Advent and the Longing for God’s Mercy, First Sunday of Advent (C), November 29, 2015

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Acushnet, MA
First Sunday of Advent, C
November 29, 2015
Jer 33:14-16, Ps 25, 1 Thes 3:12-4:2, Lk 21:25-28.34-36

 

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

The following text guided today’s homily: 

New Year’s Day

Today we begin a new liturgical year. Sometimes Christians find this a little strange, that in the Church New Year’s Day begins today, rather than about a month from now. But when you think about it, it’s today that makes all the sense in the world and January 1st that makes little. Our liturgical year traces the life of Christ, from the time when the Jews anxiously awaited his appearance (Advent proper), to his time in the womb, to his birth, to his being greeted by the Shepherds and the angels, to his flight into Egypt and return, to his presentation and finding in the temple, to his forty days in the desert praying and fasting, to his baptism, to his public ministry, to his miracles, to his going up to Jerusalem and entering her on a donkey, to his last Supper, to his agony, trial, crucifixion and death, to his resurrection, ascension, sending forth the Holy Spirit, and ultimately to his return in glory which we anticipated in a special way last week on the feast of Christ the King. This is what the liturgical year means. Jesus said to us 27 times in the Gospel, “Follow me!” and each liturgical year we do just that, tracing his footsteps along the route of salvation history, trying to become more and more like him whom we’re following.

Compared to this, the civil year means very little. The reason why we celebrate the civil New Year on January 1 is because in 46 BC, Julius Caesar decreed that the year would begin with the month of January, the month dedicated to the pagan god Janus, the deity with two faces heading in opposite directions. Caesar thought it was fitting, because, in a sense, Janus would be facing forward to the year beginning and backward learning the lessons of the year just passed. How much does this tradition mean to you? Yet most of us will make plans to celebrate it, even though it makes no more sense to us than the lyrics of Auld Lang’s Syne.

New Year’s Resolutions for the Upcoming Year of Mercy

Today’s new year’s day in the Church, on the other hand, really does mean something. If we’re accustomed to the good practice of making New Year’s resolutions, now would be the fitting time to make them. Now’s the time that the Church wants us to make them, so that we can make this new liturgical year a real “year of the Lord” (A.D.).

As we prepare with Pope Francis to inaugurate the Jubilee Year of Mercy in just nine days on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, it’s important for each of us that we make this a real year in which we grow in our understanding, receiving and sharing of God’s merciful love.

On Tuesday I’ll have the privilege to go to Florida to preach a Day of Recollection for all of the priests of Miami on the connection between Advent and the Year of Mercy. It’s entitled “Making Straight the Paths,” because every Advent we hear the call of Isaiah echoed by John the Baptist to level the mountains of pride, to fill up the valleys of a shallow prayer life, to clean up the debris that clogs the path between Christ and us. It’s a time in which God cries out, “Comfort, Comfort O My People” and makes available the consolation of his Son, who came into the world not as a teddy bear or security blanket but as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, as the Good Samaritan who binds our wounds and seeks through the balm of his mercy to restore us to full health. Advent, like the life of faith as a whole, is fundamentally dynamic. There’s movement. We pray, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “O Come, Divine Messiah!” and at the same time we prepare to go out to meet and embrace him. We say with the wise bridesmaids in the Gospel parable, “The Bridegroom is here. Let us go out to meet him” (Mt 25:6). And that takes on special meaning in this year because we know that the Bridegroom is coming to meet us with mercy and we’re called with gratitude, faith and love to go out to meet him as he desires to bathe us in that gift.

And we can interpret all of today’s readings for the first Sunday of Advent in this key.

Vigilance

In today’s Gospel, Jesus talks about the end of the world and how we’re supposed to prepare for it. “Beware,” he tells us, that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. … [But] be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.”

The questions for us are: Are we going to be drowsy or vigilant? Drunk with spirits or filled with the Holy Spirit? Overwhelmed with the anxieties of life or are we going to throw our cares on the Lord in prayer?

Vigilance and prayer are standard Christian attitudes. Jesus gave a parable about his second coming in which he contrasted the faithful and prudent steward who awaited his Master’s return and faithfully fed himself and others with the nourishment the Master provided versus the unfaithful and stupid servant who said “My Master is long delayed” and began to get smashed and to abuse the servants under his care.

We know that when Jesus came into the world the first time, some people were vigilant, prayerful and ready, but most people were not. Mary Immaculate was ready and said a hearty “yes” to God’s will. St. Joseph was ready and therefore capable of adapting quickly to God’s mysterious plans. The shepherds were ready, vigilant at night, and ran to Bethlehem as soon as they heard the good news of great joy. The Magi were ready, so ready in fact that they were able to discern the newborn king’s presence through the presence of a star.

