Saturday, December 1, 2012

Advent: God's Wake-Up Call (First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2012)



Gospel: Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
Jesus said to his disciples:
"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will die of fright
in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then they will see the Son of Man
coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
But when these signs begin to happen,
stand erect and raise your heads
because your redemption is at hand.

"Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy
from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life,
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.
For that day will assault everyone
who lives on the face of the earth.
Be vigilant at all times
and pray that you have the strength
to escape the tribulations that are imminent
and to stand before the Son of Man."

 Advent: God’s Wake-Up Call

Wake-up calls are sometimes needed in our life, whether we like them or not. It’s precisely because we are asleep that we need them. And most of the time, it’s only after we have awoken from our slumber that we are grateful to the one who woke us. As a cadet at West Point, they actually had a rule that a cadet was not responsible for the content of his speech for the exactly the first 60 seconds after he received a wake-up call from his commander. Many was the time I thought about having a stopwatch and giving my commander about 59 seconds of what I thought about being woken up from my beauty sleep.

Advent is God’s annual wake-up call.

Our hearts get drowsy and lazy, tired out by the anxieties of daily life. Maybe we distract ourselves from our troubles by working very hard, or becoming depressed, or becoming fascinated with drink, or sex, or out-of-control emotions, or shopping, or email, or golf, or surfing the web, or pride, or, or, or (you name yours). Whatever it is for you, the very clear message of Advent is, “Settle down for a while; wake up and pay attention.” Open the door just a crack to let God in.

For the past month we have been reading about the coming of the Lord, His coming in justice, His coming in recompense, and our need to be vigilant. For many, it will be a day of great fear. Even in our Gospel, Christ tells us that some will actually die of fright. Even our own hearts, we among the elect, we quake at the thought. But in today’s Gospel, we feel another emotion, and it is equally an emotion of advent—the feeling of expectation, and hope, and eagerness to meet the Lord.

When these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, for your ransom is near at hand.”  (Luke 21:28)

The Church has a liturgical strategy in the Advent Sunday readings. Each week’s First Reading is the carrot: usually positive, a promise of good. Then the Gospel hits you with a big stick to wake you up.

It’s a wake-up call.

Take the encouraging First Reading this Sunday. It reminds us of the promise God has made to his people: rightness and justice will come to the earth. Security. The day of the Lord will arrive, though long delayed. Peace in our day.

I will fulfill the promise
I made to the house of Israel and Judah.
I will raise up for David a just shoot ;
In those days Judah shall be safe
and Jerusalem shall dwell secure;
this is what they shall call her:
Yahweh Sedikah--"The LORD our justice, our righteousness."

God tells us of a promise that one day we will no longer rely upon our own righteousness—for we know that our own rightness before God is as filthy rags—but the Lord will appear as that righteous branch, that just shoot, Emmanu-El—God with us—and Judah shall be safe, Jerusalem shall dwell secure—and our righteousness will be from Yahweh and from His Messiah—Jesus.

What a lovely thing it is to desire such a time. We want to cry Marana-tha! Amen, come Lord Jesus!
The Second Reading urges us to put God’s promise of peace into action, even if we are not yet sure what it means. Love others and be loved.

Ah, and then the Gospel. It tries to wake us up, especially if the above has not helped. Signs in the sun, moon and stars, nations in dismay, the roaring of the sea and the waves, people dying of fright, and the Son of Man appearing in the clouds with power and great glory.

Terrifying.

So you are all ready for it? Let yourself imagine what it might be like. Picture it scene by scene and don’t worry about being exact. Just experience it.

Will such a shakeup really happen literally? We do not know. Maybe much worse is to come, judging from the state of the world today. Do you live without fear of terrorist acts, of proliferating nuclear weapons, of a shooting in a theater, of a crash of the entire world economy or the greed that fills so many hearts to overflowing in your city, in your state, your world? My world seems to be a giant fiscal cliff!

