A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for Sunday, December 1, 2013, First Sunday of Advent
• Is 2:1-5
• Ps 122: 1-2, 3-4, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9
• Rom 13:11-14
• Mt 24:37-44
Advent is apocalyptic.
Perhaps you’ve never thought of it in that way. But today’s readings are revealing. I say “revealing” because the word “apocalypse”, from the Greek word apokalupsis, means “to reveal” or “to unveil”. Unfortunately, it has become primarily associated with destruction and violence. But even that understanding is somewhat accurate even if it only hits part of the target.
Today’s Gospel reading, from Matthew 24, is one of three “little apocalypses”, the other two being found in Mark 13 and Luke 21. These discourses by Jesus about coming events are complex and difficult, in part because they use methods of Old Testament prophecy in speaking of the future, in part because they refer to both the destruction of the Temple (A.D. 70) and the return of Christ at the end of time. One reason for this is that the destruction of the Temple by the Romans was, in a very real sense, the end of the world for devout Jews since the Temple embodied God’s covenant with the Jewish people and was considered the dwelling place of God’s glory. Jesus himself is the new Temple (Rev. 21:22), the fulfillment of everything the Jerusalem Temple pointed toward, most importantly the radical, transforming, and eternal communion of God with man.
Speaking to his disciples on the cusp of his Passion, Jesus exhorts them, “Therefore, stay awake!” There are words worth repeating to ourselves throughout the seasons of Advent. Wake up! Rouse yourself! Be alert! Why? Because the King is arriving. The adventus—the “arrival” or “coming” of the Lord—is fast approaching. “So, too”, Jesus told the disciples, “you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”
A big problem, as Monsignor Ronald Knox pointed out, is simply this: “We want Our Lord to come, but not just yet.” Like Augustine, we find ourselves torn between wanting to fully commit ourselves to Christ while also holding on to those things that keep us from him: “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Advent is a challenge against comfort, a call to stay awake, an invitation to confession.
“The drama of Advent,” wrote Knox, “is that when we see everything going wrong with the world, we are tempted to be indifferent about it all.” This drama is also a paradox. Non-Christians (and, alas, many Christians) think that such focus on eternity keeps us from being committed to doing good in this world. But the Apostle Paul would have none of that false notion. He warned the Christians in Rome that they must awake from sleep and “throw off the works of darkness” so they could “put on the armor of light” and conduct themselves properly. Holiness does not grow when heaven is forgotten; on the contrary, holiness on earth is the fruit of heaven growing within us. Such growth cannot and does not take place without destruction and violence: the dissolution of darkness and the death of sin.
Let’s go even further back, to the prophet Isaiah, who wrote of a coming time when all nations would stream toward the house of the Lord. Isaiah recorded a promise of salvation and a warning of judgment. This great work of salvation, however, requires humility and repentance. Walking in the light of the Lord only happens when we accept both his judgment and his mercy, acknowledging our desperate need and his gracious gift.
“Advent is the end of the Old Covenant,” explained Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, “which genuinely looked for God’s coming.” The advent of the New Covenant took place two thousand years ago. But God’s coming also takes place at every moment, which is why Paul wrote of the nearness of salvation while warning against the darkness of sinful pursuits. And it will be completed at the final advent, the Second Coming, which is why Jesus exhorted the disciples to be prepared at every hour for the hour—the hour of revealing, of apocalypse.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the November 28, 2010, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)