Preparing To Meet the Lord: Reflections on the Readings for Advent | Carl E. Olson | December 3, 2006
Recently I was asked to write the weekly Scripture column for Our Sunday Visitor newspaper. As it turns out, my column debuted on the first Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2006. This marks the second time I've written a series of columns for Our Sunday Visitor related to Advent. In writing them, I continue to marvel at the beauty of Scripture, the depth of the Catholic Faith, and the richness of the liturgical calendar. What I offer here are simply some basic observations about the readings for the four Sundays of Advent, looking especially at overarching and intertwined themes that emerge over the course of this holy time.
An advent, of course, is a coming; the word means "to come to." Advent anticipates the coming--or comings--of the Son of Man: in his Incarnation two thousand years ago, in his future return in glory, and in the mystery of the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Saviour's first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming" (CCC 524). Simply put, Advent is about being prepared to meet Christ--not on our terms, but on His terms. By preparing us to meet the tiny Incarnate Word of God lying in a manger, Advent also directs our hearts and minds toward the return of that child as glorious King and Lord of all.
In a book of reflections titled Seek That Which Is Above, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that the purpose of Advent is "to awaken the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of God who became a child. This is a healing memory; it brings hope." Later, he states that Advent is also about shaking off spiritual slumber and sloth: "So Advent means getting up, being awake, emerging out of sleep and darkness." In the recently published Advent of the Heart, a collection of sermons and prison writings, the priest and martyr Fr. Alfred Delp contemplates Advent from a similar perspective. "Advent," he writes, "is a time for being deeply shaken, so that man will wake up to himself. ... It is precisely in the severity of this awakening, in the helplessness of coming to consciousness, in the wretchedness of experiencing our limitations that the golden threads running between Heaven and earth during this season reach us; the threads that give the world a hint of the abundance to which it is called, the abundance of which it is capable."
Advent is marked by anticipation, contemplation, joy, conversion, discernment, repentance, hope, faith, and--last but never least--charity. The readings for this Advent (cycle C) aptly reflect all of this, always within the context of historical events and realities involving men and women who face difficulties and struggles similar to those that confront us today. Here, then, are seven themes and/or persons who have stood out to me as I have studied and contemplated the readings for Sunday liturgies during this Advent season.
The Prophets: Specifically, Jeremiah, Baruch, Zephaniah, Isaiah, and Malachi. Each, in their own way, warned of impending doom and then promised a restoration of the remnant faithful to God. Jeremiah (Jer 33:14-16, Dec. 3) spent forty years (c. 629-587 B.C.) announcing the coming demise of Judah--a prophecy that came to pass at the end of his remarkably long run as "Least Liked Man in Judah", when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and took the people away for an extended stay in Babylon. But Jeremiah, as gloomy as he often was, also spoke of the restoration of the holy city, which would come at the hand of "a just shoot" of King David. Jesus perfectly fulfilled this prophecy of Jeremiah and promise to David by establishing the Church, the "household of God" (1 Tim 3:15) and the seed and beginning of His kingdom. And it is his death and resurrection that establishes the foundation for the New Jerusalem, "the city of my God" (Rev 3:12). Baruch (Bar 5:1-9, Dec. 10), likewise, saw a new Jerusalem and a restored Temple.
Zephaniah (Zep 3:14-18a, Dec. 17) came before Jeremiah or Baruch, but his message was very similar, an exhortation to reform and spiritual renewal. After warning of judgment and the impending Day of the Lord (chapter 1-2), he ends his short book with a hymn of joy to be sung by the faithful remnant when they are finally restored to Zion. Isaiah (Is 12:2-3, 4, 5-6, Dec, 17) and Micah (Mi 5:1-4a, Dec. 24) are quite similar to one another, their messages following a three-part pattern: the announcement of judgment due to the rejection of God's law, the prophecy of a restored Zion, and an exhortation to a spiritual renewal based in trust in God's mercy.
The words of each prophet ultimately points to the person of Jesus Christ, but it is also true that the person of each prophets points to the Word made flesh; that is, they are types of the last and greatest Prophet who will not just foretell of a new Temple or speak of a new Israel, but will be the new Temple and create the new Israel.
The Call to Holiness and Conversion: The message of each of the prophets resonates with a potent and seemingly paradoxical combination: the harsh truth of approaching judgment and the bright promise of salvation. The judgment and salvation, of course, come from the same source, the Holy One of Israel, whose righteousness demands that justice be dealt and whose mercy is directed to those who are humble: "He guides the humble to justice, and teaches the humble his way" (Ps 25, Dec. 3). This perfect combination of justice and mercy is first hinted at in the preaching of John the Baptist (Lk 3:10-18, Dec 17), who demands that the people be baptized and practice right living, and then revealed explicitly in prophetic utterance:
"I am baptizing you with water,This call to holiness is not just about living righteously but is, simply put, the call to divine life, to share in the grace of the Triune God. Hinted at during Advent--which is concerned primarily with preparing us to more deeply understand and embrace the gift--this message overflows during the season of Christmas, as on the Feast of the Holy Family (Dec. 31), in the epistle reading from 1 John. "See what love the Father has bestowed on us," writes John, "that we may be called the children of God. And so we are." (1 Jn 3:1). Being made in the likeness of Christ through baptism, we now share in Christ's sonship. Being filled with the Holy Spirit, we are now children of God. Purified by fire, we are now able to live a life pleasing to God. This, in turn, is the necessary preparation for the day when the Son of Man returns to judge the living and the dead:
For that day will assault everyone
John the Baptist:
The prophets were consumed by the call to conversion, and the greatest of the
prophets was the cousin of Jesus: "Truly I say to you, among those born of
women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!" (Matt 11:11).
The Jesuit Scripture scholar Jean Daniélou, in The Advent of Salvation,
writes, "Since the coming of Christ goes on forever--He is always He who
is to come in the world and in the Church--there is always an Advent going on,
and this Advent is filled by John the Baptist. . . . He it is who hastens the
coming of Christ by sending out his resounding call to repentance, to
conversion; and the power of his call makes men ready for Christ to come to
them." John's great words of self-effacement--"He must increase, but I
must decrease"--capture well what it means to be a saint, a "holy one"
(cf. CCC 524).
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