1st Sunday of Advent
Nov. 27, 2016
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.
“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 of 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.
Today’s Collect 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 5 years: “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 morning is for “resolve to run forth to meet your Christ.” As 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 affirm 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 Christ’s coming and 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—meeting him on the Last Day or perhaps meeting him on this day, Nov. 27. 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 alludes explicitly. St. Paul exhorts us to “throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom 13:12), to rid ourselves of vices of the flesh and the spirit (13:13) that are just as rife and just as culturally acceptable today as in the 1st century, and just as much works of darkness and not of light, and to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (13:14), who is the light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness (cf. John 1:5). If we have clothed ourselves in Christ, put on his protective armor against the weapons of the Enemy of our souls, by doing what Jesus did, speaking as Jesus did—deeds and words of light—then we will, as the psalm response (Ps 122) says, “go rejoicing to the house of the Lord,” to our heavenly home. Do you remember the announcement of John Paul the Great’s death on April 2, 2005, how the cardinal told the world simply, “Dearest brothers and sisters, at 9:37 p.m., our beloved Father John Paul II returned to the house of the Father”? This is what JP II was created for, and what we also are created for; the house of the Father is the destination of the earthly pilgrimage that we’re all on.
When we’ve filled our lives with righteous deeds—when we have our lamps filled with oil, lit and burning brightly, like the wise virgins of our Lord’s parable in Matt 25, or like the house owner in today’s mini-parable who should keep vigil against burglars (Matt 24:43)—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—even if Christ comes “at an hour you do not expect” (24:44); for we have no guarantee we’ll be warned of the coming of the end: “of that day and hour no one knows … but the Father alone” (24:36), Jesus says in the verse that immediately precedes the gospel passage we read this evening/morning.
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, 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.” In Mark’s version of Jesus’ words about the Last Day, Jesus says that the angels will “gather 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, and you have an example of that in this prayer.)
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!