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Reflections for the I Sunday of Advent

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the first Sunday of Advent. He says that the season of Advent reminds us that we must prepare for the rebirth of Jesus in our hearts and lives, enabling him to radiate his love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness around us.

(Is 2:1-5; Rom 13:11-14; Mt 24:37-44) 

Introduction: Today we begin our yearly pilgrimage through the events of our history of salvation starting with the preparation for the birthday celebration of Jesus and ending with the reflection on his glorious “second coming” as judge at the end of the world. We are entering the Advent season. Advent means coming. We are invited to meditate on Jesus’ first coming in history as a baby in Bethlehem, his daily coming into our lives in mystery through the Sacraments, through the Bible and through the worshipping community and finally his Second Coming at the end of the world to reward the just and to punish the wicked. We see the traditional signs of Advent in our Church: violet vestments and hangings, dried flowers or plain green plants and the Advent wreath. These signs remind us that we must prepare for the rebirth of Jesus in our hearts and lives, enabling him to radiate his love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness around us.

Homily starter anecdote: Doomsday paranoia: The Jehovah’s Witnesses frightened gullible followers at least 3 times during the last century with their “end of the world” predictions – in 1914, 1918 and 1974.  It was in 1978 that the media flashed the shocking news of the mass suicide of 914 men and women from the U.S.A. They belonged to a doomsday cult called the People’s Temple, in Jonestown, Guyana, and they committed suicide at the command of their paranoid leader, Rev. Warren (Jim) Jones. In 1988, Edgar Whisenant, a NASA engineer, used his mathematical skills to set a date for the return of Jesus. He wrote a book called, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Take Place in 1988. In the same year Rev. Colin Deal published a book titled Christ Returns By 1988 – 101 Reasons Why. A very popular book in 1989 was 89 Reasons Why the World will End in 1989. It was in 1995 that the landmark apocalyptic thriller novel, Left Behind,(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left_Behind)  first of a series of 16 books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. In chronological order, these are:  The Rising, The Regime, The Rapture, Left Behind, Tribulation Force, Nicolae, Soul Harvest, Apollyon, Assassins, The Indwelling, The Mark,         Desecration, The Remnant, Armageddon, Glorious Appearing, and Kingdom Come. They were published from 1995 to 2007.  Over 62 million copies of the Left Behind series and its related books have been sold, generating $650 million. In October 2005 a big-budget film, Left Behind (https://youtu.be/MUOODCHc-XU)n, based on this novel series, was released and shown in all Evangelical Christian parishes. The film Omega Code, released in October 1999 (in time for the Millennium?), was an independent movie funded by the Trinity Broadcasting Network, the largest Evangelical Christian TV network in the U.S. It was promoted by a team of 2,400 U.S. Evangelical pastors.  The plot involves a portrayal of the rapture, when “born again” and "saved" Christians, both alive and dead, are supposed to fly up in the air to meet Jesus on his Second Coming.  Omega Code was rated in the top 10 grossing movies for October 1999. This is how modern man reacts to the end of the world.  Today’s readings remind us that we should be well prepared and always ready to meet Jesus at all times, either at the end of our lives or at the end of the world, whichever comes first, without getting panicky. (http://frtonyshomilies.com/)

Scripture lessons summarized: In the first reading, Isaiah describes his prophetic vision of all nations making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, affirming their Faith in the one true God. Today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps 122), is a joyous hymn originally sung as pilgrims journeyed to the Temple in Jerusalem.  They prepare us for our yearly pilgrimage.

In the second reading, Paul exhorts the Roman Christian community to get ready to meet Jesus in his Second Coming by discharging their duties properly and by freeing themselves from their former pagan tendencies toward excessive drinking, sexual promiscuity, jealousy and rivalry. We, too, are challenged to make spiritual preparations for Christ’s birth in our lives.

