Be vigilant, be hopeful, be prepared!

Listen to mp3 file (11:45)
1st Sunday of Advent, Year C: Nov. 29, 2015
Jer 33:14-16; Ps 25; 1 Thess 3:12–4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36

Today we begin the new Church Year. And we know that the two greatest feast days of the year—the two poles on which the whole year hangs—are Christmas and Easter. Christmas, which celebrates the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus—that God the Son took on human nature, and became man—and was born for us, a baby in Bethlehem; and Easter, which celebrates his passion, death, and resurrection:  all of this to save us! And we celebrate these two feasts not only as single days but as the beginnings of the Christmas season and Easter season; and in both cases we prepare for them with special seasons of preparation.

And so we begin the Church Year with the Season of Advent, to prepare ourselves to celebrate our Lord’s birth at Christmas.

Now, we know that our culture and especially its businesses have all kinds of ideas about how we should celebrate Christmas and prepare for it. Naturally, a lot of these ideas have to do with giving these businesses our money!—for cards and gifts, and what we need for parties and dinners, and travel and hosting. That’s what businesses have in mind for your December and your Christmas.

But what kind of preparation does Mother Church have in mind? The season is named Advent, from the Latin “adventus,” which means “coming” or “arrival.” Mother Church leads us to prepare ourselves to be ready to celebrate our Lord Jesus’ first coming or advent at Christmas—by preparing ourselves anew to be ready to welcome him at his second coming.

This is something that we confess every week in the Nicene Creed—that he will come again in glory. St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 4:16) that “the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven.” The resurrection of the dead will occur, both the just and the unjust; and our Lord will carry out the judgment of all the nations, revealing all truth, and giving to each person the reward or punishment that they deserve. And he will bring the Kingdom to fulfillment, the New Heavens and the New Earth, in which there will be no more suffering or death, but perfect blessedness, and being with him forever. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1038-44)

This is the great focus of our hope as Christians. This will be fulfillment of all the promises that God has made, as we heard in our first reading. And so, starting from when Christ ascended into heaven, the Church has looked forward to and prayed for his second coming. “Come, Lord Jesus! The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’” (Rev 22:17, 20)

It is this second coming, and what will precede it, that we heard our Lord Jesus speaking about in our Gospel reading. And we notice that he has two directions for us: to be vigilant, not drowsy; and to be hopeful, not gripped with fright.

  • First, initially, he tells us to be vigilant. Many in our world do not know him and so know nothing about his coming. But even for those who know, during this period, it is easy to become distracted, forgetful, numb, asleep. This could happen by becoming literally drunk, as he says, through carousing with whatever addictive behavior one turns to. But it can also happen simply through the daily grind, the anxieties of daily life. And he urges us: be aware, be alert, remember, be watchful. He is coming!
  • Second, he tells us not to be paralyzed by fright. Earlier in this chapter he has listed off terrible events that will occur—political turmoil, terrible natural disasters, terrible persecution of members of the Church—all of this preceding his coming. It is thoroughly understandable that someone who doesn’t know about any of this will become very frightened—fainting or even dying of fright. But we know these terrible events will occur, like labor pains before the wonderful event of the birth. And so he tells us: “when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.”

Be vigilant, be alert, be watchful, be prepared; and be hopeful!

But how will we prepare? How will we be watchful? To answer these questions, we can look to two great figures of the Advent season: John the Baptist, and the Virgin Mary.

  • On the next two Sundays of Advent, we will be hearing from John the Baptist in our Gospel readings. And what will we hear from him? “Repent! Prepare the way of the Lord!” And we will hear him encouraging self-examination, to discover what sins or bad habits are present in our lives, not ready for the arrival of the Messiah—and to change them! This matches what we hear from St. Paul in today’s second reading: to conduct ourselves in a way to please God, to be blameless in holiness at the coming of our Lord Jesus.
  • And then on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we will hear of the Virgin Mary. And we can see in her a quiet reflection and spending time with the Lord in love, peace, and joy. During her nine months of pregnancy, how much she must have savored spending quiet time with the Lord Jesus inside of her!—while anticipating the joy of when he would arrive in a new way, when she would be able to see and embrace him! And so we too can make a quiet, peaceful space to spend time with our Lord Jesus already present—in our hearts, in the Eucharist—even as we anticipate the joy of his second coming.

“Clean house!” says John the Baptist. “Spend time with him!” says the Virgin Mary.

And this fits with some advice for families I was just reading from a Catholic blogger (Simcha Fisher). As a wife and mother of many children, she knows well that family life can get messy and hectic during this Advent season. And so she has resolved, and recommends to others, if nothing else, two minimum Advent practices for the family:

  • First, make an Advent wreath, and light it together at night, while singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” She prefers real purple and rose candles, with real evergreens, lighting and singing every night; but some years, she says, it might not be real evergreens, or a wreath rather than separate candle-holders, or colored candles rather than white ones. It might not be every night; it might even be made out of paper, with no flames involved. But do what you can, and sing, and it will be beautiful—as you follow the Virgin Mary’s example of quiet prayer. (You can also pick up the Magnificat Advent Companion to help in personal prayer.)
  • Second, go to confession once, or even twice, before Christmas. These rose cards will remind you of the additional confession times offered at St. Bernadette’s—not only Saturday morning and afternoon, like all year; but also Wednesday evenings during the Advent season; and weekday mornings during the last two weeks before Christmas. In this way, you can follow John the Baptist’s exhortation to examine yourself, repent, and change—to be ready to welcome the Messiah.

So be vigilant; and be hopeful. Clean up the house of your heart with John the Baptist. Spend quiet, joyful time in prayer with the Virgin Mary. Prepare the way of the Lord! Come, Lord Jesus!

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