First Sunday of Advent – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“No one has ever seen or heard of a God like you, who does such deeds for those who put their hope in him.” Isaiah 63: 16-17, 19; 64: 2-7

“Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.”   Mark 13: 33-37

As we move into the season of Advent, I’ll begin by sharing some of its aspects that I find surprising. I have long been puzzled by the fact that Advent was not officially included in the Church’s calendar until more than three hundred years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. I admit to being mystified by the fact that it took so long for the Christian community to celebrate the birth of Jesus as our brother, born of a woman, just as every one of us was. I am further puzzled by the way in which the focus of the readings of the next four weeks fluctuates between the expectations the Jewish people had for a Messiah and the expectations the early Christians had for the second coming of Jesus. To understand the inclusion of Advent and Christmas in the liturgical calendar, it is important to note that, before they had any understanding of the cycle of the four seasons of the year, the earliest inhabitants of Europe, especially northern Europe, lived in fear that, as the days became shorter and colder, the sun would be swallowed up by the darkness that was descending on them. When they noticed that the days were starting to become longer once again, they took to celebrating the survival of the sun. The Christian community reinvented that non-religious celebration by substituting for the sun Jesus the Son of God and Light of the World. They set aside a period of four weeks for reflecting on the advent or coming of Jesus among us in his birth of Jesus as our brother.

In this context, before we focus on the readings of this first Sunday of the Advent season, a reflective time with which we have been familiar from our earliest days. It is worth pausing to ponder the debt we owe to our Jewish ancestors in faith. It was they who held firm to a collective belief that the God in whom they believed would send among them a Messiah who would rescue them from the exiles and disasters they had endured over centuries. The tragedy for them was that only a remnant of them was able to accept that the Messiah would come among them as an infant born in the humblest of circumstances. It was beyond the ability of most of them to imagine that the same infant would grow into a man who would learn to become an ordinary carpenter in an out-of-the way village before becoming an itinerant preacher who would deliver a message that would change the world. Yet these same people had the firmness of faith and the breadth of imagination to believe in the God whom Isaiah described as “the potter who had shaped each one of them out of the clay of the earth and breathed life into them” (see today’s first reading: “And yet, God, you are our Father; we the clay, you the potter, we are all the work of your hand”  Isaiah 64: 7-8). The sad irony was that God, the potter who they believed could transform them as effectively as he had created them, could shape from clay a Messiah who would enter their world in the form of an infant born of peasant parents.

Most of us who were welcomed into the Christian community as infants and those who were baptised as adults, know the Jesus story in all its details. We have some appreciation of the extraordinary expression of God’s love demonstrated in Jesus becoming one of us as fully human and in his living and dying out of love for us, completely in accord with his integrity and totally faithful to the mission given him by God. The fact that God has entered our world in the person of Jesus and changed it forever surely means that we can live in the hope that, by living the values of justice, peace, compassion, tolerance, forgiveness and caring for others, the values of the kingdom of God lived and proclaimed by Jesus, we can be instrumental in continuing to make our world a better place, a place where people can live in peace, freedom and self-determination. The significance of Jesus’ becoming one of us in his incarnation will surely give us plenty for reflection through Advent and food for prayer at Christmas.

Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God is among us. That promise of God’s kingdom will be something in which we have faith only if we see it as possible for us. If we don’t expect that it will become real in our lives, if we don’t invest time and energy in nurturing in our living compassion, hospitality to everyone we encounter, affirmation, generous care, forgiveness and tolerance, we will not be expecting God’s kingdom to become a reality for us. If we give only lip service to the possibility of that kingdom, nothing will come of it. In recent times in Australia, newspapers have carried stories of young women and men who have been offered contracts with professional basketball and football teams in America and the United Kingdom. If the young people receiving those offers cannot see in themselves the possibility of performing at the highest level, the offers made to them will be in vain.

Again and again through its prophets, God called Israel to lift itself out of its mediocrity and failure. Today’s first reading is an example of that. It describes Israel examining its failures but still clinging to its faith in a God who loved every single one of them into life. They picked themselves up, and we are the beneficiaries of the dream they kept alive, the dream that in them God would do something that would change the world.

Almost inexplicably we are confronted with two readings, one from Corinthians stating that we are still waiting for Christ to be revealed in his second coming, but assuring us not to be afraid because in Jesus we have a brother who is a living witness to God’s fidelity and love for us. The gospel-reading from Mark urges us not to fall asleep as we wait in expectation for God to welcome us home. In the meantime, we can make of Advent a preparation time to welcome yet again into our lives the Jesus who modelled for us how to live in its fullness the humanity he embraced when he became one with us in his Incarnation.

If we learn nothing else from how God came into our lives in the person of Jesus, let us not lose sight of the fact that the birth of Jesus is thunderous testimony that God works in unexpected ways. To live in faith is to be ever open to God present and active in the unexpected. Mark’s urging us to stay awake includes a call to be alert to the significance of the unexpected. The unexpected is no stranger to God.