We begin a new liturgical year today with this Mass of the First Sunday of Advent. We open this year of grace as we open every new year: excited about the possibilities and hopeful for a new start. Yet the start of the church’s year does not hearken to past; it hearkens to the future. The poet T. S. Eliot once quipped that “in my beginning is my end,” and indeed the end must always be in sight for anything started in this world, especially we poor mortals. As we previewed last week in the feast of Christ the King, everything in this world has an expiration date, including the universe itself. Nothing in this world of decay lasts forever, no matter how hard we try to make it otherwise.
We usually think of Advent as a consideration for the coming of Jesus Christ in history, commemorating the great expectation of the nations that the Savior would come and set them free. Yet Advent does not merely concern this past coming: it offers for our meditation and prayer the two other ways that Christ comes into this world and invades our lives. Today’s readings show us the first of these comings, or should we say the second coming. Each of these readings flows with anticipation for the final return of Jesus Christ in glory and majesty on that last and terrifying day, when all shall be put to right and the world shall be made anew in His glory.
Isaiah looks with joy at the results of that last judgment, when all shall joyfully ascend the mountain of the Lord to the house where they shall dwell in peace and security for all eternity. It is the same joyful hope found in the psalm, where Jerusalem is the symbol for that eternal city that shall never be lost or overtaken. It is the hope that remained in the hearts of the faithful Jews in the long centuries before the coming of Jesus, and it is the same hope that must remain in our hearts as we endure our own long centuries until Jesus comes once more, not to a humble stable in the farthest corner of the world, but in the full splendor of His kingship to rule for the ages.
Our other readings remind us of the consequences of this hope. Both of them urge us to stay awake and be watchful, since we know neither the hour nor the day when this hope shall be answered. Both warn us against the sins that emerge from losing that hope: the sins of the flesh, for when we lose hope in eternal life, we seek to make a heaven out of earth instead of waiting for God to do that in His own time. Our Lord in fact offers an appropriate image of expectation: be on your guard, as if a thief were coming to rob your house.
This image of being on guard for a thief provides another reason for our new position at Mass. I stated a few weeks ago that we would return to the traditional position of praying together - priest and people - turned towards the Lord. Advent is a most appropriate time for restarting this liturgical orientation because of what Jesus tells us in this Gospel: be on your guard, be ready. We Christians are called to be on the watch for the Lord to come, like guards in the tower waiting for the king to return so that the castle door may be opened for him. Yet we cannot do this if we are turned inward rather than outward. The thief does not come from within the house but outside; the king will not return from inside the castle but from outside. So too will Christ come not from within us, but He ultimately returns from a place outside of the universe, breaching the gap when His hour has come.
It is certainly true that God is with us. We who have been confirmed are called to be temples of the Holy Spirit. We who receive the Eucharist can really lay claim to Jesus dwelling within us. Yet the immanent God, the God within, is also the transcendent God, the God beyond the cosmos. In fact, while we talk about God being with us, even perhaps dwelling within us, God is also dwelling outside of any aspect of the cosmos. We are not pantheists who believe that the universe is a God or that God is bound to the material world. God in Himself is transcendent, unencompassed by anything, even Heaven. It is by His will that He becomes immanent, that He pours Himself out for us, sharing Himself as only He can do.
If God is transcendent, if He dwells in highest heaven, then our worship should reflect this understanding just as it reflects the truth that God is with us. This is why Catholics for millennia have adopted this position of a common outer direction for prayer, not facing a wall nor the priest ignoring the people but looking outward for the transcendent God to come once again and be with us. I said earlier that Advent reflects two different comings of the Lord: the first I mentioned was His final coming in majesty, but the second is the coming of the Lord daily upon the altar. We are reminded in this season that Jesus not only came to the stable in Bethlehem and will come on the last day, but that He frequently comes to us, humbling Himself to come from the highest heaven and be encompassed in bread and wine. The transcendent made immanent, heaven revealed on earth, the Savior who has come and will come now come once more to be our food for the journey.
If we are going to be faithful to Christ, we must be on the watch. Saint Peter warns us in one of his letters to be watchful for the devil, who prowls like a roaring lion seeking to devour anything. But Jesus tells us to be watchful for Him to come, to be ready for that hour, whether it is the hour of our death or the hour of the last death, the death of this universe. To be watchful means to be ready for whatever may come or for whatever is expected. If we are not watchful, then we forget that we are not citizens of this passing world. We become like those who ignored Noah as he prepared the ark: eating, drinking, feasting with abandon, disregarding hope in Christ. And like those fools in the days of Noah, we too will be swept away when that last day comes and we have not been watchful, for we will receive not the reward of alertness but punishment for our disregard, for our hopelessness, for our abandonment of the coming Lord.
Let us not be caught offguard by the coming of the Lord, but let us be watchful for that hour. Let us prepare our lives for Him by living as He commanded us, following Him as our King and Lord. Let us turn and watch for Him to come now on the altar and soon on the last day. Let us use this season of Advent to make ready to celebrate that first coming in Bethlehem which we will commemorate on Christmas Day, that we may rejoice in His first coming to set us free from sin and death and to make ready His final coming. “Let us put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” as Saint Paul tells us, “and make no provisions for the desires of the flesh,” but let us prepare ourselves for the endless delights that await the watchful in eternal life.