First Sunday of Advent

Dominica I Adventus C

2 December 2018

Our word “advent” comes from the Latin “adventus,” which is a translation from the Greek word “Parousia.”  Parousia means “arrival” or “coming.”  Our use of “advent” refers not only to the coming of Christ at his Incarnation and birth at Christmas, but it also refers to his second coming at the end of time, his coming as Judge.  In fact, it is this second coming that is most commonly associated with the word “Parousia.”  Advent is the start of a new Church liturgical year.  It is a time of year that is hectic and exciting in holiday anticipation.  It is a time of year that is tender with family gatherings, parties, rich memories, and holy songs.  Given how this time of year is spent by us, it is safe to say that perhaps the gospel selection today sounds almost strange to us, as if it doesn’t fit.  And perhaps that raises a critical question: What is truly strange?  Is it the Church’s liturgical focus and scriptural selection that is strange and doesn’t fit?  Or is it how we live that risks not fitting with Christian preparedness and vigilance for the moment when the Lord comes again?  If the gospel is almost like a disappointment or sounds strange to us then we have a good opportunity to catch our error and to make change so as to prepare for the coming, the advent, the Parousia of the Lord!

The gospel is from Jesus’ discourse on the Mount of Olives where he speaks of his second coming.  He speaks of dramatic cosmic signs that will accompany his return in glory and he alludes to a prophecy from the Book of Daniel that the Son of Man will come in the clouds.  These signs are disturbing.  People will be in dismay and perplexed.  In fact, “people will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world.”  Considering this, Jesus’ instruction is hard to swallow.  He says when you see these things “Stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.”  When we are assaulted by things that cause dismay, leaving us perplexed, and which may even cause one to die of fright – I don’t know about you, but my inclination is to duck for cover and to keep my head down.  Imagine a battlefield riddled with violence and bullets flying.  Ducking and putting your head down seems to be the best policy.  And a battlefield is nothing compared to the signs of the Second Coming.  But Jesus tells us to stand up.  Almost like a football coach teaching tackling method, he tells us to raise our heads, to face the cosmic signs we can’t control or understand because it means our redemption is arriving.

How are we possibly supposed to face the final advent?  Jesus tells us that our responsibility is to be prepared.  And he tells us some things NOT to do in order that we are prepared.  Jesus says, “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.”  Jesus warns us to take care that our hearts not be weighed down by things that will prevent us from being ready to stand erect and to raise our heads.   In particular, we must be on guard not to become drowsy from carousing.  Other translations of this passage use the word “dissipation.”  That’s a word commonly used of the young son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  The word in Greek translated as dissipation or carousing refers to “unbridled indulgence.”  Carousing then is unbridled indulgence in all the pleasures of the flesh: money, sex, power, the things of this world and how the world evaluates a noteworthy or successful life.  These are the things that we fall to so easily in our fallen nature, making them our focus and, in so doing, becoming weighed down with an earthly, lower focus that obscures our true dignity as God’s children and impedes our ability to be ready to stand up and to raise our heads with what me might call the “lightness,” the levity of freedom.  To respond to Jesus’ call to be vigilant for his second coming, we have to guard our hearts so that we do not let them fall in love with a disordered and unbridled attachment to lower things.

The second bit of advice from Jesus is much more immediately clear, but perhaps even more stark to us given how simple and confrontational it is.  He highlights the grave sin of drunkenness.  Deliberate inebriation is a serious sin that Jesus singles out as something to be avoided if we are to be vigilant for his return.  Why might the Lord highlight this issue?  Because deliberate inebriation or carelessness in drinking serves as a symbol of someone who has become so wrapped up in the pleasures of this world that the person has lost control of him- or herself.  Someone who is drunk does not have control of his faculties.  He or she has lost the control of the mind and the will.  We all know that drinking, especially excessive drinking or drunkenness often results in one’s guard being down, in the loss of inhibitions that might otherwise tell us to straighten up and choose moral good.  In other words, drunkenness is to deliberately enter into a state where we are lower than we are made to be, where we are less than our dignity.

The final advice for vigilance is that we must beware of the anxieties of daily life.  This harkens to the Parable of the Sower where the seed of God’s Word is planted but thorns, which Jesus says are the anxieties of life, choke it off and smother the seed of God’s Kingdom.  To be prepared for his second coming Jesus tells us we must avoid letting our hearts be weighed down and consumed by anxiety.  We might ask ourselves if we lose sight and hope in the seed of God’s Kingdom planted in us?  Do I focus on the anxieties and the problems of life to such a degree that I actually give little attention to – or even forget – God’s Kingdom?  It is the kingdom that is like yeast in a batch of dough or like a mustard seed that starts as the smallest thing but then has impact well beyond the worldly measure of its size.  Do I forget that?  In the face of my worries and preoccupations do I let myself remember this truth and this promise of Jesus?  Or am I weighed down?  This advice might be the most interesting of the three.  Why?  Because here Jesus isn’t talking about avoiding a specific sin, like the other two (indulgence and drunkenness).  Here he expresses the danger of being too worldly focused, putting too much stock in this life and our estimations of our progress such that we lose an other-worldly focus, a focus on his kingdom.

So, how do we avoid these things?  How should we prepare this advent for Christmas and for the final advent at the Second Coming, such that that day not catch us by surprise like a trap?  Jesus says, “Be vigilant at all times and pray.”  This refers to the spiritual advice of staying awake and praying, especially in the night time hours.  This spiritual discipline of vigilance is perhaps less considered than something more familiar like fasting, but it is just as much part of the Jewish and Christian traditions.  Monks get up while it is still dark, late at night or very early in the morning, to pray.  That time of prayer – not surprisingly – is called “vigils.”  This call to be vigilant, to stay awake and to pray, helps us understand and appreciate key Catholic practices.  Ever wonder why we have a Midnight Mass at Christmas?  The older I get, I sure do!  To keep vigil, to stay awake and to pray ourselves into the dawning of light on Christmas Day.  We keep vigil on Holy Thursday night after the Mass, praying before the gift of the Lord’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament.  We do that all night until midnight.  We have an Easter Vigil that is always held in the darkness of Holy Saturday night so that we keep vigil as preparation for the arrival of Easter Sunday.  Maybe hearing about these practices today gives us some added push to make the effort to attend these Masses in the coming year.  The spiritual practice of vigilance can also be grown in the devotion of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.  When we come to an adoration chapel anywhere in the Catholic world we are coming to be vigilant, to stay awake and to pray before and with the Lord.  Perhaps the message of Jesus on this First Sunday of Advent might drive you to take up this practice, to commit to adoration, and to let the Lord prepare you for his return.  The Lord tells us to be vigilant, to stay awake, and to pray that we may have strength to escape what comes and to stand before him.  Physical strength will do us no good at the Second Coming.  We need spiritual strength.  Train yourself in that spiritual discipline that we perhaps unwisely leave only to the most dedicated monks.  Stay awake and pray.  Avoid the drunkenness and the carousing so often associated with secular “night life” and “the weekend.”  Stay awake and pray with the Lord in adoration so that you remind yourself of his Kingdom already present here and now, whose fullness we await in the next life.  Train yourself in prayer and adoration to desire that Kingdom more than daily anxieties.  And as you pray before the Lord now let him help you identify the sins that need confession.  Let him raise your head and cause you to stand secure in his love such that when that day with disturbing signs comes, you may see it not as a day of fear but as the arrival, the advent, of the gift of God’s love and desire for you: “Your redemption is at hand!”