1st Sunday of Advent
Christian Brothers, Iona College
Dec. 2, 2012
(In fact, most of the Saturday evening congregation is lay people, not brothers.)
“Grant your faithful the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom” (Collect).
The 1st Sunday of Advent always draws our attention to the 2d coming of Christ, continuing the focus of the 33d Sunday in OT and the feast of Christ the King. Advent’s attention will gradually shift to preparing to celebrate Christ’s birth in time 2,000 years ago; yet we know that birth is an unrepeatable historical event. And we know that this same Jesus Christ has promised to return, to come again, to complete the work of our salvation that he began with his incarnation.
|Last Judgment by William de Bailes (13th c.)|
The Collect (or “opening prayer”) is loaded with meaning. As usual, we need time and attention to unpack that meaning, to understand what we’re praying, to enter our prayer more deeply.
The Collect—like all the collects of the Roman Missal—is a humble petition addressed to the Divine Majesty. This is brought out much more forcefully in the new translation we’ve been using for exactly a year: “grant, we pray….” We don’t demand of God but plead with him. We sinners aren’t in a position to demand, no matter how faith-filled we may be, no matter how confident we may be, in the Father’s amazing grace.
Our prayer this evening is for “resolve to run forth to meet your Christ.” As most of you know, Christ isn’t Jesus of Nazareth’s last name but a title: the Greek translation of Messiah, “anointed one.” Those who were anointed were designated for some special purpose by God, mainly kings and priests in the OT, and in the later OT period, the one expected to liberate God’s people from all their oppressors, the Son of David. We Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth is that Anointed One of God.
We pray for “resolve.” That word implies a strong will, perseverance, determination. For, assuredly, there are many things to distract us from attending to our Christian discipleship, from thinking about the 4 last things, from considering our ultimate destiny. Our sins may discourage us from thinking about all that or from wanting to meet Christ. So we need resolve—as a gift from God—to get ready for death, judgment, and eternity (either heaven or hell).
But we’re praying for more than a steely determination; more than a British stiff upper lip, as we prepare for Jesus. We pray that we might “run forth to meet your Christ.” Picture a child running to meet Mom or Dad coming home from work, or a spouse charging into the arms of a returning soldier. What emotions are there? We hope, we pray, that we might look for, desire, be eager for Christ’s return in such a way.
To welcome Christ like that, we need to have “righteous deeds.” How many parables warn us not to come to him empty-handed!—e.g., the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30; cf. Luke 19:12-27), the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt 25:1-13), the parable of the last judgment (Matt 25:31-46), to which our prayer refers explicitly. Thus our responsorial psalm prayed the Lord to teach us his paths and guide us in his truth (25:4-5), and Paul prayed that the Lord increase the faithful of Thessalonica “in love for one another and for all,” that they might “be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus” (1 Thess 3:12-13). And he urges the Thessalonians, “Conduct yourselves to please God” (4:1).
|Wise & Foolish Virgins by William Blake|
When we have filled our lives with righteous deeds—have our lamps filled with oil, lit and burning brightly, like the wise virgins of our Lord’s parable—then we’ll be ready to greet Christ at his coming, will run forth to meet him like children who’ve missed their parent for days or weeks away.
The “resolve” we pray for touches on these “righteous deeds.” How can a follower of Christ live righteously in this world without resolve? Following Christ, we all know, requires constant vigilance (cf. the parables again, and the final verse of today’s gospel [Luke 21:36]), resistance to evil, no compromising of principles, repentance of our failings, renewal of our baptismal (and vocational) commitment. “I heartily resolve to sin no more,” we say in the traditional Act of Contrition most of us learned many years ago. It’s a resolve we need to renew every day.
Of course, a resolve to avoid sin and “the near occasions of sin”—or, in the words many of our young people now use, “whatever leads me to sin”—is only a beginning, rather like a student resolving to do the bare minimum of schoolwork to avoid an F. As Jesus’ followers, we need to resolve to imitate him in doing good, in practicing virtue—the “righteous deeds” for which we’ve prayed in the Collect.
The Collect goes on to refer to those “gathered at his right hand.” 2 weeks ago our gospel spoke of the angels “gathering his elect” from the far reaches of the world (Mark 13:27). (One objective of the new translation of the Missal was to capture more of the biblical allusions in the prayers—there you have an example.)
|Last Judgment by Jan Van Eyck|
These elect, these faithful, are gathered at Christ’s right hand. That’s an allusion to the parable of the coming of the Son of Man and the last judgment in Matt 25, at which the sheep (of his flock) will be placed at his right hand and rewarded for their righteous deeds of mercy: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, welcoming strangers—and the goats placed at his left hand will be condemned to hell for their lack of merciful deeds.
The final line of the Collect begs that “they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.” Interesting lack of presumption there! We don’t automatically count ourselves among the faithful, among the elect; we don’t say “we may be worthy.” It’s a humble prayer for everyone, and we can only hope (and pray) that our kind and merciful Savior will include us—but we don’t presume to say so out loud.
What we pray for is more than mere presence in the kingdom, like being a spectator in the galleries of Congress. We ask to be worthy of “possessing” the kingdom. What a difference from just being there. God has made us his children, and he has promised us an inheritance alongside his Son, places of honor in the heavenly kingdom.
May God’s abundant grace empower us to live righteously so as to look forward eagerly (without anxiety) for Christ’s coming, so as to be joined with our Savior in the glory of his kingdom, forever and ever!