The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Advent and a New Liturgical Year

Yesterday, the 1st Sunday of Advent, signifies the beginning of a new liturgical year. This year we change to Cycle B which will focus on the Gospel of Mark. The following is the homily I preached at the two vigil Masses at which I assisted...

Happy New Year! That’s right. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new year, a new liturgical year. But unlike January 1st, that other New Year’s Day, this New Year kind of creeps up on us, doesn’t it? Suddenly it’s Advent, and with Advent, everything changes.

Among the changes that come with the new liturgical year is the change to Mark’s Gospel. Last year was Matthew and next year will be Luke. But this year we’ll hear a lot from Mark.

One thing about Mark: He doesn’t waste words. He moves through the Gospel story almost breathlessly, powered by a sense of urgency, constantly reminding us of the high stakes involved. There’s little suspense in Mark’s telling of the Gospel story. He doesn’t keep us guessing, but tells us what it’s all about right from the beginning. Indeed, he opens his Gospel with the words, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

This is the beginning, Mark tells us, the beginning of the Gospel, the Good News, the news that the entire world longs to hear, the answer to humanity’s long unanswered question: Why are we here? I’ll answer that question, Mark says…I’ll tell you through the words of Jesus the Christ, the Promised One. For that’s what He is, the Christ, the one promised down through the ages, the one promised to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David…

But Jesus is more than this, Mark tells us in those opening words. He’s not only the Christ, the promised Messiah; He’s so much more. He’s the Son of God Himself. And so Mark doesn’t waste our time, but lets the cat out of the bag right from the very beginning.

Mark moves inexorably toward the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. His focus is on the Cross and the journey Jesus makes along the way. His Gospel is really the passion story with a long introduction.

But Mark also focuses on another journey: the journey of the disciple as he moves from being totally clueless, from a complete lack of understanding, to misunderstanding, to failure, betrayal, abandonment, denial, guilt, and finally to understanding, acceptance and obedience. And it’s in the midst of this journey of the disciple where we find ourselves in today’s Gospel reading from the 13th chapter of Mark.

It’s a passage that begins with a command: “Be watchful! Be alert!” and ends with the same command: “Watch!” Responding to His apostles, Jesus tells them a little about the last days, that time of fulfillment when He will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. He tells them, too, that no one – no man or woman, no angel, not even He, in His humanity, knows the day or the hour. But the actual time, he says, is unimportant. What’s important is how we prepare for it.

To make His point Jesus tells them a parable. But unlike Luke or Matthew, Mark relates the parable in a single verse: “It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.” That’s it – a one-line parable. Mark includes just enough to make his point: We are commanded to watch, to be ready…but not to wait in idleness. Each is to do his own work, the work of the disciple, the work that God asks of us.

And what is that work? Only moments before Jesus had told the disciples: “the Gospel must first be preached to all nations.” That’s our task as we wait: to proclaim the good news, God’s presence among us, and to proclaim it to everyone. And while we work, Jesus tells us, we are to watch…because we will not know when He will come again. “… whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.”

Jesus actually mentions some specifics here, doesn’t He? He uses the four night watches common in the ancient world: evening, midnight, cockcrow, and morning. It’s no coincidence that each of these times comes into play in the closing chapters of Mark’s gospel. It’s evening when the apostles celebrate the Passover with the Lord. One of them, though, isn’t watchful, but instead allows the attractions of this world to enter his heart and steer him away from Jesus. One of them leaves early that evening, rejecting the gift that Jesus gives His Church at that first celebration of the Eucharist. He leaves to commit an act of betrayal that will lead Jesus to the Cross.

Later, in the garden, as Jesus prays deep into the night, He invites His remaining disciples to watch and pray with Him. But they, too, succumb to weakness and are unable to watch. Each time He returns from prayer Jesus finds them asleep.

And during that same night – it must have been near midnight – Judas returns at the head of a mob and completes his betrayal. Once again the disciples are unprepared. In fear and confusion, they all forsake Him and run away.

And then there was the cockcrow…the cockcrow that shattered the pre-dawn silence and sounded Peter's guilt. Peter, the leader, the one chosen by Jesus to be the rock on which He would build His Church, the one so full of empty promises and bluster…Yes, Peter the rock is, at this point, still Peter the weakling. For Peter could watch only from the shadows, and overcome by fear, would repeatedly deny His Lord.

And finally, the morning, very early on that first Easter morning, the Risen Lord appears to the disciples and is greeted with disbelief…for they are still caught off guard; they are still unprepared to accept fully the gift of faith and its challenges. Yes, at first the disciples failed miserably at their halfhearted attempts to keep watch. But are you and I really any different?

While we’re having the time of our lives, the actual time of our lives is slipping away, bringing us ever closer to that moment when we will stand face to face before our God.

You see, time is God’s domain, His gift. None of us can predict what tomorrow will bring, not even the next hour nor the next minute. Time is God’s possession alone. In time, God encounters us and we encounter God.

Time holds the very presence of God. We need only open our eyes — our inner eyes — to find Him. God is always present, and there’s never a time when we are without Him. This is Advent, brothers and sisters, a time of finding, a time when we celebrate God’s coming among us. We relive His first coming, His Incarnation as one of us, a coming that leads ultimately to the Resurrection, an event that profoundly changed both time and history…an event that erased the line separating earthly time and eternal time.

Because of Jesus’ coming and living among us, we who exist in time also exist in eternity. And so time doesn’t just pass away; no, our time is the stuff of which our eternity is made, transforming us until we enter into the fullness of God’s presence.

Advent is meant to awaken us again to this truth. In the midst of our busy lives, Advent calls us to slow down, to recognize God’s presence, His continuous comings among us. Jesus’ words are so needed today: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.”

Yes, rushing from one thing to another, when and where do we find the time to welcome the Lord into our lives? This is to what Advent calls us to do — to watch, to be alert, to wait with God, growing into His habitual presence. It calls us to recognize God’s presence in all that we do.

Advent calls us to use God’s gift of time wisely, to simply be: to be with God — to sit with God and to look at our lives through His eyes. When we allow God to be who He is within us…we can learn to know Him, not just know about Him.

Learn from the experience of Mary who each day pondered who Jesus was, what he was about. This Advent may we consciously choose to live as if God’s presence invades each of us, invades all men and women, invades all human experience, invades every part of God’s creation. When we jump out of bed in the morning (or perhaps crawl or groan out of bed) may we drink in God as we drink that first cup of coffee.

May we bring God with us into all we do that day.

May we truly live in God’s time, ever alert, ever watchful for His saving presence.

Come Lord Jesus!

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