Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
First Sunday of Advent, Year B
December 1, 2002
Is 63:16-17,19; 64:2-7; Ps 80; 1Cor 1:3-9; Mk 13:33-37
1) Today we begin a new liturgical year. Sometimes Christians find this a little strange, that real New Year’s Day begins 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, 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. We’re called to live it and relive it, to enter ever more into Christ.
2) Compared to that, what does the civil year do? Can anyone tell me why we celebrate the civil New Year’s on January 1? It actually comes from, on the one hand, the lunar calendar. That December 22 was the time of the winter solstice, when the days got shorter and basically the old year died. Starting right after that, the days got longer and there was a new birth. We celebrate that event on January 1, because of the pagan god Ianus, who was the two-faced god, literally. He had one face pointing backwards, and one forward. Those who come to Rome with me in just over a couple of months will see the Arch of Janus, looking out in two directions. The pagans chose him as the god of the new year because he looked back on the past year and looked forward to the new one. But let’s be honest. No one believes in the pagan gods any more, thanks be to God. Even though no one sang Auld Lang’s Syne last night, this is truly the beginning of a new year. This is another time for us to enter into the life of Christ, to accompany him and be accompanied by him as we live the events of his earthly life and heavenly reality. This may be the last liturgical year we have, because we never know the day or the hour. So let’s make the most of this one and begin it well.
3) Jesus comes to us in the Gospel today and speaks to us very clearly using two sets of verbs. The first one has to do with our alertness. “Wake up!” he shouts. “Stay awake!” he adds. The second set of verbs involves what we’re supposed to do when we’re awake. “Be constantly on guard!” “Be on the watch!” The Lord says in the Gospel that we should be like porters, like door openers. … “He leaves home and places his servant in charge, which with his own task; and he orders the man at the gate to watch with a sharp eye. Look around you! You do not know when the master of the house is coming… Do not let him come suddenly and catch you asleep.” Jesus wants us to be like door-keepers who are always awake and on guard.
4) Prior to my entering the seminary, I worked in Washington, DC for a couple of years and my job was such that I had to travel and would often be staying in hotels, occasionally, for various conferences and things, in good hotels. In these hotels, the doormen are really quite professional. There are two parts to their job. The first is that they are always on the lookout for the arrival of any guest. As soon as he sees one arriving in a cab, he’s there opening his door and helping with the luggage, leading them into the hotel and helping them with whatever is needed. But he also has a second job, which is to prevent those who shouldn’t be entering the hotel from doing so. As soon as he sees a peddler or someone who looks like he doesn’t belong, he gets in front of the door and prevents his entering unless the person can demonstrate that he is fit to enter. Especially today in an age of terrorism and increased violence, such vigilance on the part of porters is very important.
5) Jesus calls us to be spiritual porters, to be door-keepers. This involves the same two tasks. The first is to be awake and alert to welcome Jesus from wherever and whenever he comes. To go out and meet him when we see he’s coming. During Advent, we also focus on meeting him in Bethlehem, meeting him when he comes at the end of time, meeting him in Sacred Scripture. Meeting him in the Eucharist, meeting him in prayer, meeting him in the various disguises he takes, in the poor, in the sick, in the lonely, in prisoners, in those we might consider our enemies, in the person sitting right next to you right now, in the priest speaking to you on his behalf right now. We’re called to be awake and alert for his presence at all times, and to open up the door when comes and allow him to enter. As he says in the Book of Revelation, “Behold I stand at the door knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” We’re called to meet him with joy, with great loving expectation, and let him come into our hearts, into our lives. We are in reality Temples of the Holy Spirit. God wants to dwell within. We’re called to open up our hearts to him so that he can come and dwell within. But the door only has one handle, and it’s on the inside.
6) The second task we have as porters is to lock the door to those who shouldn’t enter, who want to enter to do damage, harm and destroy. The first thing we have to lock it to is the devil, who seeks to come into the temple of the Holy Spirit we’re called to be with the Lord inside and wreak all types of havoc. The devil is like a vandal’s wanting to come into this Church and rip it all up. And the thing about the devil is that often he’ll come in disguise, looking fine, as someone or something attractive and good, but then he’ll take over. So we have to be on our guard. The second thing we have to be on guard to lock out is related to this. It’s sin and those who want to lead us to sin. There are certain people whose presence takes us from God. It’s not that they’re necessarily evil people, but whether it be their polluted language, exaggerated worldliness, or especially their desire to have us engage in sinful activity with them, we have to be on the lookout, like a good porter at the White House.
