As we begin the season of Advent, the Church offers us a range of images to help us prepare for the birth of Christ. The Gospel text for the First Sunday of Advent is from Luke’s Gospel, 21:25-28, 34-36. It’s a text that can at first sight raise more questions than it answers. The passage uses apocalyptic language and imagery which isn’t always easy to decipher. When I come across a Gospel text that is difficult to understand, I remember the advice of a friend who when preparing to preach on the Gospel uses the response to the Responsorial Psalm as an interpretive key. This Sunday the response is:
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
This is a very helpful starting point as it sets the scene as one of relationship, relationship with the God of the Covenant. Our invitation to relationship began at Baptism, an invitation to find in Christ our well-being, our flourishing and our ultimate fulfillment. It is through this lens that we can view the challenging words of the Gospel.
The opening sentence is striking:
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘There will be signs in the sun and the moon and the stars; on earth nations in agony, bewildered by the clamour of the ocean and its waves; men dying of fear as they await what menaces the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken.
It’s easy to read this as a prediction of disaster and guide to all that is wrong in our world. St Luke is writing for an audience who were actually going to experience a disaster- the destruction of the Temple. Our own hearing of these words is bound to be different and the next sentence of the text helps to broaden our focus:
And then you will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great Glory. When these things begin to take place, stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand.
The coming of the Son of Man is good news for us and not something to be feared. We don’t need to cower, we are invited to stand erect and hold our heads high. If we go back to the response to the Psalm: To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul, there is a similar sense of being in a secure relationship with God. The coming of the Son of Man need not be a time of terror but rather a revealing of the world as God sees it.
Professor Tom O’Loughlin expresses something of this in his Lectionary resource book for Advent and Christmas:
At The End we must not imagine a giant Chasm, but the figure of the Logos, who shares our human nature, with all approaching him as their prophet, priest and king. Christ as King stands at the end of time gathering all the fragments of each of our lives, and of the life of the cosmos, and refashioning that existence so that nothing is lost.
So, at The End, we are drawn to the One who marked us as his own at the moment of our baptism. The One who invited us to pattern our lives on his, to live each day as prophet, priest and king. All the good we have ever done will be gathered together.
The End is the gathering of all the little pieces of our scattered and fragmented lives, all our joys, all our collaborations with the grace of God, all the goodness we have sought to create, the peace we have fostered, the reconciliation we have sought, the acts of kindness and mercy, the attempts to witness to truth in the face of falsehood or injustice. All these scattered actions are gathered into new existence that Christ can offer to the Father in the Spirit.
These words give me great hope and point me to a possible Advent practice. Perhaps my time this Advent might be spent identifying those ‘fragments’ and making my collaboration with the grace of God more conscious. I might also take the time to be grateful for the small kindnesses that I see around me.
However we spend Advent, the message of the last two verses of the Gospel text is clear: ‘stay awake’.
Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen, and to stand with confidence before the Son of Man.
Staying awake requires patience and lots of it. We are unlikely to encounter anything spectacular this Advent and probably wont be involved in a spectacular battle. But what we can count on is ‘the steady tread, of prayer and hope and scripture and sacrament and witness, day by day and week by week.’ (Tom Wright: Luke for Everyone)
Tom O’Loughlin: Liturgical Resources for Advent and Christmastide