by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Put on the armour of the Lord Jesus Christ and stop paying attention to your sinful nature and satisfying its desires.” Romans 13: 11-14
“Stay awake! For you do not know when your Lord will come.” Matthew 24: 37-44
Advent was included in the Church’s calendar as a period of reflection intended to engage the Christian in giving attention to the significance of the fact that, in the person of Jesus, God demonstrated unequivocal solidarity and identification with all of humanity. Two words which occur again and again in the prayers and readings of Advent are “Emmanuel” and “incarnation”. Emmanuel is one of the names attributed to Jesus and literally means “God with us”. It first appears in the Bible in the prophesy of Isaiah, who proclaimed how Jesus would be born as a child and take a place in human history. In a prophesy to Ahaz, Isaiah declared: “Watch for this: A girl who is a virgin will become pregnant. She’ll bear a son and name him Immanuel (God-With-Us)” (Isaiah 7:14). We will have to wait till the Fourth Sunday of Advent to hear this reading.
“Incarnation” is a word that is rarely used outside the context of religion. It is derived from the past participle of the Latin verb incarnare, which means “to make/become flesh”. From about the year 1300, the noun incarnation was used quite specifically to mean “the embodiment of God in the person of Jesus Christ” (Chambers, Dictionary of Etymology, p. 517, Harrap Publishers, N.Y. 1988). The word also appears in the flower name carnation, flesh colour. Advent invites us to reflect on the enormity of how God touched humanity in the person of Jesus and how, as a consequence, we are able to encounter Jesus in and through our human experiences. The prominent Catholic theologian and Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius (c.295-375) wrote a treatise on the Incarnation entitled DeIncarnatione, in which he stated: “God became like us so that we might become like him.” (sic). The implication of this is that Jesus grew and developed through childhood, adolescence and adulthood like every other male. He asked the kind of questions about his origins and development as every one of us has asked. He had to learn how to befriend his body and make his way through the challenges and traumas of adolescence as every other adolescent has. He had to deal with the whole gamut of human emotions within himself and in everyone he encountered. He experienced grief and rejection, loss and acceptance, illness, suffering and the depravity of humiliation, torture and execution of the kind experienced only by a minority. And he died as we all must.
Regrettably, Advent in the world we know has almost become a non-event. The world of retail commerce has already begun selling for Christmas, and Christmas carols can be heard already in shopping malls the world over. For any of us to set aside time for Advent prayer and reflection requires special effort and discipline.
There is an additional irony in some of the readings set down for this First Sunday of Advent. God’s incarnation in human flesh in the person of Jesus not only points to the value and dignity of human flesh and blood – the fact that Jesus adopted our human flesh and blood implies that – but it suggests that this is worth celebrating. In today’s reading from Romans, however, the human body seems to be the object of some severe criticism. The problem we face here is that the Greek word for flesh used in Romans can have two meanings. Sometimes flesh is equated with our sinful nature, while at other times it is used to refer to our human condition, worthy of our reverence and admiration, despite its fragility. The fact that God, in the person of Jesus, has identified in the incarnation with our flesh, in the sense of something to be reverenced, gives us every reason to celebrate. At the same time, we all know the temptations we experience when we let bodily urges and desires get out of control, when we fail to treat our bodies with reverence, respect and self-control. But that does not mean that there is something about our bodies of which we should be ashamed or embarrassed. We, with our bodies, talents and emotional life, are gifts from God. It’s important that we stop from time to time to remind ourselves that all of God’s gifts are good, and so worthy of respect and reverence. We also know that gifts can be misused, and today’s reading from Romans is simply a reminder to us to use our gifts for the purpose for which they are intended.
That complements the call in the gospel-reading from Matthew to be alert to what is happening within our own lives and in the world around us. That does not imply that we are insensitive to, or burdened with despondency by, the prevalence of violence and the injustice of events taking place in the troubled parts of our world. We also know of many people, including ourselves, whose generosity is at work to bring relief and healing to our sisters and brothers who are victims of injustice, prejudice and neglect. The Gospel call to stay awake is also a reminder to us to recognise the presence of Jesus in everyone we encounter in the course of each day. The corollary of that is that we take care to avoid slipping into living our lives as though each day is just a matter of business as usual. That can so easily lead to complacency and dulling us from being surprised by God’s unexpected revelation in very ordinary events.
Still there is one more image in today’s gospel-reading that cannot be ignored. It strikes me as something of a shock that God will come into our lives like a thief. Yet, apart from the extended metaphor of God as thief in today’s gospel-reading, there are two similar references in the Book of Revelation (Rev 3:3; and 16:15) and another in Thessalonians, where Paul wrote: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5: 2). I have to admit that I am more comfortable with Jesus as the Light of the world, the Bread of Life, the true vine, the door, the Good Shepherd, the Resurrection and the Life, and God as the potter. But thief? In real life, there are many who believe that their bank accounts, their houses, their cars and their health insurance are their guarantee of lasting security. But God has a way of stealing from us the false sense of security we can create for ourselves. Thieves who break into houses don’t advertise their coming, and when they do invade our homes, we can feel violated. God, on the other hand often comes unannounced into our lives. We experience God’s presence in the kindness of neighbours who turn up with meals when we are grieving the loss of a loved one, and in the many other acts of kindness extended to us by friends, neighbours and strangers. Moreover, God is ever intent on “stealing” our hearts and our allegiance, not by deception, but through the insights we get, from time to time, into God’s love for us expressed in very ordinary events. We may even have found ourselves resonating with the experience of the prophet, Jeremiah who acknowledged how God had captivated him: “You have seduced me, Lord, and I have let myself be seduced” (Jeremiah 20: 7) In this context, I am reminded of what a friend said to me after losing all his treasured family photos and other possessions in our recent floods: “In a very real sense, it was a blessing, because those things were distracting me from making sure that my heart was in the right place!”