By the Rev. Darren Miner
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and the church begins another liturgical year. This season has two distinct foci: the first coming, or advent, of our Lord some 2000 years ago and the second coming, or advent, when Christ will come again in glory to judge the world. This season is marked by darkness, both literally and figuratively. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the days are getting shorter and the nights longer. That’s the literal darkness. The figurative darkness is the spiritual twilight in which we find ourselves living today, this turbulent time between the two Advents of Christ, when the world suffers the birth pangs of the Kingdom.
The church observes the season with the use of violet vestments and paraments. And each Sunday of Advent is marked with the lighting of a new candle on the Advent wreath. As in Lent, the singing of the Gloria on Sundays is forbidden. But unlike Lent, we are permitted to say and to sing Alleluia. Liturgists argue whether the season is a penitential season or rather a season of preparation. Perhaps the correct answer is that it is a bit of both.
The world outside the church has already turned its eyes to Christmas. Trees have already been decorated. Strings of colored lights are going up on houses. And Macy’s is already playing Christmas carols over its loudspeakers. But those of us inside the church are asked to slow down a bit, to allow ourselves some time to contemplate the coming feast of Christmas, and just as importantly, to allow ourselves some time to contemplate the Second Coming of Christ. (Even so, some accommodations to our culture must be made, so we will be having a couple of Christmas concerts during Advent. I just hope my old liturgy professor doesn’t find out!)
Now, let’s turn to today’s Bible readings. The first reading speaks of the Day of the Lord. The prophet Isaiah longs for the day when God will act definitively against the nations that threaten Israel. And he laments that God has seemingly abandoned his people because of their sinfulness and lack of faith. On behalf of his people, Isaiah asks God to overlook the people’s sins and to continue to shape and mold them into a priestly people.
In the Epistle, St. Paul reminds us that God is with us and that he has given us many spiritual gifts through Jesus Christ. Paul assures us that God will continue to abide with us, even to the very end, for God is faithful. We may not always be faithful, but God always is! And with God’s own help, should we choose to accept it, we will be made ready to stand before the throne of God and receive judgment at his hand.
Finally, we come to the Gospel reading from Mark. It is an excerpt from chapter 13, often called “the Little Apocalypse,” because it resembles the greater apocalypse of the Book of Revelation. And like all apocalyptic literature, it deals with what will happen at the end of time. This entire genre is disturbing, because it focuses so much on the turmoil and destruction that will attend the end of the world. We are tempted to dismiss it altogether: first, because it is often full of difficult symbolism; and second, because we are more comfortable living in denial. But we need to take the Little Apocalypse seriously, even if we don’t take it completely literally.
In this excerpt, Jesus warns us that at the Last Day his chosen ones, the Elect of God, will be gathered up by angels for salvation. (As for those not chosen, well, we have heard about what happens to them—and it isn’t good!) Precisely when this Day of Judgment will occur even Jesus doesn’t know. And so he urgently counsels his followers to keep awake and to be spiritually prepared at all times. Think of this scripture as something akin to those blaring alerts from the Emergency Alert System you regularly get on your TV.
For a couple of centuries, Christians managed to maintain that sense of urgency, that expectation that the Last Day was at hand. But to be quite honest, it’s been 2000 years since the emergency broadcast was first aired, and we’ve stopped paying close attention! But even if the Second Coming of Christ does not occur in our lifetimes, the fact is that all of us will eventually face our Maker and be judged. St. Benedict of Nursia, in the Rule of his order, tells his novices, “Live in fear of Judgment Day and have a great horror of Hell. Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire. Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” Now at first, this advice seems a bit morbid. And for people struggling with depression, it may not be very good advice. But for those who are able, there is wisdom in contemplating one’s ultimate fate each and every day. If we truly thought we had only this one day to set things right with God and our neighbor—what might we do differently? I suspect we might start doing what we should have been doing all along!
Now, if you’ve been paying attention in church, you already know what God expects of us. For the Scriptures have given us plenty of guidance in this regard. We have the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount: to be poor in spirit, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be pure in heart, to be peacemakers…. We have Jesus’ advice to keep the three traditional Jewish acts of piety: to pray, to fast, and to give alms. We have the hidden commandment in the Lord’s Prayer: to forgive others their trespasses. We have the continuing guidance of the Ten Commandments. And finally, we have the Summary of the Law: to love God and to love our neighbor.
Admittedly, it takes real effort to maintain righteousness. And it takes attentiveness. It’s so easy to fall asleep spiritually. Going to church every week can get to be a chore, so maybe we begin to go just once a month. The cost of living keeps going up, so maybe we cut back our pledge to the parish. Forgiveness is such hard work, so maybe we decide it would be easier to nurse that grudge. Then there’s the task of daily prayer—it can be so tedious and time-consuming. …And so, little by little, we drift asleep.
Well, wake up, and smell the coffee, folks! Now is the time to prepare for judgment. Now is the time to make things right. Now is the time to put the house in order, “for you do not know when the master of the house will come.”
© 2017 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.