Learn the Lesson of Advent to Not Miss the Lord When He Comes to Meet You

Homily for the First Sunday of Advent, Year “B”
Given at the Solemn Mass at the London Oratory of St. Philip Neri
November 30, 2014

I remember someone once recounting to me an interview he saw with Mother Theresa, in which she spoke of how she didn’t like the special treatment she received when travelling.  She said she didn’t like it because for her there is no waiting, whereas – so she said – “the poor have to wait.”

Waiting on the Lord
Advent is a time of waiting, “waiting for the coming of the Lord.”  It is the start of a new liturgical year.  At the end of the liturgical year the Church, wisely, focuses our attention on the end times, reminding and admonishing us to prepare for the second coming of the Lord, when he will return in glory.  This theme continues at the beginning of Advent, as we just heard in today’s Gospel: “Be watchful! Be alert!  You do not know when the time will come….  What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’” 

In the middle part of Advent the figure of St. John the Baptist emerges as the focus.  He, of course, is the one who calls us to prepare the way for the Lord, to open up our hearts to him in welcome when he comes, and who points him out when he does come.  The last week of Advent then turns our attention more intensely to the Lord’s first coming, in humility, in poverty, having been born in a stable to a simple working-class family.  While the current economic crisis affects us all, we here are blessed not to live in a stable.  Waiting, though, affords everyone the opportunity to be poor, to identify with our Lord who impoverished himself to become man, born into a materially poor family.

We need reminders of our poverty, of our spiritual poverty, our sinful state.  That is why Son of God became man, to save us from that sinful state.  However, we must first recognize that this is, indeed, our state, and that he is the Messiah, the Savior, the one to lift us out of it and into the life of grace of his Kingdom.  Thus, the need to be alert to him.

Experience of the People of God
We need these reminders to keep watch because we so often fail to do so.  But we are in good company.  In the first reading for our Mass today we heard from the prophet Isaiah, who utters a lament after the Israelites’ return from exile.  The Persian king Cyrus allowed the people to return to Jerusalem after they had been exiled from their land, but the Temple had not yet been rebuilt under his rule, the people had not restored themselves to their religious practice and identity.  The Lord still seemed far off.  The prophets, speaking God’s message to His people, interpreted the destruction of their kingdom and consequent exile as a punishment for their sins, their infidelity to the Covenant that the one, true God had made with them.  Instead, they made covenants with their pagan neighbors, which required them to worship their pagan idols.  God’s people envied the might, prosperity and material success of the pagan nations surrounding them, and wanted to be like them, wanted “a piece of the action.”  So rather than remain faithful to the God of the Covenant, they turned their backs on Him and aligned themselves with those whom they envied.

Notice how Isaiah here seems to blame God for all this: “Why do you … harden our hearts so that we fear you not?”  But then later he fesses up in a manifestation of corporate self-honesty: “Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful, … all our good deeds are like polluted rags … and our guilt carries us away like the wind.”  This is an admission of guilt on the part of Isaiah for his people, it is an anguished cry to God over what has become of the people.  He therefore cries out to God to “rend the heavens and come down,” to “wrought awesome deeds such as they had not heard of from of old.”  This is a very appropriate prophesy for us to hear at this time of the year, when we prepare to celebrate the great feast on which God did precisely that.

Our Experience Today
Yet, how much we are like them, how little has changed among the people of God.  God is infinitely patient with us; He continues to warn us.  We heard it again in today’s Gospel: “May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.”  This is an allusion to what would happen in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before the Lord died: the apostles feel asleep, they could not stay awake and keep watch with him.  This is also a metaphor for what those first generations of Christians would face, when the Church found herself in a time of persecution.  The Christians then had to be watchful not to betray their Lord in their time of trial and temptation. 

As we tragically know, this is still the case in many parts of the world today, in the Middle East and beyond.  We are all horrified at how Christians are being tortured and killed for their faith in those places.  We are blessed not to have to face that kind of persecution here.  Yet we, too, are no less subject to temptation to betray the Lord; not as fierce, certainly, but still real although more subtle – and perhaps for that reason maybe even more insidious.  We are allowed to practice our religion (after all, we are all gathered here in this beautiful church worshipping God in this beautiful way), but we do so in a now very secularized and in some ways anti-Christian society.  Our temptation, then, is precisely that of falling asleep.  We sense the lure of the dominant culture, we see the power, prosperity and popularity of its protagonists, and we want to be like them.  We can then slip into compromising with and accommodating to a culture that in some basic ways is incompatible with Christian values and practices.  It is easy to succumb in little ways, perhaps without even being aware of it at first.  But as one continues to do so more and more, before long there ends up being no difference between the one who claims to be a believer and everyone else.

There must be something that distinguishes the believer from those who do not believe.  What we are doing right now is one key aspect of this – how we spend our Sunday, not just in church (although that first and foremost) but also beyond, all throughout the day.

Advent is a season rich in symbols, rituals, and practices; different cultures especially have particular devotional practices at this time of the year.  They are there for us to incorporate into our lives, and in doing so we will show that, as believers, we are different.  Advent, as a time of preparation for the celebration of a great mystery of our faith, is a time of penance.  During these weeks we should fast and observe other forms of penance, and most of all the sacrament of Penance.  We should involve ourselves very explicitly and intentionally in works of charity.  We should engage ourselves in the many rich spiritual traditions that are available to us at this time of the year.

All of this, though, is not meant to be limited to these four weeks of the year.  Advent is a lesson for all of life.  Notice what our Lord says in the Gospel: the master “leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own work.”  The Lord, our Master, has entrusted to each of us some work, a purpose in life for us to fulfill.  He gives to each one a vocation as a way of living out in very real, concrete ways the common baptismal calling we all share, day in and day out.  He has given to everyone certain gifts of time, talent and treasure, to be used for His purposes and His plan.  And His plan is nothing less than our eternal salvation, our happiness with Him in this life and forever in heaven.

The point of Advent, then, is to teach us to be other-centered, to be generous.  It is in this way that we are disposed to being alert to Him and docile to the graces He wishes to lavish upon us.

Advent is the Church’s gift to us, a gift by which the Church teaches us how to pay attention to the Lord.  We can all be poor when we wait upon the Lord with repentant and generous hearts.  May we enter into the true spirit of this holy season, so that we may be among those whom the Lord finds watchful and alert upon his return.