Jesus isn’t kidding around : “People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the
world.... That day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth.... But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.”
Good news ? Bad news ? Who knows ? In the U.S. we joke about a sticker on a car’s back bumper that reads : “Jesus is coming. Look busy !” After reading what he has to say in the gospel chosen for this first Sunday of Advent, we could think that the joke will be on us ! And yet, if we take a closer look at that gospel, we might find that we’re being invited to something beyond fear (or even “looking busy”) as we begin the short, intense journey to Christmas.
Jesus’ vision of the end times in today’s gospel is scary, no question about it. “Business as usual” won’t be an option on “that day.” Bad news !
Of course, we could put a little distance between ourselves and this prediction by recollecting that Luke was most likely reflecting on the destruction of Jerusalem - an event that happened some dozen years before he wrote his gospel. Good news !
And yet, if we’re serious, explaining away Jesus’ words is no more satisfying than being terrified by them. So how else could we look at them ?
One way would be to realize that they’re not meant to provide the screenplay of some apocalyptic movie ; rather, they’re meant to change the orientation of our lives. Such a way of understanding might lead us to see something different in those disturbing images of “powers being shaken.” Suppose something - or Someone — could shake us out of living as if we’re the ones with the power of life and death over ourselves and others. Suppose something - or Someone - could shake our unacknowledged but deep-seated belief that we’re the Creator instead of the creature. Suppose that something - or Someone - could interrupt our “drowsy” lives of self-sufficiency and lack of attention and wake us up to what is real.
Now, even if you’re not the type for “carousing and drunkenness,” you’ll have to admit that it’s all too easy to be “drowsy,” especially during Advent, the season when we’re called to be so vigilant. I don’t know about you, but for me, grading papers and giving final exams often meet up with pre-Christmas preparations to create a “perfect storm” of mindlessness. One minute, we’re singing “O Come O Come, Emmanuel,” the next we’re calling “All Ye Faithful” to come adore Him at Bethlehem. During this short, precious, little season, “drowsiness” (which often manifests as hyper-activity rather than sleep, by the way) can lead to losing the willingness to have hearts changed and shaped by Emmanuel, to falling back into old habits of thought and action. Drowsiness can lead to missing grace - something that should scare us !
So Jesus’ tough language on this first Sunday of Advent can act like an early wake up call. Skip the snooze button, get up and go ! But even as we hear the alarm, it’s important not to lose sight of what it’s waking us for, what we’re going to. The Prophet Jeremiah can help us here, as he speaks of “the days [that] are coming when [the LORD] will fulfill the promise.... when Judah shall be safe and Jerusalem shall dwell secure....” The psalmist, too, offers us a way of seeing that can encourage us to be awake and eager, when he reminds us that “all the paths of the LORD are kindness and constancy...” that “the friendship of the LORD is with those who fear him....” And Jesus himself says : “Your redemption is at hand.” In four weeks’ time, those words — that Word — will be made visible to us all on a freezing night in a drafty barn. Despite our many weaknesses and sins, we are invited to witness that mystery of grace once more with love and awe and joy. And that is truly good news.
Sr. Nuala Cotter, r.a.
Worcester - USA