On the other hand, Herod was not ready, too caught up in his own pride and sensuality, in his own drunkenness and anxieties, to recognize the Source of his authority. The inn-keepers were not ready, too caught up in their business and in their need for order that they didn’t have room to house their Creator. The scholars of the law were not ready to make even the short six mile journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to learn from the Divine Legislator. The vast majority of the Jewish people, who had been awaiting the advent of their Messiah for centuries, were simply and sadly not prepared when at last he came. To use Jesus’ words from today’s Gospel, they had allowed their hearts to “become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.” They weren’t ready for the mercy he was bringing into the world. Jesus wants us to learn from their mistakes.

This new liturgical year is a gift of his mercy. It’s a new start. A second chance, or third, or ninetieth. But it’s an opportunity he wants to seize, not squander. He wants this new Church year, this Year of Mercy, to become the best spiritual year of our life, and he will give us all the graces necessary for it to become so, but we have to hunger for, be vigilant for it, pray for it, receive the grace of it and respond to this gift.

Characteristics of Advent Christian Living

If we’re living this year prayerfully and awake, if going out to meet Christ who is coming toward us, and not hiding from him, if we’re standing before him in prayer and standing with him in seeking to bring his mercy out to others, we’ll be living according to what St. Paul calls the Thessalonians in today’s second reading. We’ll allow the Lord to make us “increase and abound in love for one another and for all, … so as to strengthen [our] hearts to be blameless in holiness before our Lord Jesus Christ with all his holy ones.” We’ll conduct ourselves, he says, in a way to please God, because this, he says, is the way Jesus instructed us to live.

This Year of Mercy is meant to help us to please God whose greatest joy is forgiving us like the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It will lead us to seek to keep our souls clean and hearts blameless through regular reception of the Sacrament of Penance that restores our souls to their baptismal splendor. It will flourish in a life that increases and overflows in love for others, seeking to share with them the same mercy that God has given us, so that we might become rich in mercy just like our Father in heaven.

When we ask God in the Responsorial Psalm today to make known to us his ways, to teach us his paths, to guide us in his truth, that is what he seeks to do in us this Advent during the Year of Mercy. We prayed in the Psalm today, “Good and upright is the Lord; he shows sinners the way. He guides the humble to justice and teaches the humble his way.” This year is a way in which God is going to show us sinners the way of his mercy, so that we might come to receive it and have our lives changed so much that we, in turn, will be able to be his instruments in showing others his ways, teaching our children his paths, and guiding our friends to his truth. It’s to this merciful Lord that we lift up our souls!

The Advent Wreath as a Reminder of our Longing for God’s Mercy

I would encourage us to let the Advent wreath that we bless and light today to become a symbol and cause of our readiness for God’s mercy. The most important part of the Advent wreath, we know, is not the color of the candles, which symbolize the hopeful spirit of the weeks, or the evergreens, which symbolize God’s eternal love. The most important part is the flame, which symbolizes our prayerful vigilance for Christ’s coming. Just like the five wise bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable whose lamps were always burning in anticipation for the return of the Bridegroom, so the flame of these candles symbolize and remind us of the flame of desire we are called to have for Jesus’ return, his full restoration in us after the work of making straight the paths. By means of the Advent wreath, we spiritually unite ourselves to the Jews in their anticipation of the Messiah and the mercy he brought into the world. The Advent wreath, both here in Church and at home, is meant to help us to remain always ready vigilant for Christ’s light to irradiate our entire lives, and it’s a powerful reminder to us that even when we’ve sinned, there still remains in us the embers of a flame burning for reconciliation. It’s a sign of vigilance, of not falling asleep, of not letting our faith in his love and our longing for him expire.

Four practical resolutions

So let’s get practical about how we’re going to live the gift of this Advent in the Year of Mercy.

Advent is supposed to stoke our longing for God, but it’s not the way most people, including most in our culture not to mention the majority of Catholics, live Advent. Many don’t live Advent at all, but the day after Thanksgiving they start celebrating a “Holiday season” that basically worships, not the baby Jesus, but commerce and that leads many people to spend more time in malls than they do in Church, to spend a night camped outside a department store on Black Friday than they do vigilant in prayer on any night of the Advent season. Many spend Advent going from one Christmas party to another and celebrating, honestly, not Jesus Christ, his love and his teachings, but mistletoes, egg nog and the very “drunkenness and carousing” Jesus warms us about in the Gospel. Even for faithful Catholics, there’s often a temptation to focus more on getting Christmas Trees ready and preparing to welcome Santa Claus than there is on getting our souls ready and preparing to embrace Christ.

