Living the readings: Preparing for the end

We live in time and eternity as Christ offers us eternal life

By Father Joseph Brando

It may seem strange to many that the liturgical calendar begins with our preparation and celebration of the birth of the Messiah whereas our daily calendar (which is a Christian product) begins on the octave day of Christmas when the feast is all over.

Perhaps this minor vortex of beginnings and endings is purposely mixed up to get us to realize that we live not only in time but eternity. When God became man and was born of the Virgin Mary, entering into the world with him was the eternity that is God. Through his death and resurrection, Christ offers us eternal life. If we accept that offer and are baptized, we have chosen to live the eternal life that is heaven. Then every day is a preparation for and a recent past experience of the Lord’s presence in our lives. So past, present and future fuse together in Christ.

That leads us to the questions that must be answered as we dwell in space and time, namely what must we do and what must we be to enter into eternal joy? The Scripture readings of this season of Advent present the questions and answers we need to get started. The readings of the liturgies of Christmas and the Holy Family challenge us to live here on earth as we would do in heaven. We will begin by analyzing the Advent Sunday readings even though the First Sunday of Advent comes on Nov. 29 this year.

In the readings of the First Sunday of Advent, the Gospel presents Jesus’ picture of the end of the world and how we should react to it. The second reading presents Paul’s advice on what we should be doing in preparation for the end. The Old Testament reading refers to a time the Jews thought the end had come for them. Yet, they didn’t factor in God’s amazing mercy.

In that passage from the prophet Jeremiah, the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians, and all the educated people were exiled to Babylon. It looked as if the people of Israel had come to an end, and with them, the religion of the true God. Life was sad. But, Jeremiah, while recognizing the past tragedy and present sadness, announces a promise from God. God will raise up one from the family line of David who will re-establish Israel and rebuild the Temple. In effect, this has been done more than once. The promise was fulfilled during the lifetimes of some of those deportees to Babylon. The clear message to us is that God is just in that the sins we cling to will lead to destruction. But God also is merciful in that he redeems us and gives us new life. We shouldn’t forget, when we are mourning, that God still has a promise of joy for us.

In the Gospel reading, Luke presents Jesus’ short description of the last day. People will die of fright when they see the sky shaken and hear the roaring of the seas. There will be many tribulations among the people. What should we do? First off, we must realize it is the unjust and prideful people whose plans for the future do not consider that this world will end. Jesus’ message is for us to stand up and raise our heads because our redemption and the vindication of a life lived for God is at hand. Just so, every day from now to the end we should stay sober, vigilant, prayerful, and strong.

The second Sunday of Advent begins with the prophet Baruch. He was one of the leaders of the Jews back in their homeland. He shouts to his people (still weary from the happenings of the last few decades) to change their clothes. He wants them to put on “party” clothing that represents the glory of God, justice, and God’s eternal power. The new clothes are to show off to the rest of the world the happiness that God’s power and glory brings. Then everyone can certify that God is leading Israel in joy!

In the second reading, Paul begins his letter to the Philippians extolling the joy he wants for this Christian community in particular and for all of us Christians. What better time to hear this message than in the holiday season? We have free rein to be outrageously gleeful, not because of upcoming gifts, but by the sheer happiness of Christ’s presence in our lives.

Luke’s Gospel pulls out all the stops to formally introduce the coming of salvation into our world. But he didn’t do it for the incarnation or the birth of the savior, both of which he has already beautifully pictured. Luke underscores John the Baptist’s preaching in the desert. In the middle of nowhere where the Jordan River drains into the Dead Sea, at the lowest altitude in the entire world, John speaks his message. And the people responded, making straight the way for the Lord.

The third Sunday of Advent reveals an important factor little noticed. We all know that the main force of Advent is how close God is to coming to his people. That generates an abundance of strong feelings. The first reading demands that daughter Zion should shout for joy ­— an unabashed demonstration of deep, happy emotions. Zephaniah also urges us to sing. We are to display the letting loose of all our emotions that had been penned up by fear. With the presence of God so close we are free to voice and display all our happy emotions.

