Part of the beauty and power of the Bible comes from its vivid language and symbols. That is the case for the readings assigned for today, the final day of the “ordinary” liturgical season as we stand on the brink of Advent.
The first reading is from the Book of Revelation (22:1-7), a biblical book that is full of vivid imagery and sometimes mystifying symbols. The entire book is cast as a vision experienced by John the Seer who is in exile on the Island of Patmos and writes to Christian communities in western Asia Minor (present day Turkey) to challenge and encourage them in a time of severe persecution by the Roman Empire.
In the reading for today, the author is in an encouraging mode—portraying for his fellow Christians a future of vitality and beauty that God has in store for them. The author borrows a famous metaphor from chapter 47 of the prophet Ezekiel (also noted for his wild imagery!) who has a dream about water flowing out of the Jerusalem temple and running down into the parched lands of the Judean wilderness, creating a river of life with fruit trees on its banks and fish in its waters, ultimately causing the desert to bloom. The author of Revelation creates a similar vision—now the “river of life-giving water” flows from the very “throne of God and of the Lamb (a term Revelation uses for Jesus). As in Ezekiel’s dream sequence, fruit trees grow, and their leaves provide medicine. A brand-new world springs up—where there is no more night and “the Lord God shall give them light.”
The message is clear: despite the trials and sufferings of the present, God will not abandon his people and life will triumph over death. That same message is picked up in the Responsorial Psalm 95 which uses the pervasive biblical metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep to encourage us, “Come, let us bow down in worship; let us kneel before the Lord who made us. For he is our God, and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides.”
The gospel selection from Luke (21:34-36) cites the words of Jesus to his disciples where another memorable metaphor is used. As the time of his own passion draws near, Jesus warns his disciples “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of life.” “Drowsy hearts”—what an interesting image. Later in this same passage, Jesus urges his disciples “to stay awake”—to be “vigilant” and not to be caught off guard.
We can become “drowsy” or fail to be truly alive and alert either because we allow superficial things to consume our time and attention–in Jesus’ words, “carousing and drunkenness.” Maybe most of us are more likely to be immersed in our phones or entertainment or buying sprees. The other cause for drowsiness Jesus cites is “anxiety”—letting fear take over our hearts and dampen our spirit.
Taken together, the readings for today ask us to sink deeper into our life of faith—to rediscover a sense of God’s intense and tender love for us—to remember that God will be with us no matter what. Thereby we can put aside fear and live with a sense of hope and freedom. This is timely invitation as the season of Advent begins.
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.