Sunday, November 28, 2010

A New Liturgical Year Begins - Advent I: Gazing towards the Parousia

Lorenzo Lotto, Christ in Glory with Symbols of the Passion, 1543


First Sunday of Advent (Year "A") November 28, 2010 - THE SON OF MAN IS COMING AT AN UNEXPECTED HOUR [Texts: Isaiah 2:1-56 [Psalm 122]; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44]

Today the Church begins the celebration of the a New Liturgical Year of God. In this liturgical Year "A", the gospel readings are generally chosen from the evangelist Matthew. In this gospel, Jesus often speaks of "your heavenly Father" and stresses God's providence.

Saint Matthew depicts Jesus as the teacher whose instruction evokes and surpasses that of Moses. Jesus consoles His disciples with the news that God has bestowed the gift of the Kingdom on them, then challenges them to live according to the gift they have received. Great things are expected of those to whom much has been given.

In the words of Paul's epistle to the Romans, the consummation of history, the final era of salvation is "nearer to us now than when we became believers". It is as if the long night of waiting for the Day of the Lord is over and the final sunrise will soon occur ("the night is far gone, the day is near").

In the ancient world, moral teachers would note that the cover of darkness sometimes emboldened people to behaviour they would be ashamed of in daylight. Paul says that belief in the nearness of Christ's coming should have profound ramifications on people's moral life, enabling them to live as if in a new moral order.

"Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy".

In his Confessions, St. Augustine tells us that this text from Romans precipitated his decision to surrender to the grace of God. Heeding Paul's exhortation, he put aside his immoral ways and embraced the new life that Christ makes possible in the disciple's being through dying to sin and rising to new life in baptism.

In the verse immediately preceding the gospel reading, Jesus noted the central truth about the completion of God's saving plan, "about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (24:36).

The teaching of today's pericope is summarized in its closing verse, "the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour" (24:44). The parables which follow illustrate this truth, the first by showing the master coming sooner than expected and the second by showing the "bridegroom" (in the early church an image of Christ) coming later than expected (25:10). Since the time of the Son of Man's coming cannot be known, Christians should be in a constant state of readiness.

This warning is illustrated by biblical history--the Great Flood--when people were caught completely unawares by the disaster that came upon them. The power of the Noah image is underlined by the repetition that just as was the case in the days of Noah, so will it be at the Parousia of the Son of Man: "they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away".

Two verses in perfect parallelism offer additional illustrations of judgement suddenly coming upon people: of two people (men?) in a field one is taken and one left; of two working at the mill (women or slaves?) one is taken and one left.

The criterion of the separation is not offered but, from the context, we must deduce that one of each pair was ready, the other not. One of each pair was taken to meet Christ coming in glory, the others were left to suffer the fate of those unprepared. The householder always on watch for the unexpected coming of a thief completes Jesus' teaching on readiness for His coming.

Every year, the first Sunday of Advent focuses the believer's gaze on the end of history and the coming of Jesus, the Son of Man, in glory. The readings and tone of the liturgy intend to stir up sentiments of yearning for the Parousia (second coming) of Christ.

The opening prayer expresses this desire very well, "Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom".

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