Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
1st Sunday of Advent, C
December 3, 2006
Jer 33:14-16; Ps 25; 1Thes 3:12-4:2; Lk 21:25-28,34-36
1) Happy New Year! I say it again: Happy New Year! Sometimes Catholics find it a little strange that in the Church, New Year’s Day is today, rather than about a month from now. But when you come to think about it, it’s today that makes all the sense in the world and next month 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 21 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.
2) Compared to this, the civil year means very little. Does anyone know the reason why we celebrate the civil New Year on January 1? I promise to cut this homily in half if someone can tell me! The historical reason is because in 46 BC, Julius Caesar decreed that the year would begin with the month of January, which would be the month dedicated to the pagan god Janus, the god 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. 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.).
3) We start the liturgical year with the season of Advent, a word that literally means “coming toward.” We mark the fact that the Lord is coming toward us and we need to prepare for his coming. The Lord Jesus is coming first in history, just over 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, and we’re called in this time to prepare for him so that we might not reject his presence like the inn-keepers in the ancient city of David. We prepare for that coming of Christ into the world each year, because no matter how many years the Lord will give us, we will never be able to exhaust the meaning of the incredible love involved in such an action. We will never be able to comprehend fully the mystery of God’s becoming man so that we might become like God. During Advent, we also prepare for the Lord’s coming at the end of history, at the culmination of time — on the clouds with power and glory, as he says in today’s Gospel. We’re called to “lift up our souls” to the Lord, as we prayerfully sung in the responsorial psalm, and to “stand erect and raise our heads,” as Jesus tells us in the Gospel, “because our redemption is close at hand.” And the best way we prepare for his coming in the past and his coming in the future is by embracing him as he comes in the present, especially in the Eucharist. The same Lord who was born in Bethlehem and who will come on the clouds of heaven comes onto our altar and into our bodies and souls. If we take that advent seriously, we will for sure be ready for the other two aspects of this season.
4) The readings that the Church gives us today present a sharp contrast between those who prepare well and those who prepare poorly for Christ’s coming. In the Gospel, Jesus contrasts those who are AWAKE and ALERT with those who are “asleep” or “drowsy.” Those who are preparing well, he says, are “vigilant at all times.” They are those who “pray that they may have the strength to escape the imminent tribulations and to stand before the Son of Man.” Those who are preparing poorly, on the other hand, allow their hearts to become drowsy from “carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.” Their hearts fall asleep either because of too much concern with human pleasures (carousing and drunkenness) or too much concern with human problems (the anxieties of daily life).
5) In the second reading, St. Paul gives us the remedy to having our hearts take a nap in either of these two ways. “So as to strengthen your hearts,” he says, “to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus… INCREASE and ABOUND in love for one another and for all, just as we have for you.” In other words, to use a saying that is popular on Sundays at this time of year, the best defense is a good offense. To prevent our hearts from falling asleep like the residents of ancient Bethlehem or those who will be caught off-guard at the end of time, we’re called, with the Lord’s help, to increase and abound in love, just as St. Paul did. We’re called to grow in love, loving Christ as he loves us and loving others as Christ loves them. Like the wise virgins in Jesus’ Gospel parable, we need to have sufficient oil in our lamps waiting for the coming of the bridegroom, so that, no matter when he comes, we’ll recognize him and go in with him to the wedding banquet. That oil, as the early saints of the Church commented, is simply love for God. That love for God is something we cannot borrow from another. Nor is it something that we can “borrow from ourselves” in the past. Just as with the oil tanks here at our Church, the oil can and will run out unless we continue to put more oil in. That’s why we have to “increase” and “abound” in the oil of love for God and others — and if we do so, St. Paul is telling us, we’ll never be spiritually left out in the cold.
6) These principles, I hope, are clear, but like any Gospel teaching, they’re not meant to remain theoretical. It’s not enough when we make a New Year’s resolution simply to say, for example, “I want to lose weight.” We need to say, at the same time, “I’m going to go on a diet,” “I’m going to give up sweets,” “I’m going to start eating better and getting exercise.” In the spiritual life, too, if we wish to remain “awake” and “alert,” we need to make and put into practice certain concrete intentions. I would like to propose for you today three resolutions, to help you to live this Advent well and have it change your life. These resolutions are geared to helping you grow concretely in love of the Lord and stay more awake and vigilant in prayer, so that you will be ready to embrace the Lord whenever or wherever he comes.
a. The first is to come to daily Mass this Advent. The best way to prepare to meet the Lord in the past and in the future is to come to meet him each day in his real presence in the Eucharist. I remain convinced that if we really believe that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ and we love Jesus, then we would do everything possible to come to receive him every day. Sometimes, it may be practically impossible for us to attend, but, if we really believe in his real presence and love him, we would at least strongly desire to be at daily Mass and virtually unite ourselves with spiritual communions to the Lord who gives us himself to us each day. That longing itself, even if it is unfulfilled, will help us always to remain vigilant and awake and abounding in love. There’s another reason why I recommend that you come to daily Mass in Advent: the readings and the prayers of each day’s Mass in Advent — by which the Church has been forming Catholics for centuries to embrace the Lord who is coming — are extremely beautiful and powerful. Sadly, though, most Catholics never profit from them. Even if you cannot come to daily Mass during this month, I would urge you at least to get a copy of the readings for Advent and read them each day. At the front entrance of the Church, I have placed copies of two aids to help every parishioner do this. The first is a copy of the December issue of Magnificat, which tens of thousands of Catholics throughout the world — lay people, religious and priests — use every day to unite themselves to the Church’s liturgy. The second is The Living Word, which for 25 years has been giving practical applications of the readings of the Mass to our daily life. Please take a copy of each of them and use them to prepare better for Mass and to unite yourself to the readings of the Mass if you cannot come. I promise you that the ten minutes you spent them each day will make a big difference in how you live Advent!
b. The second resolution flows from the first : It is to “increase” and “abound” in personal prayer during this season. In today’s Gospel Jesus tells us, “At all times be vigilant and pray.” To live this season well, to live this liturgical year well, we must pray more and better, to increase both the quantity and the quality of our prayer. Sadly, I think that many Catholics actually pray LESS in Advent than they do at other times of the year, because, in addition to all of their other responsibilities, they spend much of the time they normally would dedicate to prayer shopping or going to pre-Christmas parties. “Keeping Christ in Christmas” is something that rightly we are requesting of malls and department stores, but it is you and I first who need to make sure that we keep Christ as the reason for the season. As a very practical point: Please ensure that you pray more than you shop this season, and that you attend more holy hours with Jesus than you do parties with others.
c. The third and last resolution flows from the second: to pray as a family. As the early saints used to teach, our family — our homes — are called to be “domestic churches,” where God is served, praised and loved above all. They’re called, like churches, to be true “houses of prayer.” Advent is a time when most of our homes normally take on a more outwardly Christian appearance, with the appearances of crèches and the various things that in our culture are associated with Christmas, from Christmas lights to Christmas trees. But all of these decorations would mean very little unless they were accompanied by hearts that were adorned with the love of the Lord, with those who were living for the Lord’s coming and presence. I’d urge you to turn your house into a house of prayer. One tradition that I’d urge you to do as a family, or as a couple, or, if you live alone, with neighbors, is the tradition of the Advent wreath. Last night I got a call from a friend of mine from Texas who with his wife and one-year old Son had come to visit her cousins in Barrington, RI. He called me to see if there would be any chance for me to come to visit with them and his in-laws at their home. When I got there, before we prayed grace, the cousins’ eight-year old son, Harry, brought out an Advent wreath he had made in Catholic school and led all of us in prayer for Christ to make us this Advent like the candles, burning out of love for Him. It was very moving. I’m convinced that if every family in our parish got together each night to light the Advent wreath as that family did, they and our whole parish family would be transformed. I would like to ask every family to make such a resolution this Advent, so that all of us might be open to the graces the Lord wishes to give us. A final point: Please don’t think you have to go out and buy an Advent wreath. If an eight-year old boy like Harry can make one, we all can make one. It’s not how beautiful the wreath is, but the love with which we use it that counts most.
6) Each Advent is a gift of the Lord, to bring us back to what is most important in life. 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 increased love, a true year of the Lord! The Lord is coming! Let us embrace him!