Houses and light. Preparation and transformation. Peace and salvation.
Words and images that populate the readings for the first Sunday of Advent — words and images that, taken in context with readings of the Advent season, offer hope and joy for us all.
Well, we have heard these readings before, as recently as 2016 and 2019, and the state of our world today does not indicate that hope and joy are any more attainable, or any more abundant, now than it was then.
In the first reading, Isaiah prophesies a day when people “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again” (Is 2:4).
Clearly that day has not arrived, as those in Ukraine and Afghanistan are sadly all too aware.
In the second reading, Paul exhorts the Romans to believe that “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand” (Rom 13:11-12). Who following the American political situation would think such a day has arrived?
Even today’s responsorial psalm — “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! … May peace be within your walls, prosperity in your buildings” (Ps 122:6-7) — suggest visions and hopes of an ideal that bears no resemblance to today’s reality, or tomorrow’s.
So why should we hope that good times, or at least better times, are truly at hand, as Isaiah and Paul suggest?
The answer may lie in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew in which Jesus, as always, offers us something to grasp onto, although his promise sounds more like an admonition, with a tone more ominous than optimistic — or so it would seem.
First, Jesus recounts the great flood, in which those partying and carousing were swept away while Noah and his family, having taken heed of God’s warning, were safe in the ark. The lesson, Jesus tells his disciples, is clear: Be prepared for “the coming of the Son of Man,” the day he returns.
Then he offers a rather grim forecast of the future. “Two men will be out in the field,” he says.
“One will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left. Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come” (Mt 24:40-42).
This takes place shortly before Jesus is arrested, tried and crucified, a day he knows is coming, a day he has told his disciples is coming, a day his disciples aren’t willing to accept.
Just as, we would have to admit, we struggle to accept the consequences of our own actions and inactions that lead us away from Jesus and toward sin.
If we accept this teaching at all, it is often with a mindset of, “Well, yes, I’ve not done a great job following Jesus lately, but I’ll make it right, eventually.” But does “eventually” ever come?
It might be worthwhile for us to look ahead in Matthew’s Gospel to the next chapter, though it isn’t part of the Advent Scriptures.
This is where Jesus, continuing his discourse on “preparation,” speaks of who did and didn’t care for him when he was hungry, cold, sick or imprisoned; those of us who cared for “the least” of his brothers, Jesus reminds us, cared for him.
It is also worth noting that, next week, the authors of the first and second readings for the second Sunday of Advent follow up on this week’s themes, driving home their points in such a way to shine a brighter, more hopeful light on message of the season.
Isaiah speaks of an idyllic but highly attainable vision of justice, peace and cooperation, with images of children and animals, tame and wild, living in harmony. “There shall be no harm or ruin,” he declares, “on all my holy mountain” (Is 11:9).
And Paul encourages the community of Romans to “welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom 15:7), a message worth proclaiming in any day and age.
Here’s a thought: For those of us inclined to make New Year’s resolutions, why not put those resolutions into action now, the start of the new liturgical year?
And perhaps those resolutions, as well as focusing inward (better diet, more exercise, less electronic device attachment), can be directed outward, toward those most in need through service offered lovingly, freely and generously.
None of us, by ourselves, will stop all of the wars, or comfort all of the sick, or feed all of the hungry. But by doing, as St. Teresa of Kolkata suggested, “small things with great love,” we can make a positive difference in the life of someone else.
That is how we prepare for Jesus’ return — not by giving up or hiding from the world, but by engaging the world and becoming the sources of light, hope, joy, peace and love that Jesus invites us to be.
That, it would seem, is plenty of reason to “stay awake.”
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Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.Tags: Catholic Beliefs