First Sunday of Advent
This first Sunday of Advent is the beginning of a new liturgical year; it is also the year of Matthew’s Gospel when the worldwide church will be hearing passages each Sunday from this great Gospel.
Advent is a beautiful season that leads us to the feast of Christmas. A key word for this season might be “anticipation.” Strangely, when I think of “anticipation” a classic ad for Heinz ketchup comes to mind! You may remember it–a hungry person watches as the rich red sauce comes slowly out of the bottle and on to a waiting hamburger, while in the background a song is playing: “Anticipation.” We wait for good things with longing…
Advent is a time when the church asks us to be mindful of various levels of anticipation. For sure we look forward to Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Jesus (some of that anticipation admittedly is tinged with a bit of anxiety due to the Christmas rush). Belief in the Incarnation—the astounding marvel of the Word of God taking flesh and becoming human—is at the very heart of our Christian faith.
But as suggested in the Scripture readings for this Sunday, Advent turns our attention to another focus of our anticipation. Our Christian faith believes that we have a destiny with God. We are not on an endless treadmill, with history turning in an eternal circle without purpose. No, we believe that God is leading us to the complete fulfillment of our human story—a story for us that both individually and corporately ends in the loving embrace of God and the unending experience of beauty and love for which we humans long.
Advent prompts us to anticipate that unimaginable yet real endpoint. The Scriptures for this Sunday, for example, use a variety of images to portray that endpoint of human history. In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah imagines the endtime as a moment of world peace. The prophet foresees the nations coming to Israel not as a threat, which was usually the case, but in a majestic procession, all of them eager to worship God so “that he may instruct us in his ways and we may walk in his paths.” In words now inscribed in the courtyard of the United Nations, Isaiah anticipates that the peoples of the world will “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.” Instead, people will “walk in the light of the lord.”
The response Psalm 122 picks up this same theme. It is a “pilgrimage psalm”—chanted by Israelites as they traveled to the heart of Jerusalem and its magnificent temple. Again, there is a longing for peace: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! May those who love you prosper! May peace be within your walls, prosperity in your buildings.” Given the generations of anguish and violence in the Holy land, such an anticipation of a land at peace is poignant and compelling.
The second reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans uses another biblical image to anticipate human destiny. Paul reminds his Christians that “the day is at hand.” While others may wander in darkness—their lives smothered in promiscuity and tense with strife and jealously—this is not how the followers of Jesus should view the world and its future. “Let us throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day.” Instead of searching for some means to protect us from strife, Paul encourages us “to put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Clothed like this, we can face the future without fear.
And in the gospel, we have yet another metaphor for anticipating the future—the end may come unexpectedly, “like a thief in the night.” Jesus reminds his disciples that, like their ancestors at the time of Noah, people can live engulfed in everyday concerns but without awareness of what God is asking of them. The disciple of Jesus is to be “awake”—alert for the moments of grace that can break into our lives unexpectedly.
May this Advent be a time of spiritual alertness for us.
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.
[Adapted, with permission, from the author’s weekly column , “Perspectives on Scripture” which appears in the Chicago Catholic .]