1st Sunday of Advent, Dec. 3, 2017
(Isaiah 63:16b-17,19b; 64:2-7; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37)
The Isaiah reading would seem to be more appropriate for a national lament, the kind of thing we would expect for a day like Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement) than we would for the first day of the New Year, what Jews call Rosh Hashanah. Yet this first Sunday of Advent is the first day of the liturgical year, and appropriately it calls us to reflect on our sins. It is appropriate because sins are persistent and enduring.
Isaiah laments that “You let us let us wander from your ways, O Lord. Why?” Why do you “harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” Isaiah begs the Lord to return for Israel’s (technically for Judah’s) sake. Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down! Beyond what the Lord has done to them by leaving them for a time, the lamentation also admits the truth. “Behold, you are angry and we are sinful…. We have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carried us away like the wind.”
Yet in spite of the pitiable state in which Judah finds herself, Isaiah can still plead, “Yet, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you are the potter: we are all the work of your hands.” The plea continues (Is. 64:9-11) by reminding the Lord that Zion has become a wilderness and Jerusalem is desolation. The Temple has been burned and “all that we hold dear has been laid waste. Can you hold back, Lord after all this? Can you remain silent, and afflict us so severely?”
We see here how the lament constantly returns to what the Lord should do, and has done, to bring about this mess, while not denying her own guilt. The author is never shy about reminding the Lord of equal responsibility for this dire situation. While accepting the people’s guilt for all this destruction, Isaiah argues decisively that this is too much. In the words of one contemporary sage I know, Isaiah pleads essentially: “God, you are piling on. You deserve a 15-yard penalty!”
During this year we will hear much of Mark’s Gospel and the selection for Sunday comes from the end of chapter 13. The chapter had spoken of the destruction of the Temple, and the trials which would follow. It also spoke of the coming of the Son of Man.
In today’s passage he warns about the unknown day and hour when all this would happen: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” He works in a parable about a man traveling who places his servants in charge, “each with his own work, and he orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.” Watch therefore, for you (2nd person plural) do not know when the “lord of the house is coming…” He could come at any time but, “May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping…Watch!”
Readers will note the change within the parable from the man traveling to the Lord of the house returning. This was likely intended by Mark to emphasize that the parable was about Christ himself returning and, especially in Mark’s day, the expectation that he was returning soon.
Some people downplay Mark’s exhortation to “Watch,” on the grounds that so much time has elapsed that we need not worry about it. Yet the Advent season reminds us that the need for being ever-watchful has never gone away. In terms of a lifespan, the time is relatively short. Staying alert is a constant need because it is so easy to slip along our way.
Paul’s words are an encouragement to Corinthian Christians who also expected “the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul reassures them as they await the “day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Church echoes those reminders to us today.
Fr. Lawrence L. Hummer firstname.lastname@example.org