29 November 2015
Jeremiah 33:14 – 16
1 Thessalonians 3:12 – 4:2
Luke 21:25 – 28, 34 – 36
Some years ago I visited my niece who was pregnant at the time and expecting her first baby. When I asked her how she felt she said that she had two conflicting feelings. One was a great hope that all would go well so that she would have a healthy baby, the other a certain fear that something might go wrong.
Today we meet these two poles of hope and fear in the readings of this First Sunday of Advent. The first reading recounts the very tense and terrifying situation of the exile. Jeremiah tells the people: keep dreaming of a better future, we will be saved, God will not abandon us. Jeremiah refers prophetically to the coming of Jesus, our Lord and Saviour. In the second reading in similar insecure situations Paul encourages the people of Thessalonika, where a small minority of Christians live in uncertainty and tension as they were expecting the Lord to return. ‘Do not fear, the Lord will make you strong and increase your love for each other.’ Their task was to live in such a way that God would be pleased until Jesus returned. Just as it is for us. But since the actual time of the Lord’s coming was unknown Paul advises them not to lose focus but to stay alert less they get sidetracked. So the emphasis here is Hope.
The images from the gospel of Luke are strong stuff. This might be seen as the other pole of today’s readings, Fear. The end time is announced with violence. Yet today’s description in the gospel could be true of many places today which are experiencing all sorts of calamities: the violence in Syria, Iraq, Paris, landslides in Mexico, Myanmar… The gospel seems to say that it will be a very difficult and fearful situation. People will be struck with terror. These kinds of images and text have often been used in the past to put fear into people’s hearts. If we weren’t living a good life when the end time appears, Jesus coming on the clouds would judge and condemn sinners. Maybe at best one landed in purgatory thus escaping eternal punishment. This made many people experience their faith as oppressive and frightening rather than liberating. This is, of course, a very wrong misunderstanding of the reading of Luke and this ‘end time’ kind of literature.
The impression given could be that of a vengeful, condemning God yet if we read the gospels Jesus spent his time encouraging people, giving them hope not trying to cause fear in their hearts. Why would today’s message by Jesus in the gospel be any different?
Jesus is saying that I need – right now – to be awake and alert to what I can become, what I can make of my life. Each of us is on a journey, a pilgrimage through life. So what is more important than knowing where I am going and where my destination is.
My niece took great care to eat the right kind of food during her pregnancy, to avoid all drink and smoking, to get enough rest etc. She was very alert to what was the best preparation. Likewise what we want to be in life will influence what we do and will guide our choices. If I want to be an engineer, a teacher, a nurse, an architect, then I will have to take certain steps and make certain decisions. If on the other hand I want to be a monk or a hermit, I will have to make quite different decisions and choices.
Thus instead of trying to cause fear in our hearts, Jesus in the gospel is encouraging us. He is saying that you are called to greatness. Jesus calls us to be vigilant so we may reach the freedom, peace and joy now, not just when we die. In saying ‘watch yourselves or your hearts will be coarsened by debauchery, drunkenness and the cares of life’ he is inviting us to avoid all that could destroy what is best in us and that we would fail to develop our potential as humans, as Christians. So if through our way of living we get AIDS or become alcoholics, drug addicts or our health is destroyed by workaholism etc we will ourselves have chosen a living hell right now and Jesus loves us too much to see us descend to these depths. He says in the gospel, if you take my advice and allow me to guide you in trying to be alert to what I say, you will have true peace and joy, and will experience more and more the liberation I came to offer. Then you will be free to help others, to live in right relationships with others, to make a positive contribution to making this world a better place.
Today is the First Sunday of Advent when we try to prepare again for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. The danger would be to get sidelined into material preparations for the feast instead of preparing also spiritually.
Today’s readings are not to cause fear in our hearts, but to allow hope to take over more and more in the place of fear. Jesus is encouraging us to do this by staying alert and avoid foolish, non life-giving behaviour.
‘Lord Jesus, open our eyes and hearts to prepare in a special way for your coming more and more into our hearts this Christmas and indeed always. Amen.’
Fr. Jim Kirstein, SMA