Four weeks ago in the more eastern parts of The United States, days of weather-warnings preceded Hurricane Sandy. Days before its arrival, life changed. Schools, businesses, whole cities shut down, even Wall Street! Rain, snow, winds and high ocean waves electrified the coast-landers into fight and flight. Some doubted and tried to live through it all. Some didn’t believe it would be as bad as predicted.

Jesus has some warnings himself which sound worse than the ones for Sandy.

This Gospel is difficult to hear and understand. Keep in mind and in the immediate context, the city of Jerusalem is central to the religious sense of the people. Jesus is speaking to His disciples about the total collapse of the city which has been the symbol of God’s eternal fidelity. For the city to fall is similar to the sky falling and all natural orderliness being disturbed. The stability of the temple as well as the city itself is similar to the order of the sun and moon, the seas and normal living.

Welcome to Advent—God’s Wake-Up Call

Christian living takes place ‘between the times,’ between the first coming of Christ and his second coming. The first coming was humble, to say the least: an infant born of poor parents in an obscure village. The second coming will be different: "The powers in the heavens will be shaken and people will be distraught at the roaring of the sea and the waves."

Advent is anticipation. Jeremiah thrives on it: “The days are coming when I will fulfill the promise. . . . I will raise up a just shoot . . . . He shall do what is right and just in the land. In those days Judah shall be safe and Jerusalem secure.”

Advent is promise and prayer. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians brims with desire: “May the Lord increase you and make you overflow with love. May he strengthen your hearts.”

Darkening skies, longer nights announce the winter of life. But the child in us looks for the sign of love in the sky, the rainbows of fall, the snows that brighten the earth, the arms that reach down to lift us up.

And so, even with portents of the end times, there is the promise born: We will “see the Son of Man coming on a cloud. . . . When these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, for your ransom is near at hand.”

Like Israel, like Paul, the childhood we never leave is suspended between devastation and delight. We rise and rush to the window imagining snow. We sit up, alert to songs that promise joy. We attend to the slightest confirmation that our ransom is at hand.

Each ensuing Advent thus reawakens the child in us. And yet, as each approaches and then recedes into the past, our frail childlike qualities mysteriously mature. We slowly come to a realization that there is a deeper hope, a more profound ransom, a truer liberation. We begin to hope that Jesus Christ’s radiance will be brighter than any snow. We start to trust that his light could be more luminous than all the candles ever burned, anticipating Christmas. These days we are invited to be faithfully, and not fearfully, watchful.

Jesus offers us the encouragement to stand firm against the disorders and tribulations and temptations which lead to disorder. The Man of Justice and Integrity is always coming into the disorderliness of our personal, cultural, and global worlds. The next two Sundays of Advent will bring John the Baptist onto the stage of preparation. We will hear his callings. Today we are invited to begin preparing for the coming into our lives of a Savior. To do this we are called to check up on the disorders within and around us to which Jesus is constantly arriving, and to wake up.

We as believers are waiting patiently for the new beginning rather than an ending. In the New Testament patience (hypomone in Greek, a combination for two words—hypo—a word of dynamism, but also mone, which is that same work Jesus used in John 15 when he spoke of abiding, thriving, in the Vine) is not passivity. Rather, patience entails active waiting and hoping. As we begin a liturgical year in which most Sunday Gospel readings are from Luke, I want us to focus on the Advent virtues of patience, hope, joy and fidelity.

There is an ancient story that depicts a man entering the gates of heaven. Once inside he discovers nothing but a place to sit facing a huge wall. When he asks his escort, St. Peter, for an explanation, Peter says, “You have but entered the antechamber of paradise. Paradise itself is on the other side of the wall. An opening in the wall will appear, but only once a year. It could emerge at any time: possibly in the next hour, possibly in many months. Keep vigil and watch. If you miss it, your waiting will continue.”

When these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, for your ransom is near at hand.”  (Luke 21:28)

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