Words on the Word
First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 63.16-64.7: You, Lord, are our Father!
1 Corinthians 1.3-9: He will keep you steady.
Mark 13.33-37: Stay awake!
In Advent our gaze is turned towards Christ. We say we are full of expectation. Are we?
Do Advent and Christmas not easily seem like a repetitious, predictable old play? The Christmas tree must stand over there, not over here; the big Santa to the left, the smaller to the right; the mince pies this shape; the turkey exactly as it was last year.
Year by year we rehearse rituals following the same national pattern, though with small, subtle nuances from household to household. In this way we experience belonging, security and (that supposedly constitutional Scandinavian condition) hygge.
This is all well and good, beautiful and charming. We must, though, at the same time dig deeper. Otherwise we shall find that the message of Advent will be for us like the decoration we bring down from the attic: an ornament arranged for a month’s time each winter to prettify the atmosphere before being reconsigned to a musty cardboard box in the expectation that life will carry on as before, that everything remains the way it was.
But it can’t be like that. Not if we believe that He Who Comes is the world’s Redeemer and the Transformer of our lives, our God who by definition makes all things new.
The Church, who knows our hearts well, summons us today to an examination of consciousness. She bids us ask: ‘Who am I? What has become of me?’
The thought of Christ’s Advent will make sense to me only if it touches my life the way it is in fact, not the way I fancy it ought to have been. For us Christians, the first Sunday of Advent introduces a new liturgical year. It is an occasion to render an account and to give thanks, also to formulate new resolutions. Once again we are called to opt for what is real and to relinquish illusion.
How to get started?
Our first reading gives useful hints. Isaiah takes us by the hand and leads us forward step by step. Millennial Biblical insight is compressed into a few lines. We glimpse a process of maturing in four stages.
We may recognise ourselves in Isaiah’s point of departure: my life may not have turned out as I wished, as I’d hoped. I need an explanation. I need someone to blame. ‘Lord!’, cries the prophet, ‘Why did you leave us to stray? Why did you harden our hearts?’ The attitude is like Adam’s on the sixth day: ‘The woman you gave me to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.’ The tendency to blame God is profoundly lodged in us, a toxic substance. If our notion of God presupposes a power that plays with and sabotages our lives, we’ll have no real idea of what hope is. So this is a question we might ask at the start of Advent: Is this how I see God? Is my faith based on a shifting of responsibility? If so, the time has surely come to give up childish ways (cf. 1 Cor 13.11)?
Isaiah’s confession continues with a call for help: ‘Oh, that you would tear the heavens and come down!’ This prayer resounds through the entire liturgy of Advent. It sets out from the insight that what is lacking in my life is not, in fact, this or that accomplishment, possession, or relationship. What is lacking is God himself, his presence. If God seems far away, we easily think we’re right in the middle of a great crisis of faith. It may not be like that. Perhaps I’m simply beginning to realise who I am, a creature of dust; and who God is, the All-Holy? If I recognise the chasm that separates us, I can begin to pray with sincerity: Lord, come! Help me! That could could be the beginning of a new, spiritual life.
In a third stage, the prophet sees himself and us in a new light. He says, on his behalf and ours, ‘We have rebelled’, then, strikingly, ‘all that integrity of ours was like filthy clothing’. Like dirty laundry! Smelly with sweat, stained by our grubby fingers, without that pristine selflessness that lets righteousness shine. To become a mature Christian is to assume responsibility for my existence, my choices, firmly believing that even what has ended up wounded or off course can by grace be turned to good. Some people never reach this stage. It is a sorry sight. As long as I consider myself the hapless victim of the ravages of others, of life, or of God in his heaven, I never take my future into my hands; somehow I’ll never be my own life’s acting subject. There is a risk that I’ll gather bitter grapes even from good vines. So let’s beware.
The last stage in Isaiah’s faith itinerary finds beautiful expression: ‘Yet you, Lord, are our Father! We are the clay, you the potter, we are the work of your hand.’ To live on these terms is to learn what trust means. ‘Trust’ is simply another word for ‘faith’. God’s providence is real, his agency continuous. But we must choose to let ourselves be formed. Clay, to be of use, must be soft enough to be kneaded and turned; at the same time it must be firm enough to maintain the shape imposed by the potter. Our daily task is to ensure that we, ‘running forth with righteous deeds’, have the right consistency so that God can makes of us something lovely and functional for his purpose.
‘Stay away!’ says Jesus in the Gospel. This is what staying awake means: it’s about giving up the bad habit of moaning and blaming; about realising who we are, who God is; about assuming responsibility for our lives; then about letting God act in us, letting his will be done.
If we live like this, the Lord’s Advent will be deeply personal and exciting, a transition from shackledness to freedom, from twilight to daylight.
Photograph from Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, by Brother Martin Horwath.