Even without a pandemic, autumn – late autumn, autumn turning into winter –always gives this year-end holiday season a somewhat solemn and reflective mood, a mood that the Church’s annual cycle captures so singularly in this season of Advent, which begins today
Advent originated as an annual period of repentance focused on preparation for Judgment Day, and this Sunday, rather than starting something completely new, continues 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 a mission, each with his or her own work, 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. As Pope Francis has warned: “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.” [EG 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, which teaches us to wait for Christ’s coming in the future by looking back, by our annual remembrance of Christ’s 1st coming in the past, so as to recognize Christ’s continuing presence in the present. 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, when (as we say in the Creed) he will come to judge the living and the dead.
In the true spirit of winter – winter as it used to be experienced when people actually lived according to the rhythm of the seasons – Advent challenges us to slow down and take stock, to pay attention. Of course, the pandemic has already slowed us down, interrupting all our customary activities, disrupting our long-term life plans as surely as it has disrupted our short-term holiday plans. It has, as I said on Thanksgiving, brought our world to the abyss of the abyss of an apocalyptic-like crisis, in which almost everything we used to take for granted seems to have evaporated all at once, separating and isolating us, dividing and diminishing us, and shattering all our empty illusions of individualism, national exceptionalism, and self-sufficiency. As Isaiah laments in today’s 1st reading [Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2b-7]: we have all withered like leaves. 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.
And those fears are real. We fear many things, which we rightly ought to fear – from climate change to economic recession. Above all, we fear the coronavirus and covid-19. Religious faith is not delusional thinking and denialism. Religion recognizes reality and the legitimacy of our human fears.
Yet, while Advent starts out being about fear, it is also about faith and hope –the passing of an old year and our hopes for the new, 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.
The older I get, the more aware I become that time is running out, and the more I appreciate the importance of the present, the limited time I actually have. Time – this time, our time – is 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 expresses in ritual form for us what we actually presently experience, where we actually find ourselves 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, as we say at every Mass, in joyful hope.
The point of Advent is to let the anniversary of Christ’s 1st coming concentrate our attention on his coming again, while we, meanwhile, recognize his action on our behalf in the present. That present has plenty of problems, as we all know and all have experienced in different and challenging ways in this difficult and challenging year. The challenge of Advent is to let our anxious and increasingly fear–filled present be brightened and transformed into that hopeful future promised us already by Christ’s coming in the past.
That means re-imagining Christmas as more than just shopping and presents and parties (those wonderful things that we will especially miss this year) - to recognize in the reality of the Christmas story something even more wonderful, something really new.
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 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.
And so we say with Saint Paul: God is faithful, and by him we have been called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Homily for the First Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN November 29, 2020.
The entire Mass can be watched at: