First Sunday of Advent – December 2, 1973 – CNR
We begin today the season of Advent, the start of a new liturgical year. Each of these years unfolds itself in a cycle of successive seasons and feasts, Advent into Christmas, Lent into Easter, the unfolding of Pentecost in the Sundays of the year. There is a certain rhythm to it, which we acknowledge in calling it a cycle; but the rhythmic cycle may contain a danger for us, the serious danger of misunderstanding a central feature of our Christian lives.
The ancient world was under frequent danger of believing that human life was caught in a ceaseless, inexorable cycle of rise and fall, glory and shame, success and failure, endlessly repeating itself through time. Like the roll and pitch of a ship at sea, what had been would be again; what we were we would be still and again; and like the sailor, people could become insensible to the rhythm, until a poet or philosopher noticed it again and remarked its discouraging and pessimistic ebb and flow.
The biblical revelation was the one radical break out of that cycle in the ancient world. For Israel’s experience was historical. Once, something new had happened: a man called Abraham was called out of his people and land to a new land, to form a new people; a group of slaves was rescued from Egypt, and a new people was formed out of the consciousness of their deliverance. Out of that experience of events that broke with the eternal cycle came the new notion of God as the One who stood above the flow of human events and spoke the new word of his judgment and comfort.
The history of Israel showed the same rise and decline discernible in the fortunes of any people; but the history was interpreted prophetically as a history of freedom: God’s gracious word and deed constituting his people, and the people’s ungrateful and unfaithful response. Decline was not just the ebbing of a nation’s fortunes; it was sin. Restoration was not the luck of a happy outcome; it was forgiveness, reconciliation, the restored righteousness and peace of today’s first reading, where to a people to whom he has interpreted their Exile as punishment for their sin, Jeremiah promises that the Holy City again will dwell secure in the Lord in whom she rediscovers her integrity.
The New Testament is the fulfilment of that promise that peace and justice would newly flourish in the land. A new name was chosen for the fundamental message: it was called the Gospel, the Good News. The radically new had happened: God had visited his people, and if the old cycle seemed to repeat itself in the seeming failure of his death, it was broken in the conviction of his resurrection; and the new people waited in vivid and sharp expectation of Christ’s return, exhorted by men like Paul to live for that day when all things would be made new.
But the End was postponed, and the Church gradually came to know that it must be a people of patient endurance until the moment only God knows comes. The splendid vision of the End was still painted, as in the reading today from Luke; but it was accompanied by warnings against indulgence, drunkenness, and worldly cares. We are told that if we do not know that the kingdom will come soon, we do know that it will come suddenly, and we must be ready, new men for the new day.
The Fathers used to like to describe the Church under the figure of the moon which draws all its light from the sun who is Christ, but itself waxes and wanes. Though the image recalls a natural cycle, the Fathers were prophets in their own right, and insisted that the sun’s light stays constant; it is the Church’s sinfulness that dims her light, and only her repentance can permit the new day of reconciliation and peace.
There is something extremely important in all this history. For it concerns how we, singly and as a community, understand our lives. Do we indulge in our own species of determinism? Or, if that is too abstractly put, let us ask ourselves: What are we waiting for? Are we waiting for anything? Have we consented that things shall always be what they have always been? Is there any room for the New in our lives? Have we any hope?
The objects of our hope may be quite different for different ones among us. For some it may precisely be hope to be delivered from Luke’s simple trilogy of “indulgence, drunkenness, worldly cares.” Others may look forward to that growth to which Paul exhorts us, an abounding overflow of love for one another and for all men. Surely all of us here and especially the wretched of the earth must look for and hope for a day when not just the Holy City, but the whole earth shall be safe and dwell secure in justice and in peace.
Whatever our hope, and whatever our words for it, without any hope there would be no point to an Advent season, for we would be waiting for nothing. The readings we have heard tell us that God himself is looking for something new; he is looking for a people newly penitent, newly conscious of its need, newly hopeful, newly eager for his visitation. Only such a people has room for him and for his utterly new grace which is in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom with the Father and Spirit be glory and honor for ever and ever. Amen.