02 December 2018

Homily - The First Sunday of Advent - 2 December 2018

The First Sunday of Advent (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

With the celebration of Vespers yesterday evening, we entered into my favorite season of the year, one too often overlooked. It is not my favorite time of the year because of the cold and snow (some of my favorite memories of this season come from a land of sun and sand). Nor is it my favorite time of year because of the hectic frenzy, jealousy, and anxiety we allow ourselves to be worked up into. Rather, this season is my favorite time of year because it stands diametrically opposed to the busyness that the secularism thrusts upon us this time each year. This is my favorite time of year because “there’s an imaginative fertility and a reaching ambition” in the season of Advent “which offers something much richer than just a cheery countdown to Christmas.”[1]

This season of Advent has become quite overshadowed and even eclipsed altogether by so many premature celebrations of Christmas. One of the causes of this problem is that “everybody wants … Christmas without Advent just like we want dessert without eating our vegetables.[2] This happens because we do not have a proper understanding of what the Season of Advent is all about. Just as we lose something of great importance by not eating our vegetables, so, too, do we lose something of great importance by diminishing Advent or by skipping it altogether.

Even as Advent began in the quiet of the evening, all around us supposed celebrations of Christmas have already begun. I say supposed because, if you pay attention, they are not at all celebrations of the Birth of Christ, but rather celebrations of commercialism, materialism, or winter, or some combination of the three. Have you tried looking for Christmas cards this year? Unless you go to a specifically religious store, good luck finding cards that speak of the Bethlehem event. Most cards might mention the name “Christmas,” but there is nothing else concerning Christmas about them. In all of this, we should not forget what saint Augustine preached in one of his Christmas sermons: “What we don’t want to do,” he said, “is surround this celebration of Our Lord’s birth of a Virgin with all sorts of silliness.” Today, even as we claim to celebrate Christmas right now, we have largely abandoned it.

We desperately need to rediscover the quite beauty of Advent if our hearts are not to “become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life” (Luke 21:34). Because so many of our Christmas celebrations – such as they are these days – have crept earlier and earlier such the actual Christmas season is largely ignored, we have forgotten what Advent is about.

The Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Calendar tell us that "Advent has a twofold character, for it is a time of preparation for the Solemnities of Christmas, in which the First Coming of the Son of God to humanity is remembered, and likewise a time when, by remembrance of this, minds and hearts are led to look forward to Christ's Second Coming at the end of time. For these two reasons, Advent is a period of devout and expectant delight."[3]

Advent, then, looks forward by first looking backward. What do I mean?

Mother Church has assigned for us throughout the season of Advent Scriptural readings that

urge us to ready ourselves for the coming of an event which has already happened, thousands of years ago; and they direct us to look not just towards the immediate future, as we count down four weeks forwards into our own lives, but towards the eventual future, the Apocalypse, the end of all time.[4]

We see this in the dual direction in the readings we heard just a few moments ago.

The first reading directed out attention to the past event of the Birth of Christ, to that great day the Lord fulfilled the promise he made to the house of Israel and Judah (cf. Jeremiah 33:14). Humanity had fallen out of friendship with God through the Original Sin, but the Lord himself promised to reconcile mankind to himself (cf. Psalm 25:15). This he accomplished through the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ so that we might no longer live estranged from him. This is the Good News of the Gospel, that through his Paschal Mystery the Lord Jesus, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, took on human flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary and was born among us; that he healed the sick, cast our demons, forgave sins, and raised the dead; that he suffered on the Cross for us and by his Death and Resurrection has destroyed death and defeated the Enemy; that he established his Church so that his ministry of healing and forgiveness might continue even among us today here in Ashland. But if we do not recognize the evil of sin and of the separation it causes from God, this is news is not so good to us and certainly nothing to celebrate. This is, I dare to say, where we are as a society; we have forgotten sin and so have forgotten our need for redemption and salvation.

How often do we wander away from him? How often, even today, do we place ourselves outside of his friendship through our sin? How often do we reject his grace and live as if he does not exist? The contemplation of this tragic reality of our fallen human condition led Saint Augustine to say to God,

Turned out of paradise by you and wandering to a far-off country, I cannot return by my own strength unless you come to meet me in my wandering, for my return has been waiting on your mercy throughout the whole stretch of earthly time.[5]

Is this not true of each of us, as well? We need the Lord to come to us, to meet us in our wandering, to grant us his mercy, and show the us way to the Father’s house. He first came to meet us when he was born at Bethlehem; he comes to meet us each day in the Holy Eucharist and in the Scriptures; and he will come once more to meet us as our Judge. This is the focus of Advent: it looks backward in order to look forward.

In the Gospel, Jesus directed our attention to the future event of the Last Day, to that day when every eye “will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27). On that day of judgment, everyone who allowed the Lord to meet them in their wandering and who accepted the grace of his mercy will be welcomed into the joys of heaven. But on that day of judgment, everyone who refused the Lord’s invitation to receive his merciful love and continued in their sinful wandering will have their rejection of the Lord honored eternally. When that day comes, which will it be for you and me? This is the great question of Advent. This sacred time is given us by the Church to call us to a deeper reflection on the sincerity of our discipleship of the Lord Jesus.

If we allow it to penetrate our hearts with its quiet peace, if we allow the Lord to teach us his way by opening our hearts to him in silence, this Season of Advent will strengthen our faith, hope, and love with a steadily growing and joyful eagerness to meet the Lord when he comes. If we reject the hectic frenzy, jealousy, and anxiety of these secularized days to instead welcome the patience of Advent into our hearts, this great season will prepare us to “stand erect and raise [our] heads” in the humble confidence that out “redemption is close at hand” (Luke 21:28). Then, inspired by a sincere trust in the Lord and waiting upon his kindness, everything else will fall into place because we will have discovered and embraced what is most important.

Above all, Advent is a time of watching and waiting, and, as a society, waiting is not something we like to do, but it is something we must do. Now is the time to wait on the Lord’s mercy. Saint Augustine is right to remind us that

[God] will teach his ways not to those who want to run on ahead, as if they could rule themselves better than he can, but to those who do not strut about with their heads in the air or dig in their heels, when his easy yoke and light burden are set upon them.[6]

Let us, then, not allow the celebration of Christmas to eclipse Advent; let us not resist or struggle against its grace, but simply and quietly settle into it. Let us allow the wisdom of the Church and of her Lord to take root in our hearts by prayerfully reading the Scriptures assigned to the Mass each day of Advent. If we honor Advent in this way, these days will indeed acquire the imaginative fertility of God that will transform them into something more than just a cheery countdown to Christmas. Let us, then, beg the Lord to give us docile hearts in these days of Advent so that, having used them well, we will “run forth to meet [the] Christ with righteous deeds at his coming” and be found “worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.”[7] Amen.

[1] Eleanor Parker, “‘If in a day of Doom one deathless stands,’A Clerk of Oxford, 1 December 2018. 2018.
[2] Dwight Longenecker, “The Christmas Curmudgeon,” 1 December 2018.
[3] Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Calendar, 39
[4] Eleanor Parker, “‘Swa leaf on treowum,’A Clerk of Oxford, 28 November 2016.
[5] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Expositions on the Psalms, 25.5.
[6] Ibid., 25.9.
[7] Collect of the First Sunday of Advent, Roman Missal.

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