27 November 2016

Homily - 27 November 2016 - The First Sunday of Advent

The First Sunday of Advent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

The older I get, the more I dislike winter. I have never enjoyed the cold temperatures, or the ice and snow, but what I dislike the most is the weeks and months of darkness, which feels more oppressive with the passage of years. A few days ago I was sitting at my desk in my office in the rectory trying to clear out the e-mail inbox, when I happened to look up and outside through the window. It was about 6:00 in the evening and utterly black. A tremendous yawn overtook me and I yearned for the return of the sun because I was ready to crawl back into bed. Perhaps you’ve been there, too.

Sadly, the sense of an encroaching darkness is not only to be found in the natural world, but also in the hearts of men and women. We sing in our carols that this is “the most wonderful time of the year,” but how did many seek to enter into the joy of the season? With self-absorption and violence. As Americans, we have willfully allowed the national holy day of Black Friday to become the highlight of the year and rob families of their loved ones when we are supposed to give thanks together for our common gifts. If we are honest, this is a natural progression stemming from the day when we, as a society, decided that Sunday was no longer to be a day dedicated to God and to family.

I once worked in a toy store as the Parental Video Game Adviser at a time when the Friday after Thanksgiving was known as Green Friday because many stores took in more than half of their annual income that day. Now that day is known as Black Friday, supposedly because stores now begin to operate in the black instead of the read. Still, I cannot help but wonder if this change in name is not somehow related to – or indicative of - a change in our hearts, a change not for the better.

To understand what I mean, consider the following events that all took place in these United States of America in connection with Black Friday shopping: a man was shot dead and a woman injured in a parking lot in San Antonio, Texas because the deceased told another man to stop grabbing a woman by her hair; two people were shot in Chattanooga, Tennessee after an argument about merchandise broke out in a mall; one man was killed and another wounded in Atlantic City, New Jersey while standing in line outside a store waiting for the “door buster savings;” a man was shot dead in Reno, Nevada because of a parking space dispute; another man was killed in Memphis, Tennessee while shopping in a mall; and customers fought over washcloths selling for $1.60 in Bainbridge, Georgia and broke out in a brawl.[1] Is this the joy of the season? Is this what it is all about? Is this really the most wonderful time of the year? Does this not show a darkening of our hearts?

In the midst of the darkness of these days, I find myself repeating a line J.R.R. Tolkien gave to Aragorn at Helm’s Deep: “Yet dawn is ever the hope of men.”[2] The ancient Christians prayed looking toward the east; even in their homes they would look out an eastward facing window when making the sign of the Cross and saying their prayers. They did so in the confidence of the return of “the one Morning Star who never sets,” Christ Jesus, “who, coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity.”[3] They looked to the east because they knew that dawn is ever the hope of men. They looked not simply the dawning of a new day, but for the dawning of the coming of the Lord Jesus with his angels; they lived in eager expectation of his coming and sought not to be caught unawares lest he come as a thief in the night. Can the same be said of us?

This season of Advent, then, has as its chief aim two purposes: first, a preparation for the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time, and, second, a preparation to celebrate his Birth at Bethlehem. The temptation today is to anticipate too early Christmas Day at the expense of our spiritual growth. In many families, the Christmas tree and the Nativity set have already been raised and will be taken down shortly after Christmas dinner, in stark contrast to the liturgical year, which celebrates Christmas beginning not until Christmas Day and continues through the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, this year the ninth of January.

It seems we have forgotten this rich season that calls us to wait, to be still, to ponder, and to hope for the dawn. The Church “raises its gaze to the final goal of pilgrimage in history, which is the glorious return of the Lord Jesus” and, recalling Jesus’ “birth in Bethlehem with emotion, it bends down before the crib. The hope of Christians is directed to the future, but always remains well rooted in a past event.”[4]

Too often we lose sight of both of these directions – the future and the past - in the hustle and bustle of worldly life and are caught up in the present. Advent calls us to step beyond this busy-ness, to contemplate anew the great love of the Lord Jesus who “shall judge between the nations and impose terms on many peoples” (Isaiah 2:4).

Our communal neglect of Advent in favor of the maddening greed of Black Friday “seems especially disturbing – for it’s injured even the secular Christmas season: opening a hole, from Thanksgiving on, that can be filled only with fiercer, madder, and wilder attempts to anticipate Christmas.”[5] We find ourselves surrounded by

More Christmas trees.  More Christmas lights.  More tinsel, more tassels, more glitter, more glee – until the glut of candles and carols, ornaments and trimmings, has left almost nothing for Christmas Day. For much of America, Christmas itself arrives nearly as an afterthought: not the fulfillment, but only the end, of the long Yule season that has burned without stop since the stores began their Christmas sales.[6]

Is this not what the Lord Jesus warns against when he tells us that we also “must be prepared, for at an hour [we] do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (Matthew 24:44)?

It is too easy for us to give in to the temptations that surround us, to focus on the commercialism and materialism of the culture in which we find ourselves, and ignore this season of grace in which we should be stirring ourselves from our faithlessness and from our sluggish spiritual sleep (cf. Romans 13:11). We must instead focus on Jesus, on keeping his commands by loving God and neighbor in every circumstance, and prepare to meet him when at last he comes to judge the living and the dead.

If you have done everything that was asked of you and are prepared for it, then you have nothing to fear, but if you have not, then look out! Paul is not trying to frighten his hearers but to encourage them, so as to detach them from their love of the things of this world. It was not unlikely that at the beginning of their endeavors they would be more dedicated and slacken off as time went on. But Paul wants them to do the opposite – not to slacken as time goes on but to become even more dedicated. For the nearer the King is, the more they ought to be ready to receive him.[7]

So long as there is yet another dawn, there is time for us to “throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12).

Let us, then, keep these days of Advent well, not in the anticipation of the gifts we will exchange on Christmas Day, but in gratitude for the gift of the Lord’s mercy given us in his Birth at Bethlehem and in expectation of his return in glory. Just a few days ago, His Holiness Pope Francis gave us a bit of wise fatherly advice. He encouraged us to spend time in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, with the Eucharistic Lord present in his tabernacle, and to make a simple prayer: “You are God; I am a poor child loved by You.”[8]

If we make this prayer our own, the Lord will help us remember the many ways we have failed to love both God and neighbor. With these sins in our minds and hearts, we can enter the confessional and entrust ourselves again to God’s merciful love. We will leave the confessional with a lightened and joyful heart and “the dawn from high shall break upon us” (Luke 1:78). Then, this will truly be the most wonderful time of the year.  Amen.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers: Being the Second Part of The Lord of the Rings, 3.7 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 524.
[3] “Exultet,” Roman Missal.
[4] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 27 November 2005.
[5] Joseph Bottum, “The End of Advent,” First Things (December 2007), 20.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Saint John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans, 23. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. VI: Romans. Gerald Bray, ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1998), 321.

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