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December 3, 2017 - What About Advent?

First Sunday of Advent

Scripture Readings

The Christmas frenzy has begun. No matter how much I try each year, there is no escaping it. More often than not, I feel violated by all the in-your-face glitz and glamor. It is crazy, but my first Christmas party is on the 12th of Dec. It goes ridiculously downhill after that. I have given up trying to make Advent a quite time. The social and commercial dimensions of the season are so blatant, that there simply is no escaping it. All I can do is to make sure that I do not lose out on the real meaning of the Advent season. 

My homily today focuses on five things that can make our advent meaningful. To do that, it is important to let today’s scripture readings speak to us especially our first reading, which is an excerpt from Isaiah chapters 63 and 64. 

Today’s first reading provides the perfect context to begin the season of Advent.  After their freedom from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites entered into Covenant with God. This Covenant is centerpiece of God’s relationship with the Israelites. After forty yeas of wandering through the desert, they finally settled in the land of Canaan, a land already occupied by the Canaanites. It was clear from the beginning that while this was the land flowing with milk and honey, Israel would not have a shortage of enemies. After some initial struggles, the early leaders like Joshua, the Judges, and kings Saul, David, and Solomon gave stability to the kingdom. However, fidelity to the Covenant always remained an issue for the Israelites. Israel was always tempted to trust other gods and other political realities than the God who set them free. The most serious setback to Israel came toward the very end of Solomon’s reign. The united Kingdom was divided into two - Israel (North) and Judah (South). Israel, the Northern kingdom fought numerous enemies over the course of history. In 722 BC, however, the Northern kingdom was totally destroyed by the Assyrians. This destruction was theologically interpreted as a consequence of the people’s infidelity of the Covenant. Judah (the Southerners) was adequately warned by prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah that if they do not remain faithful to the Covenant, they too would face the same fate. They did not heed the warning. In 587 BC, the Babylonians invaded Judah, ravaged their cities,  desecrated and destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem, and took every able bodied person into exile. God’s people remained in exile for almost seventy years. Today’s first reading from the book of Isaiah captures the theological reflection a people in exile. They became deeply aware of their sinfulness. Now, they longed to return to their homeland. They pined for God’s presence. They yearned to offer sacrifices and worship. They desired to be set free once again.  For seventy years, no help came. All they could do was to wait with hopeful expectation for someone to come and redeem them. Their only hope was God. Finally, redemption did come through the Persian King, Cyrus. But, I will keep that story for Christmas. 

It is this breathless anticipation with which the exiled Israelites awaited their redemption that is also the spirit of Advent. Advent is meant to recreate the patient and hopeful expectation of God’s people in Babylon. The only difference is the context. We know that our redemption has already come. Christ our Savior and Redeemer has already set us free. However, our journey toward eternity is not over yet. We are not in our homeland yet! We await the day for our ultimate redemption, either through our personal death or the second coming of Christ. Advent is meant to remind us that we are still on the way. 

Based on today’s scripture readings, I would like to offer five ways to make our Advent a meaningful time.

a) Let us Assess Our Present State. The Prophet Isaiah begins with a question. “Why do you let us wander, O Lord from your ways and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” (Is 63:17). In their exile, God’s people reflect on some existential questions. Who are we? What are we about? Why do we find ourselves in the situation we are in? Where is God in all of this? I think during Advent these are the same questions that we ourselves must pose. May all the glitz and glamor not take us away from the existential questions. Who am !? What direction is my life going in? Where is God in my life and what does that mean? Who are we as God’s people?

b) Let us Cultivate a Deep Desire for God. Isaiah further cries out on behalf of the exiles: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down…” (Is 63:19). There was in the people a deep pining for God. They longed to freely worship the God who had set them free. Advent is a time to develop a deep, deep desire for God. Through scripture, through reflection, through prayer, we are invited to cultivate a pining for God. Please, let us not Advent pass without a deepening of of desire and our relationship with God. 

c) Let us Acknowledge Our Sins. The most purposeful realization Israel had during the exile was an awareness of her sins. Isaiah says, “We are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rags” (Is 64:5). The people of Israel realized that that the misfortune that had befallen them was because they had violated the Covenant. They acknowledged their sins. With acknowledgement of sin came confession, forgiveness, and ultimately, redemption. The Lord raised the Persian king Cyrus to set the people free. Advent invites us to an examination of conscience. Honestly, where in our lives do we need the Lord’s redemption?  

d) Let us Seek Reconciliation. As I said earlier, Israel’s acknowledgement of sin was followed by confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and ultimately, redemption. From the Catholic perspective, reconciliation has two dimensions: first, the sacramental forgiveness of sins by God. However, included in the sacramental reconciliation is a second dimension - the call to reconcile with our neighbor. Who are the people we are estranged from? Who are the people we need to be reconciled with?  At Christmas, Christ reconciled us to the Father and to one another. Now this ministry has been entrusted to us. Advent is a time of reconciliation. 

d) Allow Christ to Form Us into His Image. In the gospel reading, we are warned against complacency. Jesus says, “Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming…” (Mk 13:35). The best way to be watchful is to always allow Christ, his life and teachings to form our own life. As Isaiah prays, “O Lord you are our father; we are the clay and you are the potter: we are all the work of your hands” (Is 64:7). This advent, let us pay very special attention to the daily scripture readings and allow God to shape our lives. It is when our life reflects Christ that he is truly born in us. Then it is truly Christmas.  

- Fr. Satish Joseph