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Preparing To Meet the Lord: Reflections on the Readings for Advent | Carl E. Olson | December 3, 2006

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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,
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 barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
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
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 imminent
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 3, proclaims:
Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!
Sing joyfully, O Israel!
Be glad and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
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."
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
Immaculate Mary, Matchless in Grace | John Saward
The Medieval 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
The Disciple 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
"Born of the Virgin Mary" | Paul Claudel
The Old Testament and the Messianic Hope | Thomas Storck
Christmas: Sign 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 of Will 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.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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