Paul agrees entirely. His call, in the second reading, is for us to rejoice in the Lord always. Zephaniah labeled the main problem as fear; Paul calls it anxiety. They both are in agreement. Anxieties are the result of fear and both are eliminated when the power of God approaches. God’s presence eliminates our fears and the anxiety that comes with it. We can, therefore, be open with our feelings of joy.

The result of letting go of fear and sharing our positive joy-filled feelings comes out in the Gospel passage from Luke. The people ask en masse as well as singularly, “what should we do?” John replies with the obvious. What would anyone do who is exceedingly and justifiably happy? He or she would share their joy with friends. If the friend lacks anything that would stop them from the same level of joy, then he or she would give them what they need. It’s all a matter of feelings being released from a prison of fear and anxiety. Luke ends his passage introducing us to John the Baptist by writing, “He preached good news to the people.” So should all of us this Advent.

The fourth Sunday of Advent highlights the differences between the Old and New Testament understanding of what the birth of the Messiah does. Both are correct. In the first reading from the book of the prophet Micah, the Messiah reunites Judaism. What had been one nation of 12 tribes was divided into two (Israel and Judah). This Messiah, from his birth, was of the house of David foreshadowing the return of the united kingdom under David, which thrived 1,000 years earlier. There would be unity and peace again.

The second reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews has a complementary take on these events. The author sees the Messiah putting an end to sacrifice and sin offerings in favor of the simple doing of God’s will. Religion changes from blindly obeying words on a page to an interpersonal relationship with God forming a dialogue based on mutual love. The bottom line for Christians is that Jesus offered himself to the Father for all of us and we follow through likewise.

There are four Masses for Christmas, including: the vigil Mass, the Mass during the night, the Mass at dawn, and the Mass during the day.  They are all most beautiful and filled with insights that stretch our imaginations and our faith. An in-depth analysis of them would expand this article to a book. Let the following précis sum them up. The task is equivalent to placing a child in the middle of a vast toy store expecting the child to choose the one present he or she wants.

The vigil Mass gives us Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth after he presented the genealogy of Jesus from Abraham. Paul also looks at Jesus’ heritage, emphasizing his descent from David. Isaiah highlights the readings with a plea for joy, “as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so shall your God rejoice in you.”

The Mass during the night begins with Isaiah once again. He announces “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light … for a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests.” Paul follows this with, “The grace of God has appeared…who gave himself for us to deliver us from lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people of his own, eager to do what is good.” Luke concludes the Liturgy of the Word with his classic rendition of the birth of Jesus complete with angels appearing to shepherds and finding Him in swaddling clothes in a manger.

The Mass at dawn begins quietly with Isaiah telling daughter Zion her savior is coming to make them a holy people, the redeemed of the Lord. Paul echoes these sentiments by explaining that God’s kindness and generous love appeared to us not because of us, but through His mercy. And so, we are justified by His grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life. The Gospel repeats the finale of Luke’s description, leaving us with the words, “Then, the shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.”

The Mass during the day presents the items we should take away with us to meditate on for the entire new year. Isaiah shouts, “Your God is King…He comforts his people, he redeems Jerusalem…all the ends of the earth will behold the salvation of our God.” The author of Hebrews keeps the word going forth, “In these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe.” And finally, we read the introduction to the Gospel of John. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came to be through him…but the world did not know him…But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God.

What happens to most of us during the days of Advent and Christmas is that we eat and drink too much. In one way it is appropriate. We are also filled with more theology than we can digest. Where does it all lead? One answer can be found in the last Sunday of December, the feast of the Holy Family. Christmas will never fade away as long as we bring the lofty thoughts of Advent and Christmas to be consumed in tiny pieces as table talk at family meals and good conversation in our living rooms. That’s where Christmas becomes real. ■

 

Father Brando is retired from the active priesthood in the Diocese of Knoxville.

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