Happy New (Church) Year! The calendar of the Catholic Church runs from the first Sunday of Advent, which is the fourth Sunday before Christmas, through the day before the next year’s first Sunday of Advent. The most notable changes from one year to the next are the scripture readings at Mass. On Sundays there is a three year cycle, marked principally by the Gospel which is most frequently employed. On weekdays there is a tow year cycle in which the gospel readings are the same in both years, but the first readings are different. Today, we begin “Year A,” in which Matthew supplies the gospel readings for most of the Sundays.
I suppose the reason we start now with the new liturgical calendar is that the year is seen to go from Jesus’ birth, celebrated at Christmas, to his return at the end of time as king of creation. Advent is in the same year as Christmas because it is a time for preparation to celebrate that feast. There is, however, some overlap, because early in Advent the prayers and readings also look to the second coming of Jesus. There is also another coming of the Lord which we should be aware of: his daily coming to us in grace, especially his sacramental coming to us in the Eucharist. So we prepare to celebrate the Lord’s birth into time and his coming to us here and now, and we prepare to see him when he comes again at the end of time.
In the first reading — Isaiah 2:15 — the prophet sees the Messianic age as one in which there will be peace among all nations. All will recognize the God of Jacob, i.e., the God of Israel, as the true God. For that reason, they will want to go to his earthly sanctuary to learn from him how to live. The promise is not that the kingdom of Israel will rule the world or that Jerusalem will be a political capital, but that it will be the spiritual center. The prophet exhorts the people of Israel to “walk in the light of the Lord” even now, as the Gentiles will in the end. Now that the Messiah has come, Gentiles do walk in the light of the Lord, but so far not all of them. The prophecy of Isaiah is partially fulfilled in a way he probably did not foresee. We look forward to its complete fulfillment, also in a way we can’t completely foresee, although it probably has to do with the end of time and the return of Christ.
The responsorial psalm — Psalm 122 — was apparently one which pilgrims would sing as they came to Jerusalem. Now we sing it as Gentiles who are approaching the Lord according to Isaiah’s prophecy.
In the second reading — Romans 13:11-14 — St. Paul turns explicitly to how we are to behave in expectation of our coming salvation, that is, the return of the Lord. We are to “walk in [God’s] paths,” following his instruction. Paul’s converts had been engaged in “works of darkness:” excessive eating, drinking, and partying; sexual immorality; and self-seeking. All these are part of what he calls “desires of the flesh.” These remained temptations for the Romans, and they remain temptations for us. But the true day, of the light of Christ, “is at hand.” For each of us the time is short, even if for the planet it may appear to us to be long.
The gospel — Matthew 24:37-44 — gives further instruction about the time of the Lord’s return. It will be unpredictable for each of us and for the world, and therefore we must always be ready. It is not something that should cause us to live in fear, because for God’s people, the day of the Lord means the perfection of joy. It is something to look forward to, to hope for. We will not be left when the Lord gathers his own if we have lived as his people, walking in his ways, putting on the Lord Jesus and conducting ourselves properly.
The Lord Jesus, who was born into history at Bethlehem, comes to us now in prayer, in the words of scripture, and preeminently in the sacrament of his Body and Blood, strengthening us to be ready for his return to bring us beyond the limits of time and history — to life in his presence. We want to be ready to greet him then, and when he comes to us in the here and now.