1st Sunday of Advent
Nov. 30, 2014
St. Ursula, Mt. Vernon, N.Y.
On the last 2 Sundays, we closed out the liturgical year with 2 of Jesus’ parables of judgment, the parable of the talents and the parable of the separation of the sheep and the goats. Jesus was addressing us about how to prepare for his return. We begin a new liturgical year today with 2 readings advising us to be watchful and ready for the Master’s return, and a 1st reading beseeching him to come quickly and deliver us. The liturgy rolls over smoothly from one year to the next, from one season to the next. The Collect today links today with last Sunday’s parable (Matt 25:31-46); we prayed that God’s faithful people might be “gathered at [Christ’s] right hand,” an obvious allusion to the sheep at the king’s right hand in that parable.
With the new liturgical year, we also begin a new cycle of Scripture readings. The cycle is labeled the “B Cycle,” not that that matters. What will matter is that this year—with the exception of the Easter season and a few weeks in mid-summer, our Sunday readings come from St. Mark’s Gospel. You may have noticed that a few minutes ago.
(One of the best things that came out of all the liturgical changes after the 2d Vatican Council is the broadening of our weekly exposure to the Bible brought by a 3-year cycle of readings instead of a 1-year cycle, besides having distinct weekday readings for the 1st time ever, and hearing 3 readings on Sundays and major feastdays instead of 2, as had always been the case. Most of you, like me, are old enuf to remember when we heard the same gospel readings year after year, and if you went to a weekday Mass you often heard the Sunday gospel yet again.)
In a little while you’ll hear this text proclaimed: “Christ our Lord assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh, … that, when he comes again in glory and majesty …, we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise in which now we dare to hope” (Preface).
Those words come from the 1st Preface of Advent, which we use from the 1st Sunday of Advent till Dec. 16. It speaks of the 2 comings of Christ to which we look in this season—the season of Advent, which (most of you know) is a word that means “coming.” One coming of Christ we celebrate as a past, historical event that has vital meaning for us yet today; one coming of Christ we anticipate with eagerness because it hasn’t happened yet, and the meaning of his 1st coming will be incomplete until it does happen.
We speak of these 2 comings of Christ every time we profess the Creed at Mass, at the beginning of the Rosary, or whenever else: “For us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man”—that of course is his 1st coming; and “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end”—that’s his 2d coming.
Thus Advent for us Christians isn’t the season of shopping and baking and singing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” It is, rather, the season for getting ourselves ready to welcome our Savior. Until Dec. 24, we sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” rather than “Silent Night.” We’re on a totally different wave-length than the secular world, which celebrates the season of spending and entertainment ratings and couldn’t care less about either Christ’s 1st coming or his 2d.
You notice that the liturgical color has turned from green to violet. Advent’s beginnings back in the late Roman era and the early medieval period aren’t entirely clear, but it seems to have adopted, early on, a penitential character, not quite as severe as Lent’s. Hence the use of violet. At one time there was also fasting on certain days, most notably Christmas Eve, which was also a day of abstinence—hence the Italian custom of eating fish on Dec. 24.
A certain atmosphere of penance is in order, of course, as we contemplate Christ’s “coming again in glory and majesty” and “everything at last being made manifest”: our virtues and our sins will be made manifest, as well as “the design [God the Father] formed long ago” for redeeming us (Preface). Our 1st reading laments that the Lord is “angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people” (Is 64:4-5), and it beseeches his mercy. Jesus tells a parable warning us not to be caught napping when the master returns (Mark 13:33-37).
But the overall atmosphere of Advent is that of a “period of devout and joyful expectation,” as one church document puts it. St. Paul assures the Corinthians, “God our Father … will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:8), i.e., on the day when Christ returns he’ll find his faithful people “irreproachable,” by God’s grace. In the Collect we prayed that we might “run forth to meet Christ with [our hands full of] righteous deeds at his coming” and so “be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom.” That’s the great hope that we dare to have, as the Preface says—the hope that God will indeed give us an inheritance as his sons and daughters (the Preface again) because he has called us “to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:9).
That calling to fellowship with the Son of God began with the Son’s incarnation. So, yes, we do well to celebrate “his first coming” in “the lowliness of human flesh” to “fulfill the design [the Father] formed long ago.” But that 1st coming at Bethlehem in Judea has meaning, is fulfilled, only when our redemption is completed by our being raised up in Christ and gathered with all the saints around Christ to live with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever. Amen!