First Sunday of Advent
Reflection: A glance into a possible future
By SISTER MARY McGLONE
“In the days to come.”
These words set the tone as they invite us into Advent, 28 days of seeking to better perceive where and how God is active in our midst.
Isaiah ushers us into Advent with his vision of the future God has in mind. We do well to remember the situation Isaiah was addressing when he outlined his vision. In the opening chapter of his work, the prophet described Israel’s sorry state by comparing Israel unfavorably to an ox and ass who responded to their masters.
According to Isaiah, Israel’s culpable ignorance about God’s presence has left her dumber than the ox and more stubborn than the donkey. As an alternative, Isaiah depicts a new possibility, a transformed future in which God’s plan for peace and well-being is the divine design for all peoples.
Matthew’s presentation of God’s future plan is summarized in the image of the coming of the Son of Man. “Coming” translates the spectacular Greek word, parousia, a word that combines the concepts of presence and essence. The Parousia brings us into the presence of the essence of Christ. It’s easy to understand why many have understood the Parousia as a reference to the end of the world and Christ’s coming in glory.
This year, we celebrate the longest possible Advent season, with four full weeks to seek and receive the grace this season offers. We need each of these days as Advent invites us to reconsider time and history. On one hand, we will recall the long story of God’s interaction with humanity, how everything from creation, through the saga of Israel, led toward the birth of Christ as the centerpiece of history. On the other hand, Advent focuses on time’s horizon when we will finally experience Christ bringing all creation into union with himself so that God becomes all in all. Standing in the tension between these two intimately related moments invites us to identify with our ancestors in faith who slowly perceived how God was drawing them toward ever-greater life and ever-deeper relationship with God and all of creation.
Reading today’s Gospel, we almost feel taunted or teased by Jesus’ message. Three times he gears us up to hope for details about the future with the phrase, “So it will be.” Then, each time he lets us down by illustrating the unpredictability of his Parousia. It’s as if he is saying, “You can count on this for sure! You won’t have any idea of when or how it will happen.” The message? “Stay aware! Be ready for the unexpected!”
How do we do that? Obviously, much as we would like to, we can’t draw a map to guide us into an unknowable future. How can we plan a journey to the unexpected? The first chapter of Isaiah offers us an essential hint. Isaiah described Israel as God’s rebellious offspring, as people who had forsaken God. They had mistakenly presumed that mimicking the obsequious cults that pagans practiced would appease the God of Abraham and Moses. But, beyond empty ritualism, their real apostasy, their worst betrayal of the God who loved them, was their refusal to care about all God’s beloved. No incense or sacrifice could make up for not heeding the cry of the orphan and widow. (In “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis adds Earth to this list, calling her, “burdened and laid waste … among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.”)
In response to this situation of disorientation and rebellion, Isaiah offers the one solution possible. He invites Israel and us as well to join with “the nations,” with all those who seek God, and to say, “Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain,” so that God can instruct us in the divine ways and that “we may walk in his paths.”
Isaiah describes this pilgrimage as a climb because Jerusalem was a city on a hill. Even more, this journey requires a strenuous movement beyond self, beyond the boundaries of family, clan and nation, beyond a fixation on humans as the center of creation. It is a journey toward the heart of God who is present in everything created and who beckons us toward a future that is more (broader, deeper, more varied) than we would ever imagine.
In the days to come, especially during these 28 days, we have a unique opportunity to wake up to Parousia, the myriad simple and spectacular ways in which God is present, drawing us forward together. Like Israel, we are called to form integrated communities rather than remain as individuals, denominations or nations. Unknowable as the future is, we can trust that, to the extent that we give ourselves to the quest, we will find what we seek — no matter how impossible to imagine.
(Isaiah 2: 1-5)
This is what Isaiah, son of Amoz,
saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come,
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest mountain
and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it;
many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may instruct us in his ways,
and we may walk in his paths.”
For from Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and impose terms on many peoples.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
one nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again.
O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the Lord!
(Psalm 122: 1-9)
(Romans 13: 11-14)
Brothers and sisters:
You know the time;
it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep.
For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed;
the night is advanced, the day is at hand.
Let us then throw off the works of darkness
and put on the armor of light;
let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day,
not in orgies and drunkenness,
not in promiscuity and lust,
not in rivalry and jealousy.
But put on the Lord Jesus Christ,
and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.
(Matthew 24: 37-44)
Jesus said to his disciples:
“As it was in the days of Noah,
so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
In those days before the flood,
they were eating and drinking,
marrying and giving in marriage,
up to the day that Noah entered the ark.
They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.
So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man.
Two men will be out in the field;
one will be taken, and one will be left.
Two women will be grinding at the mill;
one will be taken, and one will be left.
Therefore, stay awake!
For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
Be sure of this: if the master of the house
had known the hour of night when the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and not let his house be broken into.
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”