First Sunday of Advent - a reflection

Monday, November 29, 2021 - 18:30

Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction and please re-look at the readings for Sunday before continuing (these will open in a separate window for ease of reading):

The time of Advent is a special time of hope and waiting. Ever since the Lord went up to heaven in a cloud at the Ascension, his followers have waited for his return in glory on the clouds of heaven. Early on, that return was expected quite soon but Christians soon realised that they were in for a long haul before the return. So here we are still waiting, another Advent and the beginning of another round of the Church’s annual cycle.

Somehow we have to manage this spirit of waiting at this time when there is so many Christmas celebrations going on around us. Even so, we know as we go through all the parties of this time there is also the sense of a build up to the feast itself and there is something special when Christmas does arrive. That is a sense of waiting we need to cultivate. For children there are Advent Calendars for their preparation while for adults, many find the Walk with Me booklets helpful guides.

The most important guide through the season will be our Sunday Masses, For this first Sunday of Advent the readings are similar to those of the last two Sundays because the Church continues to reflect on the second coming and the return of Jesus. The second and third Sunday will present John the Baptist whilst the fourth Sunday will focus on Mary awaiting the birth of her child. John and Mary are the two people central to this Advent season. The most important change on this first Sunday is that we now begin a year of Sunday Gospels taken from the third Gospel, that of Saint Luke.

Our Gospel this week comes from the final discourse of Jesus in Luke whereas last Sunday we heard the Gospel from Mark’s version of the same discourse. Comparison of the two final discourses is valuable because the substantial differences enable us to understand better the aims of the evangelists. As I have commented for the past two weeks, Mark has tightly edited Jesus’ departure from the Temple and his move to the Mount of Olives for the discourse. Luke’s editing is much looser and there is no move to the Mount of Olives. Instead, in contrast to Mark, the final discourse is now given in public in the Temple. The discourse is followed by a brief summary which emphasises Jesus’ presence in the Temple ending with the final comment about Jesus’ ministry, that the people listened to him there. The story of the Passion then begins.

Notable as well is that just before this Sunday’s Gospel, Luke makes much of Jerusalem surrounded by armies so it is likely that the Temple was already burnt out when the Gospel was written. That makes the Temple setting of the discourse understandable.

However, Luke does not provide a time table for when these things will happen. There are three parts to this Sunday’s Gospel. It begins echoing the book of Daniel as we heard last Sunday with the Son of Man coming in great glory preceded by dramatic signs. There follows the parable of the trees which for some reason is omitted. There, the evangelist speaks of the coming of summer as a sign but we have been waiting for that summer for over 2,000 years. The parable ends with the strong statement by Jesus that his words will never pass away. I’ve mentioned the people listening at the end. The word and listening to the word is a key theme for Luke.

The third part of the Gospel has then what may be the most important message for this first Sunday in the readings for all three years, the need to be watch and to be ready. Stay awake and pray so that the day won’t be a trap. This is an exhortation to live in the present, one day at a time. 

This living day by day with the need to grow and increase in love of God and neighbour is also stressed in the reading from the letter to the Thessalonians. This is regarded as the earliest letter of St Paul and therefore the earliest Christian writing. It was still a time when the return of the Lord was expected sooner rather than later. What is so important about living the Christian life is a growth in holiness, coming closer to God. Just as the Gospel indicates the heart being coarsened by the cares of life so too does Paul continues. He reminds us that the will of God is our holiness and adds a little later that God did not call us to impurity but to holiness. 

The Old Testament reading this Sunday is part of Jeremiah’s presentation of the restoration of Jerusalem with a new covenant. This is a brief glimpse of optimism for a prophet whose ministry took place when Jerusalem was under threat from the Babylonian Empire. The reading as heard at Mass is deficient as a translation. This is a better rendering: In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: The Lord is our righteousness.

The emphasis on righteousness is notable. It is a key word in both Testaments, applied to God and to humans. On God’s side, righteousness is God’s mighty act of salvation, that he will intervene with a new order for the world. This would be fulfilled by the advent of Jesus so this prophecy of Jeremiah therefore finds its immediate purpose in that first coming. Read for us now though it must find its ultimate purpose in the second coming of Jesus in glory. On the human side it is the call to right living, seeking the will of God and growing in holiness as in the reading from Saint Paul.

For this time in between the two comings of Jesus we have three words therefore coming out of our survey of the readings: watching, righteousness and holiness. Taken together, they are how we are to live as the People of God. As we look forward to the coming feast, we can also take these three as a good theme as we come to the end of November, the month of all saints. The psalm is as happens too often with the responsorial psalm, just a few selected verses. It is always worth a look at the whole psalm. For this Sunday, we can see a summary of our reflections in the first of those verses:
Lord, make me know your ways.
Lord teach me your paths
Make me walk in your truth and teach me:
for you are God my saviour