Happy New Year! We start a new church year every First Sunday of Advent. This year is called Year C. It’s the third year of a three year cycle of Bible readings at Sunday Mass. This year, we read mostly from the Gospel according to Luke.
Advent is a season when we concentrate on the comings of Jesus into the world. There are three: his Incarnation, his coming to us by grace throughout our lives, and his return in glory at the end of time. The second is something we can experience daily and reflect on every Sunday. During Advent, we focus especially on the first and third, and today especially on the third, the glorious return at the end of time. As we get closer to Christmas, we’ll concentrate more on that first coming of Jesus into our would.
Today’s readings give us two themes: the coming of the Lord; and how we should live in expectation of that coming. Rather than look at each reading in turn, I’ll look at each them in the light of all the readings.
Our first reading — Jeremiah 33:14-16 — was written at a time when the Babylonian captivity had apparently put an end to the kingship of David’s descendants. God had promised that David’s kingdom and dynasty would last forever. Jeremiah reminds the people of the promise and says that despite all appearances, God would keep his promise. Now we know that the fulfillment of the promise is not in the form of a secular nation-state, but in a people of all nations with Jesus, a descendant of David as its eternal head. The people of Jeremiah’s time could not have imagined the transformation of God’s people into a church for all nations, but, as is often the case, God fulfills his promise in a way that exceeds all expectations.
In the same way, the church of the present age will not continue forever in its current form. St. Paul, in the second reading — 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2 — speaks of the coming of Jesus with his angels as something that is a settled expectation. In the gospel — Luke 21:25-28, 34-36 — Jesus says that after cosmic upheavals, he will return in glory. The verses that are omitted between the two parts of the reading conclude with the words, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” So Jesus’ return will usher in a new reality.
There is a natural tendency to fear “the end of the world as we know it,” but we don’t really know what it will be like for those who are alive at the time. What Jesus tells us is that, unlike those who die of fright, we should “stand erect and raise [our] heads.” We can “escape the tribulations that are imminent.” Far from being something to fear, Jesus’ return is something to look forward to. The evils of this world will be ended.
Still, the readings make it clear clear that we need to live good lives if we are not to be afraid. God loves us. Do we love God and our fellow humans?
St. Paul prays that the Christians of Thessalonika will abound in love not only for one another but for everyone. Are there people in this world we don’t love? Obviously, we don’t know everybody in the world personally, so it’s not a question of personal affection for them. But we should want what is best for everyone, and if there are individuals or groups of people upon whom we wish evil, we have a problem. What about terrorists or abusers, for example? It’s all too human to want them to have their comeuppance, to suffer as they deserve. But Paul prays that our love will abound not only for one another but for all. That doesn’t mean that we have to like them or excuse what they have done. It does mean that we should want them to repent and stop doing evil and be saved, because that’s what’s good for them as well as those around them. For Jesus’ return, we should be blameless in holiness, which means constantly increasing in conduct which pleases God, as the apostles have taught us.
Jesus also warns us against letting our hearts become “drowsy.” We can turn away from Jesus if we become immersed in a life of drunkenness: we can become self-centered, anesthetizing ourselves to the realities of life. In the parable of the sower, some seed is choked by weeds and brambles and bears no fruit. Here Jesus tells us not to be like that, not to let concern for passing things to keep us from living lives of fruitful love for others.
All of this should be encouraging for us. Hopefully we are focused on Jesus and our hearts are not drowsy. So we need not be terrified at the thought of Jesus returning. We need not be terrified at all the tribulation we see in the world. The promise of Jesus’ return with which this new year begins encourages us to continue to grow in the Christian way of life that we have been taught. The prayer Jesus tells us to make for strength to escape the tribulations and to stand before him is a prayer for an increase of love and for growth in a way of life consistent with what we have been taught. Surely, God will show us what is needed for that growth and strengthen us to do it if we ask.