark times. To look at people with hopeful eyes is to be alert to all that is good in their lives and to celebrate that goodness. It is to name, to ourselves and to others, what they have done more than what they have failed to do. Paul expresses the hope in that reading that God who began this good work among the church in Philippi would one day bring it to completion. Paul was not only in tune with what was good in people's lives, but he was also very aware of what people could become with God's help. We need to look at ourselves and at others with those kinds of hopeful eyes. God's good work has only begun in us. We are a work in progress, and, in spite of our failings, God will keep on working to bring the good work he has been doing in ourselves to completion. God does ask us to co-operate with his ongoing work in our lives. Yet, it is God's work and because it is God's work we can be hopeful that it will be brought to completion, and that one day we will all be complete, and that we will reach, what that second reading calls, 'the perfect goodness which Jesus Christ produces in us.'
In many ways, John the Baptist is an image of the church. At a later time, John pointed to Jesus, and encouraged his disciples to follow him, and become Jesus' disciples. (On occasions, unfortunately, the church could be accused of pointing to herself as the source of salvation). During this Advent season, the church concentrates on preparing us to celebrate the coming of Jesus as our Saviour. We must heed that call, and prepare our hearts for this great occasion.
We are called to straighten out our lives; to fill in the valleys, and to level the mountains and hills is about ensuring justice for all of God's people. In today's language, the Baptist wanted a level playing field for all, so that everybody has access to the goods of this world. The final words of Isaiah in today's gospel tells that "all people will see the salvation sent to us from our God." This is the direct result of making straight the ways of the Lord, filling the valleys, levelling the mountains, straightening the curves, and making smooth the rough places. We can all identify these areas in our lives. The gospel has a message for me. I am the one who is asked to turn from my sins, to turn to God, and to prepare the way for him to make his home within my heart. I am the one who is asked to ensure fair play and justice for others, so that I can see the salvation sent from God.
Filling valleys, levelling mountains, straightening the crooked road, preparing a pathway for the Lord this is our preparation for Christmas. Of course it involves decisions, and these decisions come out of the context of the realities of my life. God is always calling on me to respond to him. Responding to him is to become responsible. I have responsibility for my actions, and become willing to face up to the truth. There is a tendency to look for a softer, easier way.
Most churches have a Service of Reconciliation during Advent. In a way, we can think of this as "Confession without the shopping list." To the older generation, it may appear all too simple, all too easy. This is to misunderstand the thinking behind the Reconcilation Service. Sin has a community dimension. When I do wrong, I offend the community by failing to live my Christian vocation. If the community is lessened by my sin, there should be a community dimension to my repentance. That is why the public acknowledgement of our sinfulness, once or twice a year, differs from going into a Confessional to whisper in the dark. In the season of peace on earth to people of good-will, it is important to express our good-will, and act on it.
Jerusalem rejoices because salvation is near and God himself will protect his people
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear,
O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
Rejoice in the Lord, be free of anxiety and live in a spirit of prayer and thanksgiving.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
John the Baptist urges various groups of people to works of justice and charity
And the crowds asked John, "What then should we do?" In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John , whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
The lead-up to Christmas has a sense of happy anticipation, an excitement matched in today's readings. We are invited to a truly joyful proclamation of the Good News. In the course of The Joy of the Gospel, the bishop of Rome writes (emphasis added):
One cannot but admire the resources that the Lord used to dialogue with his people, to reveal his mystery to all and to attract ordinary people by his lofty teachings and demands. I believe that the secret lies in the way Jesus looked at people, seeing beyond their weaknesses and failings: "Fear not little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Lk 12:32); Jesus preaches with that spirit. Full of joy in the Spirit, he blesses the Father who draws the little ones to him: "I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes" (Lk 10:21). The Lord truly enjoys talking with his people; the preacher should strive to communicate that same enjoyment to his listeners.
An Advent examen (from The Pilgrim's Almanac, by Edward Hays):
"Advent is the perfect time to clear and prepare the Way. Advent is a winter training camp for those who desire peace. By reflection and prayer, by reading and meditation, we can make our hearts a place where a blessing of peace would desire to abide and where the birth of the Prince of Peace might take place. Daily we can make an Advent examination. Are there any feelings of discrimination toward race, sex, or religion? Is there a lingering resentment, an unforgiven injury living in our hearts? Do we look down upon others of lesser social standing or educational achievement? Are we generous with the gifts that have been given to us, seeing ourselves as their stewards and not their owners? Are we reverent of others, their ideas and needs, and of creation? These and other questions become Advent lights by which we may search the deep, dark corners of our hearts."
The liturgy of this Third Sunday in Advent is full of comfort and joy. In our Latin past it was called "Gaudete Sunday," (gaudete meaning rejoice.) The liturgy bids us be happy, not to worry, for the Lord is near. And if we want the peace of God in our hearts, that peace will be ours, if we trustfully ask God for it. St Paul says, "There is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving". He tells us not to wait until after God has granted our requests before saying thanks. Even as we ask, we should be giving thanks. One of the things to thank God for at the end of this year is all the good done by so many good people in our time.
Wherever there is evil, God will see that brave, resolute souls rise up to combat it. Such was the work done by St John the Baptist, as described by St Luke. People were prepared to walk all the way from Jerusalem down to near Jericho in the deep Jordan valley, on the edge of the desert — all of fifteen miles each way — in order to see John, this charismatic figure living as an ascetic in the desert around the Dead Sea. Having heard him, many stayed to be baptised by him. But they were full of the uncertainty that can surface in all of us if we take time to cast a critical eye on the kind of life we are leading.
