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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.
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
"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:
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the
thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy
Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand to
clear his threshing floor
and to gather the wheat into his
but the chaff he will burn with
For that day will assault everyone
who lives on the face of the earth.
Be vigilant at all times
and pray that you have the strength
to escape the tribulations that are
and to stand before the Son of
Man." (Lk 21, Dec. 3)
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).
John is a central figure in Advent, for obvious reasons: he
prepared the way for the Messiah (Lk 3, 1-6, Dec. 10), he divulges the mission
of the Christ (Lk 3:10-18, Dec 17), and, from the womb, he recognized and
announced the presence of his Lord (Lk 1:39-45, Dec 24). Yet after the
prophecy is fulfilled, the prophet began to fade away, and was then finally
killed in a most despicable manner because he gave offense. Speaking of John,
Fr. Delp observed: "What is easier, what is simpler, than to muzzle a prophet!
Yet, indeed, hasn't it been--not the voices of those who went into the palaces
and were welcome there--but rather the voices calling in the wilderness who
filled the cosmos, who prepared the way, who directed people toward Advent, and
who arranged for the proper meeting with the end and the Ultimate?" If John
ever appears eccentric or strange to us, could it be because his witness is so
radical, so free of rhetoric and pleasantries?
Luke: The Gospel
readings are all from the third Gospel, written by Luke, the Gentile physician
who was a disciple and companion of the Apostle Paul, and the author the Acts
of the Apostles. Some notable features of Luke's Gospel include its elegant
Greek, its account of the infancy of Jesus (Lk 1-2), its use of historical
detail, its emphasis on Jesus as prophet, and its focus on the Temple,
especially in relation to the end of time. Luke is a masterful storyteller; his
narratives and speeches work together beautifully and seamlessly to present his
theological vision, which is very mindful of the Jewish background he writes
about, but is oriented toward a Gentile audience. His Gospel makes use of
geography to shape the narrative. Jerusalem is at the center of his story, and
that story moves toward the holy city. So, for example, the infancy narrative
leads to Jesus being presented in the Temple (Lk 2:22). In Luke's Gospel, all
of the appearances of the resurrected Jesus occur in Jerusalem. This emphasis
on Jerusalem works very well with many of the Advent readings from the prophets
and the Psalms, which often make reference to a future, restored Jerusalem and
Temple (the two of which are almost synonymous in Luke's writings).
Mary, the Mother of Jesus: Luke is the source for many of the key biblical accounts of events in
the life the Blessed Mother. In the final Gospel reading of Advent (Dec. 24),
we hear of two mothers-to-be, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, praising God for
His blessings and marveling at His mysterious ways. The readings of that day
emphasize obedience and faith, qualities found in abundance the young mother of
Jesus. "The Virgin Mary most perfectly embodies the obedience of faith" (CCC 148;
cf. CCC 144). This faith is recognized by Mary's relative, Elizabeth, when the
pregnant Mother of God visits her: "Blessed are you who believed that what was
spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled." Fr. John Saward, in Redeemer
in the Womb: Jesus Living in Mary, writes:
During the season of Advent,
particularly in the last week, the Church identifies herself with the expectant
Mary, the most perfect model and embodiment of the hope of God's people:
Israel's past yearning for the Messiah, the Church present longing for the
Saviour's Second Coming.
Although less obvious, there is a strong Marian quality to
the readings for the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday (Dec. 17). The first reading, from Zephaniah
Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!
In hindsight, the references are to a people, the Church,
and to a specific person, the faithful Daughter of Zion. "Mary, in whom the
Lord himself has just made his dwelling, is the daughter of Zion in person, the
ark of the covenant, the place where the glory of the Lord dwells" (CCC 2676;
cf CCC 722). Zephaniah proclaimed that the King of Israel was with Zion, the
people of God: "The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior."
He was also with Mary in a most unique way: "The Lord is with Thee, blessed art
thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus." Mary, Fr. Delp
writes, "is the most comforting figure of Advent."
Sing joyfully, O Israel!
Be glad and exult with all your
O daughter Jerusalem!
That God would become a mother's
son and that a woman could walk upon this earth, her body consecrated as a holy
temple and tabernacle for God, is truly the earth's culmination and the
fulfillment of its expectation.
The Incarnation: The
God of Israel who created all things, who spoke through the prophets, who came
with thunder and clouds upon Mount Sinai ... is coming. Yes, He has already come
to us, two thousand years ago, the Word made flesh. But He comes again. He
gives Himself under the appearance of bread and wine. He meets us in the
quietness of our time alone and in the faces of those we share our lives with.
He will come for us on that final day.
Are we, this Advent, prepared to embrace "the memory of God
who became a child"? Do we, like John and Elizabeth, recognize Him? Are we
willing to be shaken? Are we, like Mary, ready to meet Him?
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
Archbishop Fulton Sheen on Advent | From Through the Year
With Fulton Sheen
Mary, Matchless in Grace | John Saward
Mary | The Introduction to Mary in the Middle Ages | by Luigi Gambero
Remembering Father Alfred Delp, S.J., Priest and Martyr |
A Conversation with Father Karl Adolf Kreuser, S.J.
Assumed Into Mother's
Arms | Carl E. Olson
Contemplates the Mother | Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis
How To Read The Bible | Peter Kreeft
Approaching the Sacred Scriptures | Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch
The Incarnation | Frank Sheed
the Virgin Mary" | Paul Claudel
The Old Testament
and the Messianic Hope | Thomas Storck
of Contradiction, Season of Redemption | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The God in the
Cave | G.K. Chesterton
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
He is the co-author of The
Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author
Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He has written for numerous
Cathlic periodicals and is a regular contributor to National Catholic
Register and Our Sunday Visitor newspapers.
He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland,
Oregon and Sacramento, California with his wife, Heather, and two children.
Visit his personal web site at www.carl-olson.com.
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