How many of you, when asked, “How are you doing?”, have replied, “I’m just waiting for this year to end”?
We have experienced in 2020 a pandemic like none we have ever seen, political turmoil like none we have ever seen, an economic shutdown like … you get the picture. For many of us, 2021 can’t come soon enough.
For those of us who are Catholic, the new year comes a few weeks earlier — the new liturgical year, that is, starting with Advent, a season of desire. And rarely have many of us desired the breath of fresh air that a new year can bring.
But even this new season and new year does not begin without grim and sobering reminders of how far from God many of us are.
“Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” laments Isaiah in the first reading of the First Sunday of Advent (Is 63:17). “Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people” (Is 64:4-5).
This, then, is a call to repentance — to “straighten up and fly right,” in the words of an old Nat King Cole song. Or as Scripture frequently suggests, “Make straight (your) paths,” words proclaimed by John the Baptist in three of the four Gospels.
Today’s Gospel reading from St. Mark suggests this is best done sooner than later.
“You do not know when the Lord of the house is coming,” Jesus tells his disciples (Mk 13:35). “Be watchful.”
Jesus’ words are spoken shortly before he and his disciples head for Jerusalem where Jesus knows what awaits him. His disciples do not, of course; nor do we know what awaits us in the months and years ahead.
And after this year, many of us are afraid to ask. Yet go forward we must. And we will, for God always offers us the chance to atone and correct our course.
“Give us new life,” says the psalmist, “and we will call upon your name” (Ps 80:19).
But to acknowledge where we have fallen short and who is really in charge requires humility on our part. Such humility is more abundant, it seems, in times of uncertainty and desperation.
Isaiah understands this. “Yet, Lord, you are our father,” he says. “We are the clay and you the potter: We are all the work of your hand” (Is 64:7).
Right before this, though, Isaiah says something else to God, a lamentation that invites our reflection on how to “straighten out” our lives, and our world: “You have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our crimes” (Is 64:6).
God has hidden his face from us? Really?
Many years ago, at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, I participated in a workshop in which the presenter asked us (ordered us, actually) to move all the chairs in the room out of the way (several hundred of them), close our eyes and walk (with care) around the room until we encountered (bumped into) another person.
At that point, we were to ask that person, “Are you God in hiding?”
The answer, of course, was yes. The point was for us to realize that we are all creations of God and that we are called to be the loving, caring face of God to one another to build and nourish the kingdom of God on earth.
Like Isaiah, many of us have lamented, “Lord, you have hidden your face from us.” But if God created us all in his image and likeness, should we not seek the face of God among those already in our midst? And be the face of God to others?
“Rouse your power,” pleads the responsorial psalm, “and come to save us. … Let us see your face, and we shall be saved” (Ps 80:3-4).
That sounds like a call to pay closer attention to what already is in our midst: the face of God, present in our lives, serving us and calling us to serve one another. That suggests hope, if we let God’s love — personified in Christ Jesus — shine from us.
St. Paul expands on that promise in the second reading. “You were enriched in every way, with all discourse and all knowledge … so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift,” he tells the people of Corinth (1 Cor 3:5-7).
Moreover, Paul reminds his listeners, “God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor 3:9).
These are words of comfort we need to hear in these challenging times. But we also need Jesus’ poignant reminder that we cannot wait for God to do all the work.
“Be alert!” says Jesus to his disciples. “You do not know when the time will come. … May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping” (Mk 13:33-37).
If we desire the Lord in our lives, let us act accordingly — in this and in every new year.
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(Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.)