1stSunday of Advent 2018 Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘There will be signs in the sun and moon and stars; on earth nations in agony, bewildered by the clamour of the ocean and its waves; men dying of fear as they await what menaces the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand.
‘Watch yourselves, or your hearts will be coarsened with debauchery and drunkenness and the cares of life, and that day will be sprung on you suddenly, like a trap. For it will come down on every living man on the face of the earth. Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen, and to stand with confidence before the Son of Man.’
Today, the first Sunday of Advent, we start a new year in the church’s cycle as we begin our preparation for the celebration of the feast of Christmas. The middle weeks of Advent present us with the figure of John the Baptist, who is seen as the precursor of the promised Messiah, whilst in the last week of Advent we recall the events which led up to the birth of the Saviour in Bethlehem.
But today, on this first Sunday of Advent, we have something different: it seems to be a prophecy of the events leading up to the end of time and the last judgement. Indeed we had a similar reading two weeks ago as we completed our cycle of readings from Mark’s gospel. But there is something different in the reading today, taken from Luke. As always there is the question as to whether these verses refer to the end of time, or are they related to real events, such as those, which surrounded the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70? Many consider that Luke’s gospel was written about the year 85, so it is at least possible that the writer is including memories of actual events.
But there is something different in the gospel reading today – it is not all fear and despair. Certainly there are elements of fear – men dying as they await what menaces the world – but there is something positive as well –
“Hold your heads high because your liberation is close at hand”
and “stay awake praying at all times for the strength to survive”
and “stand with confidence before the Son of Man”.
These are more than warnings of dangers to come. I am reminded of the lines from Eliot’s The Waste Land: “April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land”. We are now in “dead” earth, in the “dead” season of winter, as the flowers and trees, which brought so much colour and shade in the summer and autumn, have now all gone. But even now, if you look carefully in the garden, you may see the first signs of new life – the seemingly “dead” earth producing something new, such as the first buds of the crocuses. Indeed the gospel today reflects something of this: it is possible to look back negatively on the past year, for example on our political problems, or perhaps on more personal problems in our own lives, and feel a sense of despair. Will these problems ever be solved? But as we look further back across the centuries we can think of far greater past problems – the Vandals at the gates of Rome, the loss of so much during the Crusades, the sufferings in our own land at the time of the Reformation of Catholics, Protestants and others, and in more recent times, Communist persecution and world wars.
Yet somehow the Church survives, so that today, we should still hold our heads high and stand with confidence – we will survive. So you might then take today’s gospel as a programme – a promise for the future. There will certainly be times when we might be worried, confused or upset by specific events, but these do not reflect the totality of the Church –– the vast majority go forward with faith and joy. And while our beliefs and thoughts are not always shared by all, we should go forward – as the gospel puts it – “standing with confidence”. I think today for instance of the teachers who, day by day, work so hard in our schools; of the doctors and nurses who use their faith to inspire them as they care for the sick; and of the many of you caring for your children, for your families, or helping those who are older and who need special help.
It is so easy to be negative, but there is space to give thanks for all that is good, and to look forward with confidence – holding our heads high – for the year to come.
I love the words from St Augustine, which were in the Office of Readings for the last Saturday of the year (*see below). He says: “sing as travellers along the road, press on and keep on walking; go forward in virtue, in true faith and right conduct”. Sing up – and keep on walking!
*Office of Readings for Saturday of week 34 in Ordinary Time. From a sermon by Saint Augustine.
Let us sing alleluiahere on earth, while we are still anxious and worrying, so that we may one day be able to sing it there in heaven, without any worry or care. Why anxious and worrying here? You must want me to be anxious, Lord, when I read, Is not man’s life on earth a trial and a temptation?You must want me to worry when temptation is so plentiful that the Prayer itself tells us to worry, when we say, Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.Every day we are petitioners, every day we are trespassers. Do you want me to throw care to the winds, Lord, when every day I am requesting pardon for sins and assistance against dangers? After all, when I have said, because of past sins, Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us,I must immediately go on to add, because of future dangers, Lead us not into temptation.And how can a people be in a good way, when they cry out with me, Deliver us from evil?And yet, my brethren, in this time that is still evil, let us sing alleluiato the good God, who does deliver us from evil.
Even here, among the dangers, among the trials and temptations of this life, both by others and by ourselves let alleluiabe sung. God is faithful,he says, and he will not permit you to be tempted beyond what you are able to endure.So even here let us sing alleluia.Man is still a defendant on trial, but God is faithful. He did not say “he will not permit you to be tempted” but he will not permit you to be tempted beyond what you are able to endure; and with the temptation he will also make a way out, so that you may be able to endure it.You have entered into temptation; but God will also make a way out so that you do not perish in the temptation; so that like a potter’s jar you may be shaped by the preaching and fired into strength by the tribulation. But when you enter the temptation, bear in mind the way out: because God is faithful, God will watch over you and guard your going in and your coming out.
Furthermore, when this body has become immortal and imperishable, when all temptation has been done away with; because the body is dead – why is it dead? – Because of sin. But the spirit is life, because of justice.So do we leave the body dead, then? No, but listen: But if the Spirit of him who raised Christ from the dead dwells within you, then he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies.So you see: now the body receives its life from the soul, but then it will receive it from the Spirit.
O! what a happy alleluiathere, how carefree, how safe from all opposition, where nobody will be an enemy, where no-one will ever cease to be a friend! God’s praises sung there, sung here – here, by the anxious; there, by the carefree – here, by those who will die; there, by those who will live for ever – here, in hope; there, in reality – here, on our journey; there, in our homeland.
So now, my brethren, let us sing, not to delight our leisure, but to ease our toil. In the way that travellers are in the habit of singing, sing, but keep on walking. What does it mean, “keep on walking”? Go onward always – but go onward in goodness, for there are, according to the Apostle, some people who go ever onward from bad to worse. If you are going onward, you are walking; but always go onward in goodness, onward in the right faith, onward in good habits and behaviour. Sing, and walk onwards.