7) One other thing needs to be stated here at the beginning of Advent. Even if the porter did a great job in welcoming Christ whenever He came in whatever form, and even if he did a superb job in keeping out the devil and sin and whatever might do him harm, there’s still something else that has to be done, and that should be done as we begin this new liturgical year. We’d have to make that there are no harmful agents inside and that everything is clean. Like Jesus who took the whip and drove the money changers from the temple, we have to take a whip and drive all those things that really do us harm away from our temple, our sins, etc. We have to have a complete purging of all these elements and a complete cleaning so that our temple becomes over time as pretty as our Church will be as soon as it’s done. We take the whip out in a thorough examination of conscience and do the purging and cleansing through the sacrament of reconciliation. Every one of us should make sure he goes to confession during these days. The parish penance service will be Thursday, December 19. But we hear confessions every Saturday here; there’s opportunities at St. Anne’s and at LaSalette each day. The point is: go! Give your temple the same thorough cleaning you’re planning to give your house in preparation for Christmas.
8 ) So the message the Church is giving us at the beginning of this new liturgical year, at the outset of Advent is to wake up and be vigilant for the coming of Christ in Bethlehem, at the end of time and for his coming today in the Eucharist and in countless other ways, and to eliminate from our lives whatever might try to compete with that goal or try to sabotage it. One way we can all do this a little better is by living Advent in great expectation of Christ’s arrival. Today we’re going to light the Advent wreath. I did an informal poll during the past week, of kids, of older daily Mass goers, of various people after the Thanksgiving Mass to see if people really know what the Advent wreath is all about. No one could really tell me anything more than they know there are four candles, you light one each week and the pink candle gets lit the third week. But no one could tell me why we do any of these things. We don’t talk about it very often, so I’ll first describe what it is, where it comes from, and then what it means and why the Church uses it and urges you to use it at home each day during Advent.
5) First, what we do with the Advent wreath. The Advent Wreath is made of evergreens and may be any size. There are four candles, one for each week of Advent. The color of the candle is not an essential factor because the symbolism is primarily in the flame. It is traditional that three of the candles be violet or purple, the traditional color of Advent, and one is rose. The rose candle is lit the third Sunday of Advent, for this color anticipates and symbolizes the Christmas joy announced in the first word of the Entrance Antiphon: “Rejoice” (Latin, Gaudete). For this reason the Third Sunday is also called Gaudete Sunday, and rose color vestments are permitted.
6) Second, the origin of the Advent wreath. In ancient Germany, there was a tradition among the pagans there to light candles on a wreath as the approached the cold December darkness of the winter solstice and the days got shorter and shorter and colder and colder to gather evergreen wreaths and lighted fires as signs of hope in a coming spring and renewed light. Eventually the Christians came to evangelize these people and converted them, but the people still had this tradition in which they were basically still calling upon the pagan gods due to this practice. So the Church, as she’s done many times, “Christianized” the practice, which takes us to the third point, what the meaning of the Advent wreath is for Christians today.
7) Third, it’s meaning. The Advent Wreath is used to unite ourselves spiritually to the Jews in anticipation of the Messiah, to represent the long time when people lived in spiritual darkness, waiting for the coming of Jesus, the Light of the world. Each year in Advent people wait once again in darkness for the coming of the Lord, His historical coming in the mystery of Bethlehem, His final coming at the end of time, and His special coming in every moment of grace. The most important thing is the flame, which symbolizes Christ and our longing for the light of his truth and for the warmth of his love, which is everlasting, as we symbolized by the evergreen wreath which will never lose its color.
8 ) What are you supposed to do with it? During Advent, the Church calls upon you to gather as a family each day and light the candle together, surrounded by prayers, by Advent hymns like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and expectation. This will help you and your family await Christ. It will help you to pray as a family, which is the most important thing you can be doing as a family. It can help to make sure this time of preparation for Christmas is really Christian, in which we focus principally on Christ, rather than on wrapping paper, on cards, on long lines at stores, etc. It will help us each day to get spiritually ready for Christmas, so that Christmas might be that long-awaited joyous, HOLY day it’s supposed to be and God wants it to be for us. Ultimately by the use of the Advent wreath at home, the Church hopes that you will in lighting that flame of expectant love each day like the five wise virgins who always keep their lamps lit for the return of the Bridegroom, Jesus, you yourselves will become the candles of that wreath of everlasting love that will illuminate the darkness of those outside, who have lost the meaning of Christmas, lost the meaning of human life. God wants you to become that candle, reflecting his light to a world that so much needs to see him.
9) Most of us on January 1 make all types of New Year’s Resolutions. This is a much more meaningful New Year’s, a Year of the Lord, Anno Domini. What type of resolutions are you going to make today?