“Prepare for the Encounter”
This Sunday begins a “B” year in the Church’s liturgical calendar. As always, the liturgical year opens with the Advent season and its four Sundays. Advent focuses on the preparation for the arrival of the Lord and the readings of this season carry a number of insights and instructions on how to prepare for the Lord’s coming, and on how to receive him. The first Sunday of Advent provide the first set of such instructions.
The first reading comes from the book of the prophet Isaiah. This passage is known as a community lament, and is found in the final part of the prophet’s book. Isaiah speaks in the name of the whole nation which addresses God as its “Father”. Though quite common in the NT, this designation is rare in the OT which commonly calls the patriarchs, such as Abraham, the nation’s ancestors and fathers. However, in today’s passage, the prophet emphasizes that the true father of the nation is God himself. He does so by stating that Abraham and Jacob (whose other name is Israel) were not the nation’s true parents – “Abraham does not know us and Israel does not acknowledge us”. Instead, the nation’s true founder and creator was God – “You are our Father; we are the clay… we are all the work of your hand”.
This emphasis on God’s fatherhood expresses the desire for closeness with God which Israel seemed to have lost. Isiah laments that “we have all become like one who is unclean… we all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away”. This awareness of having broken the covenant with God leads the prophet to make an intense plea for renewal of the broken relationship as he to pleads, “turn back for the sake of your servants, for the sake of the tribes that are your heritage… O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence”. This cry for the restoration of God’s presence in the midst of his people recalls the experience of God’s self-manifestation to Israel on Sinai when God “did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence”. The prophet – together with the nation – longs for a new start to their relationship with God, for a new encounter that would bring about a better future.
In the opening lines of his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul thanks God for forming the community in Corinth so that it is “not lacking in any spiritual gift”. However, the letter reveals that this community, despite all the gifts, experienced a great number of problems and challenges. In fact, the entire letter is devoted to dealing with the community’s divisions and tensions. Still, at its beginning, Paul focuses on the presence of God’s grace as the firm foundation for the life of the Corinthians stating, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus”. God’s grace came in the form of the gift of faith which transformed the Corinthians, bringing them to a new life in Christ which, even though not free from difficulties and failures, has tremendous potential for growth. God’s grace came to the Corinthians as a seed that needs to take root and be allowed to flourish. Paul calls this flourishing of grace “strengthening”, which he describes in two ways.
First, the apostle refers to “the testimony of Christ” that has been strengthened among the Corinthians. This testimony was the good news about Jesus’ sacrifice and its effects on all believers, which Paul has brought, and to which he testified. Furthermore, the testimony also means the challenge to bear witness to Jesus through accepting the logic of the cross, and living by Jesus’ values (see 1 Cor 1:18-31).
Second, Paul writes about God’s power that “will also strengthen you to the end.” Here, Paul calls for attention to the awaited return of Christ at the end of times – “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” – which the faithful need to prepare for by cooperating with God’s grace. The Corinthians are to go through daily life with keen awareness that they draw even nearer to the encounter with God and his Son, to the union with the divine to which they were “called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord”. Paul’s admonitions and instruction to the troubled community in the letter are, therefore, to be read against this perspective. The entire Christian life rooted in God’s grace is none other but a preparation for that ultimate encounter and union with God and with Christ.
The Gospel reading reports the words of Jesus pronounced shortly before he was betrayed, tried, and crucified; they are a kind of Jesus’ “testament”. In it, Jesus fervently reminds the disciples to “beware, keep alert, keep awake”. These are appeals to live with keen awareness of the second coming of the Lord which will take place at an unknown moment – “you do not know when the time will come, when the master of the house will come”.
