Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the First Sunday of Advent, Dec. 1, 2019.)

In 1911, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first person to reach the South Pole. Amundsen was known for his extensive preparations for all his expeditions. In his late twenties, he traveled by bicycle from Norway to Spain to embark on a two-month sailing trip to earn his master’s certificate. He studied how the Eskimo used dog sleds, and how they designed loose-fitting clothing so that perspiration would have room to evaporate rather than turning to ice on the body. He also carefully copied their movement in the cold weather, slow and steady, to help minimize the amount of sweat generated.

Amundsen even went as far as eating raw dolphin in the event that it was the only food source available to him on the journey. All this preparation and more to help him get to the South Pole.

His basic underlying philosophy for all this preparation was that you don’t wait until you are in an unexpected storm to discover that you need more strength and endurance. You don’t wait until you’re shipwrecked to see if you can eat raw dolphin. You don’t wait until you are on a trek to the South Pole to learn how to ski or drive a dog sled. Rather, you prepare with intensity, train well and learn everything you can on how to get to your destination.

Today we begin the season of Advent and a new liturgical year. One of the themes associated with Advent is preparation. Certainly, many people can relate to preparations for the variety of holiday celebrations this time of the year — planning for meals and gatherings, setting up decorations and shopping for gifts all entail preparation. The preparations of Advent deal with the Lord’s coming.

St. Bernard speaks of the three comings of Christ that are remembered in the season: the remembrance of his first coming at Christmas, his return at the end of the world and the continual coming of the Lord into our hearts. The first part of the season focuses on the second coming of Christ. In this coming, the Lord will usher in a new heaven and a new earth. Evil will be destroyed. Peace will reign. The Father’s plan for all creation will reach its perfection and the kingdom of God will be fully manifest for all to see. In this sense Advent is the season of hope.

Isaiah describes the Lord’s reign in terms of a “holy mountain,” a beautiful image that fills the mind with hope. He says this mountain will be higher than all others. All nations and peoples will find a home on this mountain and the Word of the Lord will find a home in all nations and  peoples. War, hatred and enmity will be replaced by peace: “They 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.” The last words of that passage — “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” — call us to vigilance.

Preparing for the Lord’s return is thus an exercise in vigilance and persistence. Jesus speaks to the disciples in the Gospel passage for today’s liturgy about vigilance and preparation. “Stay awake,” he says. Being alert and focused helps us to be ready. Sometimes this is difficult in a busy world with many responsibilities that could distract us; not just the seasonal tasks, but the demands of life, work, and raising a family. Vigilance is not just for Advent but part of our lives as disciples of Christ. However, the Advent season helps us to focus our attention on vigilance and to strengthen this aspect of our faith.

Loving God and neighbor, choosing good and avoiding evil, and living our faith in word and deed are some of the most basic ways we “keep vigil.” St. Paul, in the passage from today’s second reading, gives us some practical advice. Vigilance is heightened when we “cast off deeds of darkness” and “put on the armor of light.” He urges us to “conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Preparation and vigilance helped Roald Amundsen reach the South Pole. As Christians, the destination we seek is that holy mountain of Isaiah on which the Lord dwells. Climbing this mountain entails the same type of preparation and vigilance, not so much a matter of proper food, clothing and physical strength but that of living good lives. Jesus leads us on this journey. In a sense he is our personal coach. He urges us, encourages us and motivates us to move forward on the journey — “So too, you must also be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.