Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the First Sunday of Advent, Nov. 28)

Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy” is being celebrated this year, the 700th anniversary of the famed author’s death. The epic poem follows Dante the pilgrim on a journey through the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. The work has become a classic of world literature. Its message speaks to all ages and times and invites us to journey with Dante in renewal of our lives as we seek to walk in the pilgrim way of the Kingdom of God.

The opening lines of the poem sets the scene for the work: “Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” He invites the reader to walk with him on this journey of rediscovery of God’s justice which is based on love and mercy.

On the first part of the journey, he first encounters the unrepentant souls who refused to acknowledge God’s call to love and mercy. The violations are wide and varied, united by a self-absorption that refused to acknowledge God or the good of others. Then he encounters the penitent whose repentance opened the flood gates of divine mercy. These are now being purified in preparation for heaven. Finally, he meets those who have entered the divine presence and thus share in the fullness of divine love.

The theme of justice is based on an understanding that justice has its origin and destination in God’s plan for creation and humanity. Jesus refers to this as the “Kingdom of God.” When God’s plan is followed we somehow, even on this side of life, experience life in the kingdom. When God’s justice is absent we see or experience the deleterious effects. God’s justice is ordered by love and mercy.

Advent marks the beginning of a new liturgical year and as such provides us a time for renewal, a new beginning. The beginning of the year actually points to the “end.” The end of all creation is marked by the long-awaited return of Jesus, the Son of Man. Our readings point to this end as the day of judgment (“Son of Man” being the scriptural title of the judge of all humanity).

The “end” reminds us that we are on a journey. The voyage through life is not an aimless wandering but has a destination and a goal.

Jesus, in today’s Gospel passage, uses eschatological (“end time”) imagery reminding us that God’s justice will be realized. This is consonant with the Old Testament understanding.

The first reading is from the prophet Jeremiah. He lived in a time of great disorder within Judah coupled with enormous threats from outside the nation. He prophesizes that things will be set right when the shoot of Jesse arrives: “In those days Judah shall be safe and Jerusalem shall dwell secure; that is what they shall call her: ‘The Lord our justice.’”

While Jeremiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled in Jesus’ first coming, it also points to the return when justice will be fully realized. So Jesus urges us toward preparedness. Vigilance is the term used. He uses the concept many times in the gospels. In this case, vigilance is necessary so that we might be ready “to stand before the Son of Man.”

The second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, along with the responsorial psalm, give us some pointers on how to be vigilant, to be ready. St. Paul writes: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.”

Love is the basis for human life. God, who is love, loved us into being. Love is the force that orders all things toward God and a participation in divine life. When Jesus is asked what is the greatest of all the laws, he replies: “You shall love the Lord, your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. The second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Love is the basis and starting point. Love also expresses itself as mercy when a violation of love or justice is encountered. Mercy heals and restores. Psalm 25 expresses the desires that lie at the heart of the righteous — to know and live in God’s way. The longing is expressed by the psalmist this way: “Your ways, O Lord, make known to me; teach me your paths, Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my savior, and for you I wait all the day.”

The longing is not some abstract or aimless quest, for “good and upright is the Lord; thus he shows sinners the way and teaches the humble his way.” He loves us so much that he wants us to know him and the path to and meaning of life. This Way is not a teaching or concept, but a person whose birth we prepare to celebrate at Christmas.

Advent provides us an opportunity, a time for renewal, a new beginning. Jesus’ call to vigilance is a call to love, to encounter him anew in word and sacrament and to follow him on the pilgrim path of life, to life.

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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.