In today’s Gospel Jesus warns us of the urgency of vigilant preparation on our part that we may meet him as our Judge both at the end of our lives on earth and on the day of the Last Judgment when he comes in his glory. Jesus reminds us of how the unrepentant and ill-prepared evil people were destroyed by the flood in the time of Noah and of how a thief would break in and plunder the precious belongings of an ill-prepared house owner. Using the additional examples later, Jesus repeats his warning for us to be vigilant and well-prepared all the time, doing the will of God by loving others.

The first reading, Isaiah (2:1-5) explained:  Isaiah reports his prophetic vision of all nations gathering on Mount Zion, as described also by Micah (4:1-3), using the image of pilgrimage. The prophet looks forward to the time when the Covenant between God and His people will be extended to all people, and the Temple in Jerusalem will be the worshipping place for all mankind, so that all may live in peace and harmony with God and their fellow-humans. In the late eighth century BC, God's people were already divided into a northern kingdom called Israel, and a southern kingdom known as Judah.  Israel had fallen under Assyrian rule, while Judah and its capital Jerusalem were in danger of being conquered by Babylon.  In the vision of Isaiah, however, Judah is shown as the place to which all nations will come for “instructions in righteous living.” (Zion in Jerusalem was the holy mountain where Solomon's Temple had stood).  The result will be universal peace.  The Lord will mediate all disputes among nations, and "they shall beat their swords into plowshares." The prophet reveals to his audience the radical notion that God might love other nations in addition to Judah. The Responsorial Psalm (Ps 122) is a joyous hymn originally meant to be sung as pilgrims journeyed to Jerusalem, the site of the Temple, the dwelling place of God on earth. As we sing the Psalm today, it invites us to look longingly toward Christmas, the feast that celebrates the Incarnation of God among us.

The second reading (Romans 13:11-14) explained:  In this reading, Paul’s exhortation to the Roman Christians shows them, and us, how to bring about Isaiah’s vision of peace. Because of its concentration on the Parousia, or the Second Coming of Jesus, the Christian community was neglecting its actual day-to-day duties. The Jewish Christians among them lived according to the Law of Moses, a moral code which even pagans admired.  But the Gentile Christians were not yet fully free from the “orgies, drunkenness, promiscuity and lust” of their pagan days.  Hence, Paul advises them: “Conduct yourselves properly.” He warns them against “orgies and drunkenness...promiscuity and lust.” He condemns their “rivalry and jealousy” and advises them to get ready to meet Jesus at his Second Coming.  Paul believes that Jesus' Second Coming will be a day of salvation only for those who are already acting in a proper manner. We, too, must act as pilgrims, entering wholeheartedly into our yearly pilgrimage through salvation history, leaving behind whatever might hinder our progress, and accepting whatever hardships our journey might entail.

Gospel exegesis: The context: Matthew’s audience was mostly made up of Jewish converts to Christianity. These Christians were ridiculed and ostracized by their Jewish friends who had not accepted Christ as the Messiah, and they wondered why some Jews were selected to become Christians and others not. To clear their doubts, Matthew quotes Jesus in today’s Gospel, suggesting the apparently arbitrary nature of the election on the last day. Just as at the time of the Deluge, Noah and his small family were spared while others perished, so shall it be at "the end." The emphasis on the unpredictability of election may have helped Matthew's Jewish Christian audience to deal with the fact that many of their fellow-Christians were recently despised Gentiles. This apocalyptic section of Matthew’s Gospel begins with Jesus' prediction of the destruction of the Temple, and goes on to Christ's   Second Coming, and the signs preceding both.  Jesus answers the disciples by giving them signs of the end of the age (24:3-8), foretelling persecutions (24:9-14), and recalling the sacrilege prophesied by Daniel (24:15-28).  Jesus also tells the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree (24:32-35), in which he warns his disciples to be alert and prepared.

The need for preparedness: The consistent warning in today’s Gospel text is that we should be prepared for the coming of the master.  Our text indicates that the end will seem to be a peaceful and normal time, with people eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, and working in their homes or businesses.  In this routine normal life, it might be easy to forget the "coming of the Son of Man."   In a reference to the story of Noah, Jesus says that the sin of the people was placing too much emphasis on the normal cares and necessities of life.  They were too concerned with eating and drinking – just as we are during the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's holidays.  Jesus reminds us that there is something more important than feasts or weddings: The Son of Man will come to us unexpectedly, either at our death or at the end of the world, and that could be at any moment.   Since God will show up without an appointment, we must be prepared at all times.