Jesus then provides two short examples intended to emphasize the necessity for living in full readiness for his return. First, Jesus speaks about a man who embarked on a long journey. He commanded his servants to keep busy, “each with his work”, and the doorkeeper “to be on the watch”. These examples show that Jesus knew fully well that, in his absence, the disciples and the subsequent generations of Christians, might succumb to weariness and apathy; they might “fall asleep.” For this reason, Jesus admonishes the disciples to “keep awake.” He will repeat the same admonition later during his prayer in Gethsemane, where he called his disciples to “keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial” (Mark 14:38). These words indicate that prayer is necessary to remain in an attitude of watchful vigilance and to ensure that the disciple will be at all times ready to welcome the returning Master at the time of his unexpected and unannounced arrival.
The readings of the first Sunday of Avent identify clearly basic elements of adequate preparation for Jesus’ arrival. Those who find themselves in iniquity, similar to the iniquity of Israel at the time of Isiah, are called to recognize their wrongdoing, and take necessary steps to be reconciled with God, the true Father and the goal of all life. Those living in grace, such as Christians in Corinth, are called to perseverance and to further strengthening of their commitment to the Lord through authentic testimony and focused lives. Finally, the Gospel assures Christians that Jesus will return, and warns against falling into a “spiritual sleep” of apathy and neglect, which an ordinary and monotonous life may induce. Believers are called to a faithful watchfulness, reflected in living responsible and conscientious lives sustained by prayer. A model of such ardent prayer is found in the words the Psalmist who pleads, “give us life, and we will call on your name”.
The opening of this new liturgical year calls us to prepare for a new encounter with the Lord, whom we call “Father”, as illustrated by the prophet in the first reading. We acknowledge God as our Creator, for “we are the work of his hands”. In the course of the past year we may have lost our connectedness with God through our acts of sinfulness of various kinds. We all experience our sinfulness which leads us to a range of immoral behaviours that harm us and destroy our relationship with other. This is a good time to reflect on what in my life destroys or distorts my humanity which was created in the image of my heavenly Father. Such reflection ought to provide us with an insight on how to direct our lives. It should also spark in us deep longing for a new start in our relationship with God, and with our friends or neighbours, whom we have harmed or deserted because of our sinful actions. Even though we are broken, the longing for connectedness with God and those around us is the divine gift that gives us the power to rise out of the mire of sin.
Even though we have the desire for good, we often might not know where and how to begin the process of conversion; we are often blocked and blinded by shame, guilt or pride. In such a situation, St Paul reminds us that grace is always available to us. Hence, we have the spiritual power to restore our broken relationship with God and with those around us, no matter how much we are wounded and torn by the circumstances of life, the abuses at home, school, or work, our own addictions and restlessness. We have daily access to the grace of God deep within us if we only reach for it. A good way to begin to access this grace is actually to thank God for it in prayer and reflection. We can be sure that the giver of life does not abandon us to the clutches of evil. St Paul was certain of that; he calls us to be attentive to the outpouring of God’s grace into our lives. This attentiveness helps us be grow as witnesses to Jesus Christ and the Gospel values which have the power to transform our lives and our world.
In the Gospel, Jesus reminds us of the need to be vigilant, for we do not know the hour of his return. This reminder is not limited to the time of his second coming at the end of times. It is also a call to be always on the watch for a new encounter with the Lord in our daily lives as the liturgical year unfolds. As time goes by, there are moments in which we may feel the absence of God in our lives. Due to various trials that come our way we may succumb to temptations which are inevitable, and which might lead us into sin. Yet, being ever ready for the Lord’s return entails keeping watch over ourselves, our feelings, desires, motivation, and action. It means living out the Gospel values so that the ever-growing trends of consumerism and individualism in our society do not distract us.
Jesus calls us, his followers, to live responsibly and conscientiously. Doing so, we will be always ready to welcome Jesus whenever and in whatever form he comes. To paraphrase a Nigerian proverb, we will be like wood which had already been touched by fire, which is then not hard to set alight.” Filled with the outpouring of the grace of God, which is like fire in us, we shall shine, and be ever ready to meet the Lord whenever he comes.