A couple of weeks ago, in one of his regular weekday morning homilies, Pope Francis reminded us that, although no one knows when “the call will come,” nonetheless, “the Church says to us these days: stop a while, stop to think…stop, stop, every day will not continue like this. Do not get used to thinking of it as if it were eternity … think that our life will have an end.”
The season of Advent, which we begin today, originated as an annual period of repentance focused on preparation for Judgment Day. So this Sunday continues and further highlights the end-of-time, Judgment Day themes of the last several Sundays, summing them all up in the warning: “Be watchful! Be alert!” Like the servants in today’s Gospel [Mark 13:33-37], we have been left with work to do, while we wait for the lord of the house to return.
Meanwhile, of course, there are many distractions that get in the way of our being attentive. What are some of those distractions? “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism,” Pope Francis wrote in his programmatic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, “is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life gets caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” [Evangelii Gaudium, 2]
So, Jesus said to his disciples, “Be watchful! Be alert!” Be on guard against whatever distractions dull our senses and lull us into sleeping!
In the darkness of the winter night, when sleeping seems so natural, Advent yanks us out of our ordinary, secular time into what we might call liturgical time - by looking back, to get to the future. Thus, the 4th Sunday of Advent will recall Jesus’ conception in his Virgin Mother’s body. The 2nd Sunday, however, will recall the adult Christ’s public appearance on the historical stage as announced by John the Baptist. Then, on the 3rd Sunday, we will hear John’s challenge to recognize Jesus, here and now, in the present. Meanwhile, this 1st Sunday puts past and present in perspective, focusing on Christ’s final coming, when (as we say in the Creed) he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Hence this Sunday’s somber tone. What we see and observe are autumn’s withered leaves, winter’s barren branches, and the imminent end of another year. What we feel and fear is the end of ourselves. As Isaiah laments in today’s 1st reading [Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2b-7]: we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.
Yet, while Advent starts out being about fear, it is also about faith and hope – both the passing of an old year and our hopes for the new, both the enveloping winter darkness of a dying world and the dawning brightness of Christ’s coming to save us. As Saint Paul assures us in today’s 2nd reading [1 Corinthians 1:3-9]: God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Advent challenges us to slow down and take stock, and, above all, to pay attention. Of course, everything about the way we live nowadays conspires against slowing down – let alone taking stock of ourselves and paying attention to anything.
The older one gets, however, the more aware one becomes that time is running out, and thus the more one appreciates the importance of the present. Time – this time, our time – is so precious, precisely because it is limited, but also (and that’s the Christian spin on what is an otherwise universal human experience) because it has a future. Advent annually ritualizes for us our ongoing present reality, where we actually are right now, living and waiting between Christ’s 1st coming at Christmas and his final coming for which we claim as Christians to be waiting.
Advent is not, therefore, some irrelevant, vestigial interlude on the way to Christmas. Much less is it some artificial exercise in make-believe. The liturgy isn’t a play. We’re not reenacting God’s entry into our world a long time ago, or pretending Jesus hasn’t already been born, so that we will be somehow surprised on Christmas morning - as if Jesus were Santa Claus.
Advent recalls Christ’s 1st coming to concentrate our attention on his coming again, while we, meanwhile, recognize his action on our behalf in the present. The challenge of Advent is to let our anxious and increasingly fear–filled present be transformed into that hopeful future promised us already by Christ’s coming in the past. That present has plenty of problems, as we all know and all have experienced in different and challenging ways. The challenge of Advent is to recognize something even more wonderful than shopping and presents and parties, to recognize something really new and wonderful, pointing us hopefully into the future, by the bright light of Christmas past.
In his 2008 book, Why Go to Church: The Drama of the Eucharist, the former Master General of the Dominican Order, Timothy Radcliffe, recalled how one of the first things the Irish immigrants did when they settled in cities like Liverpool during the Industrial Revolution was to build big churches. Radcliffe writes: “it was a sign that they were not as they might seem, mere members of the urban proletariat, but citizens of the kingdom. They were fellow citizens of the saints whose statues filled their churches, God’s own children. Their houses might be slums, but their home was heaven.” Similar sentiments undoubtedly characterized the immigrant Catholic community that founded Immaculate Conception parish and built our parish church – a visible sign not just for them but for the whole world of the Kingdom of God present and active here in East Tennessee.
Advent is a wake-up call to all of us here and now to respond to Christ’s coming and so live as people for whom the Christmas story really matters – matters enough to make everything different from what would otherwise be in a world without the presence of its one and only Savior, Jesus Christ.
Homily for the First Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 3, 2017