The First Sunday of Advent marks the opening of a new liturgical year in the life of the Church. Naturally when we speak of a new year we think of time, whether it’s the liturgical year, the calendar year, the academic year or the fiscal year. Another year has passed and another year begins. The calendars mark the passage of time.
Reflecting on time we realize that the only time we can experience is the “now” or the present. When the present passes into the past we can only experience it through memory. The future has not happened yet so we can only hope for it to happen. Pithy sayings try to capture the meaning of time: “no time like the present,” “the time is right,” “this is the time of your life,” and “time flies when your having fun,” to name a few. Regardless, they all deal with time in the present.
The season of Advent is a season of hope and longing. Observing the season we rekindle our hope in Christ Jesus. In the beginning of the season we do this through our reflections on the Second Coming. Christ promised us that he would return. We regularly pray expecting Him to return. Jesus urges us to prepare for the Second Coming by being vigilant and prepared in the present. He tells us in today’s Gospel passage: “Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come…. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” Jesus is urging us to live in the present full of hopeful anticipation.
During these days when the night grows longer as daylight fades we are reminded of the “light that shines in the darkness,” Jesus Christ. He is certainly with us now through His abiding presence but as we live as His disciples, our hearts yearn to see Him face to face and to be with Him. The liturgies in the first part of Advent help to remind us that He will come again and He will take us to His dwelling place. So how do we live a life of vigilance?
The first two readings for today’s liturgy help in this regard. The first reading from the prophet Isaiah speaks of the Lord’s mountain. In the Scriptures the “mountain” was a place where God is encountered. The Lord revealed himself to Moses on the mountain in the burning bush. When the Lord promised to make his presence known to Isaiah it was on the mountain. Jesus, when he was transfigured before Peter, James and John, was on the mountain. The specific text for the first reading speaks of “God’s mountain.” This is a reference to Jerusalem, which is located at a high elevation.
The city was seen as God’s dwelling place among men. It was the holy city. Isaiah reminds us of the time when all nations will go rejoicing into God’s dwelling. It will be a time when all may worship the One God with one voice. The passage prepares for Jesus’ mission when salvation will be won for all peoples. Isaiah says that one that day God will instruct us “so that we may walk in His ways.”
The passage is fulfilled with Jesus. Jesus comes from the Father and teaches us “how to walk,” in other words “how to live life.” In our vigilance for his coming we strive to live as his disciples, taking his word to heart and being continually transformed and renewed.
The second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans offers a similar message albeit in a different style of writing. He is exhorting us to live the Gospel, to leave behind sinful ways and choose to be virtuous. Paul uses the light-darkness contrast to make his point. Evil deeds are done in the dark so no one will see them. For example, a thief will not break into a store during daylight because he will be seen; he would rather do the wicked deed in the dark where his chances of getting caught are lessened.
St. Paul urges us whether it is day or night to live in the light. He says: “let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy.” While Jesus is the light and has brought us into the light, sin is a darkness that can obscure the light. If those things that bring darkness are eliminated the light will shine brighter and its presence will be more fully realized now.
St. Paul introduces this theme in these words: “For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand.” Here the night/day contrast, similar to the light/darkness contrast, is used in reference to the completion of God’s saving activity with the Lord’s return.
We think of the hours of night waiting for dawn to break. It might be helpful to use our imagination when considering this description. Today we have electricity and night lighting. A lot of companies and businesses have overnight shifts and some stores are even open 24-7, so the notion of longing for day/light might not have as much impact as it did for the early Christians.
The nights were long and dark. People generally went to sleep with sunset or gathered around a fire. If you were up before dawn you would anxiously await the light that comes with daybreak and the warmth that the sun can provide, especially during the winter months. The night also left one vulnerable (albeit to varying degrees depending among other things where one lived) to the weather, to crime or to injury. Day is something that people longed for or desired.
So as St. Paul writes he is encouraging us to live with the same kind of longing and desire for the return of the Lord. This longing and desire builds up our hope now in the present.
Today begins the season of Advent. It is a time to renew our hope as we live in the present. Jesus promises us that he will return. Our observance of Advent helps us to live now, preparing for that encounter confident in His promise. In the words of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta: “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.