As Jesus indicates to us in the Gospel, we have a choice about the type of Advent we’re going to live. If we just go along with the flow, however, we’re going to be dragged into a type of Advent that will do us little, if no, spiritual good. If we’re going to live a good and holy Advent, we need consciously to go against the current. And so I’m going to ask you to consider a few things:

  • Go out to meet Jesus coming in his mercy this Advent. Make the best confession of your life. And then come at least once a month throughout this Year of Mercy to obtain that healing. The more we receive Jesus’ mercy, the more we’ll understand it and the more we’ll be able to become like Christ in his mercy to others.
  • Go out to meet Jesus coming in the Eucharist as often as you can throughout the Advent Season. This is where we receive the Body given and the Blood poured out for the remission of our sins. The Bridegroom is here and the wisest will come out to meet him as much as possible. If you can’t come to Mass each day because you’re working or you’re going to school, I’d encourage you at least to meditate on the readings, or to watch Mass on television, or to watch it at any time of time on CatholicTV.com on your computer or smart phone. But lift up your soul to the Lord each day in Advent!
  • Go out to meet Jesus coming in prayer and through the study of the faith. If you’re not yet coming to adore God here in the Eucharist, give him this gift as you prepare for his birthday at Christmas. And then allow him to show you his path and teach you his ways in sacred study. You’ll be receiving at Christmas time Matthew Kelly’s great new book Rediscovering Jesus, which I’d urge you to use to get to know Jesus better, get to know yourself better in his eyes, and get to know what he’s asking of you better.
  • Finally, go out to bring others to encounter Jesus’ coming to meet them, too, in his mercy, in his body and blood, and in prayer and study. The greatest gift you could give someone at Christmas is Jesus. And this is a gift that would please God very much. With some people, you can be direct, giving them a Crucifix, a new spiritual book, a statue of a great saint. With others you must be subtle, giving them something that will intrigue them and lead them one or two steps closer. But give Jesus to others this Christmas. In the midst of a world that is trying to take Christ out of Christmas, it’s crucial for us who believe in Him, who have received the countless gifts of his merciful love, to spread our love of him and keep him front and center not only in the way we spend our time this season, the way we prepare our souls, but also the way we imitate his generosity.

Each Advent is a gift of the Lord, to bring us back to what is most important in life, God’s love for us and our response to him in faith and love. On this first day of this new liturgical year, on this first day of the rest of our lives, let us ask the Lord for the grace to make this a holy year, a year of prayer, a year of faith, a year of mercy, a year of increased truly Christian love, a true year of the Lord! O Come, O Come Emmanuel!

 

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 JER 33:14-16

The days are coming, says the LORD,
when I will fulfill the promise
I made to the house of Israel and Judah.
In those days, in that time,
I will raise up for David a just shoot ;
he shall do what is right and just in the land.
In those days Judah shall be safe
and Jerusalem shall dwell secure;
this is what they shall call her:
“The LORD our justice.”

Responsorial Psalm PS 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14

R. (1b) To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.
Your ways, O LORD, make known to me;
teach me your paths,
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my savior,
and for you I wait all the day.
R. To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.
Good and upright is the LORD;
thus he shows sinners the way.
He guides the humble to justice,
and teaches the humble his way.
R. To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.
All the paths of the LORD are kindness and constancy
toward those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
The friendship of the LORD is with those who fear him,
and his covenant, for their instruction.
R. To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.

Reading 2 1 THES 3:12—4:2

Brothers and sisters:
May the Lord make you increase and abound in love
for one another and for all,
just as we have for you,
so as to strengthen your hearts,
to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father
at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones. Amen.Finally, brothers and sisters,
we earnestly ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that,
as you received from us
how you should conduct yourselves to please God
and as you are conducting yourselves
you do so even more.
For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.

Alleluia PS 85:8

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Show us, Lord, your love;
and grant us your salvation.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel LK 21:25-28, 34-36

Jesus said to his disciples:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will die of fright
in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then they will see the Son of Man
coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
But when these signs begin to happen,
stand erect and raise your heads
because your redemption is at hand.

“Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy
from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life,
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.
For that day will assault everyone
who lives on the face of the earth.
Be vigilant at all times
and pray that you have the strength
to escape the tribulations that are imminent
and to stand before the Son of Man.”

 

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