"What must we do?" they asked him; and John spelled out his answer in no uncertain terms. While their request showed their willingness to change, it also showed that they were lacking in clear insight about what is right human behaviour. "Love and do what you will," was to be the motto of St Augustine, meaning that if people have total inner commitment to God, then they will be incapable of doing wrong, they will know instinctively what is right from the promptings of the Spirit within them.
John the Baptist tried to change his listeners' hearts by telling them not to be grasping, not to take from others more than a just return for services rendered, but rather to help those in need. "If anyone has two cloaks, he must share with the man who has none." "Give your blood," the ancient monks in the desert used to say, "and you will possess the Spirit." The society to which John was addressing himself — as indeed Jesus did later — was to collapse because of its lack of spiritual depth, its over concern with externals, as evidenced by the Pharisees, its pursuit of a narrow-minded nationalism, as seen in the Zealots who resorted to violence and assassination in their hatred of the Romans.
The greatest danger to the continuation of any society becomes a reality when most of its members become motivated by selfish concerns, greed and covetousness. The message that our own society invariably highlights is not, alas, that of sharing cloaks, but of wearing outfits that are better, more comfortable, more in keeping with the size of one's pay differential. The sad thing is that all this unbridled seeking for earthly comforts, this concern with the cares of life, pulls us further and further away from the yearning for himself, that God has placed within all of us. It turns us away from the things of the Spirit, and from the pursuit of religious idealism. Prayerfully then, and in the presence of God, let us give thanks to the Father in this Mass, for the gift of his divine Son, who in its celebration makes us one with himself. Let us ask for the peace of God, as Sacred scripture urges us, for that abiding peace which is so much greater than we can ever understand, so much greater than anything this world can ever offer us. And we can be assured that for all who faithfully do this the reward will be everlasting.
Salvation would come from insignificant Bethlehem — to unite the nation under God
The Lord says this: But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth, and he shall be the one of peace.
Only Christ, our supreme High Priest, can effect reconciliation between us and God
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, "Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, 'See, God, I have come to do your will, O God' (in the scroll of the book it is written of me)."
When he said above, "You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings" (these are offered according to the law), then he added, "See, I have come to do your will." He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God's will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Elizabeth recognises the unique child that Mary carries within her
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.
The readings invite one further pause, one further holding of the breath, before the birth of Jesus. The Visitation, in particular, with its explicit and implied encounter(s), may help us reflect on all the encounters of this season, not forgetting "the" encounter to which we are all invited.
When a mother is expecting, all the focus is on her health. She gets loads of advice — 'be careful,' 'don't lift that' and 'don't forget your afternoon nap.' Once the baby is born the main attention moves to the baby — 'who does she look like?' 'what name will you give him?' …and so on. So on this last Sunday before Christmas the Gospel is focussed on Mary, the expectant mother, and in particular, on her visit to her cousin, Elizabeth.
One could say that Mary is even more honoured in the Eastern Church than she is in the West. In the West, after the 16th century reformation, many Protestants stopped honouring Mary. Many shrines were levelled, stained glass windows were broken, statues of Mary shattered, pictures of the Madonna burnt. Still, not all Protestants disowned Mary. A frequently quoted line about her is where William Wordworth refers to her as 'our tainted nature's solitary boast.' Martin Luther had a lifelong devotion to Mary and even kept a picture of her on his desk, though many Lutherans seem unaware of this.
All Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, like to meditate on the Magnificat, that prayerful song brimming over with anger at the way the world is tilted against the poor. It is Mary's cry for justice: He has filled the hungry with good things/ And sent the rich away empty. This is Mary who inspires all followers of her son to challenge injustice also in our own time and place.
The two pregnant women in our Gospel today are different in age, yet both full of joy and concern for each other. Mary goes to visit Elizabeth because of the dangers attendant on so late a pregnancy. That she went with hasted, halfway across the country, to make the visit is a clear sign of Mary's generosity and goodness. Through the light of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth recognised Mary's privilege as the mother of the longed-for Messiah. She greets Mary in the words we are so familiar with in our Hail Mary. And Mary responds in the equally familiar words of the Magnificat. These two great women understand the miracle of conception and birth. But in each case there was divine intervention in a truly exceptional way. The Gospel says that both were informed of this fact by the words of an angel; they each had a message from God telling them so.
The fact that these two women had this divine intervention is a reminder that our own lives too are a gift of God; what we might call ordinary grace. It is from this understanding that the Church takes its position on all life issues.
At some moments we may recognise the hand of God in our lives. Maybe at the point when we felt we had a priestly or religious vocation or when we finally decided on our partner in marriage. Maybe it was at the birth of a child, a change in job circumstances, or the death of a parent. Maybe it was a moment in prayer, the grace of a sacrament, advice in the confessional, wise words from a friend or relative at a critical moment.
God continues to work with us and for us. God takes the long view and there are periods of seeming barrenness, seeming aloneness. But these are all part of that gestation which is life on earth. We were born into this world and we will be reborn into eternal life.
Every now and then like John the Baptist we leap in this womb which is our life on earth. Every now and then we recognise God's presence, as John recognised Jesus' presence, and we leap with joy. But life is always moving on and God is always with us. It was God caused us to come into being, who sustains and feeds us, and who will welcome us into life eternal. As well as the birth of Jesus, we celebrate our own birth too at Christmas — a birth, a life that flows towards death and final resurrection.