The “Rapture.” The reading from Romans contains a disputed reference to the so-called "rapture," an event in which, it is supposed, some people will be taken up from life on earth directly into the air to meet the returning Christ.  This concept of “dispensationalism," proposed by Rev. Nelson Darby an Irish Anglican lawyer-pastor in A.D. 1800, is a misinterpretation, however.   The belief in the Rapture is rooted in the fourth and fifth chapters of 1 Thessalonians, which are placed into an elaborate chronology of "end-time" events based on other passages from Revelation, Daniel, and Matthew 24. In this scheme, the Rapture was called the "day of the Lord" which would come like “a thief in the night" (1 Thess. 5:2). After this secret removal of believers would come the rise of the Antichrist and the placement of the "Mark of the Beast" on his followers during seven years of Tribulation. At the end of those seven years, the second coming of Christ and Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil, would take place. The passage in Matthew (24:40-41), does, indeed, talk about some people being "taken" and some being "left behind,” but the word for "taken" (paralambanomai) means, not "to go up" but rather "to go along with.”  It isn't a magical word about the “born again and saved” people floating up in the air as many of our Protestant brothers believe.  It is much more like Jesus' words to the apostles by the Sea of Galilee: “follow me” or “come along with me."

We need to be alert even while we work: The man working in the field and the woman working at the mill will be “left", because they won’t leave their work.  True enough – work is important.  We need to provide food and shelter for ourselves and our families.  But there is something more important than our work: the coming of the Son of Man. God will arrive unexpectedly. We don't know when a thief might break into our house, so we are prepared for him at all times.  We lock our doors and windows.  We leave a light on when we're gone. We put in an alarm system. We insure our possessions.  We do these things now because a thief could come at some unknown time.  Hence, especially during this busy Christmas season, we must keep our daily life centered on Christ.

How do we prepare for the unexpected coming of the Son of Man?  In Jesus’ parable, we have an example of the proper and improper methods of waiting.  The faithful slave who, with sincerity and good management, has faithfully carried out his master's instructions to ensure the welfare of his fellow-slaves (20:26-27), is always ready for his master's coming. In contrast, the wicked servant is primarily concerned with power, food and drink.  The master is the image for Jesus.   To be prepared for his coming (Matt. 24:3, 36-43), we must be obedient to the Divine will, which means that our actions must serve the community.  The question we might ask is: "Am I being faithful and wise in caring for others while waiting for Christ's return?"  The text reminds us that our preparation for the Incarnation of our Lord is only one aspect of our Advent preparation, and not necessarily the most important.  Let us remind ourselves of our need to be prepared for our Lord’s return in judgment without "doomsday paranoia" on the one hand or complacency on the other.

Life messages:  1) An Advent project: How to be alert and watchful in the spirit of today’s Gospel.  Every morning when we get up, let us pray, “Lord, show me someone today with whom I may share your love, mercy and forgiveness.”  St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa), once said, "Whatever you do in your family, for your children, for your husband, for your wife, you do for Jesus."  Every night when we go to bed, let us ask ourselves, “Where have I found Christ today?”  The answer will be God’s Advent gift to us that day. By being alert and watchful, we’ll be getting an extra gift:  Christ himself.  There is a saying about being saved which goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas: "Without God, I can't.  Without me, He won't."  

2) We need to be wakeful and watchful: We are so future-oriented that we frequently forget the present entirely.  We spend too much time trying to protect ourselves against future misfortunes.  We save for a rainy day, to get married, to buy a home, to send the children to college, to retire in comfort and to protect ourselves against future misfortunes with varieties of insurance.  But we need to be more spiritually wakeful to prepare for our eternal life.  Let us make this Advent season the time of such preparation. (Fr. Antony Kadavil)

28 November 2019, 10:39