FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT [YEAR A]
USCCB Link to all three readings
Jesus said to his disciples:
“As it was in the days of Noah,
so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
In those days before the flood,
they were eating and drinking,
marrying and giving in marriage,
up to the day that Noah entered the ark.
They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.
So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man.
Two men will be out in the field;
one will be taken, and one will be left.
Two women will be grinding at the mill;
one will be taken, and one will be left.
Therefore, stay awake!
For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
Be sure of this: if the master of the house
had known the hour of night when the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and not let his house be broken into.
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”
Along with turkey leftovers and college football rivalries, Thanksgiving weekend nearly always coincides with the Advent Season and the new Church year. [The only exception, I believe, is a year when Christmas falls on a Monday. There ought to be an app for that.] For catechists and parish planners Advent consumes a lot of time and ink. Last weekend in my home parish the pre-Advent advertising sucked the blood out of the observance of the solemnity of Christ the King. Between an irrelevant and interminable sermon, a film about an Advent parish project, and the sale of Advent wreaths, Christ the King made little more than a cameo appearance. Catechists, celebrants, liturgists everywhere, please take note for next year.
In his The Liturgical Year (1981) Adolf Adam quotes note 39 of the 1969 General Norms for the Liturgical Year’s definition of Advent: “Advent has a twofold character: as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ's first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ's Second Coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation.” (p. 132) There is a unity here in that the seasonal focus is upon the coming of Christ. There is complexity in that the Advent season attempts to celebrate two distinct comings—a historical arrival in past tense human time, and a glorious second coming transcending time and place.
Doctrinally speaking, there is no seam in Advent observance as the Jesus born of Mary in Bethlehem is one and the same with the glorious king who will come at the end of time. The challenge of Advent is more of a sacramental nature, i.e., how does the human Church converse over and ritualize the humility of one and the glory of the other? Or, how does one avoid overemphasis of the known (Christ’s human birth) at the expense of the unknown (the Second Coming)? What complicates matters further is that much of American public culture reinforces the “countdown to Christmas” mentality. There is one more complication: the Roman directive describes Advent observance as devout and joyful expectation. In other words, Advent is not a “minor Lent” though the vestment color of purple and the absence of the Gloria are Lenten trademarks. [In the 1980’s there was considerable experimentation with blue—I purchased several sets of blue vestments from Episcopal dealers and was never admonished in any way by my diocese.]
There is no perfect way to square the circle, so the Missal as we have it today begins the Advent season with observance of Christ’s second coming, a theme that will continue until December 16 and the Fourth Sunday, when exclusive focus turns to the specific events leading to Jesus’ birth in time. Thus the new year begins with the last days, and we meet the evangelist Matthew not in his first chapter but in his 24th chapter, his own apocalyptic description of the future.
Our in-house commentator for this year, R.T. France, observes that our text at hand is just one part of Matthew’s grand treatment of the end of time. In this paragraph the primary theme is surprise: the coming of the end days will catch everyone off guard. In an earlier sentence, Matthew describes the coming like lightning in the east that extends to the west, an unusual occurrence in nature that would gather everyone’s attention. In our Sunday text Matthew takes the nature theme to a more catastrophic level, a flood that washed away all the citizens. Jesus is not predicting a flood per se; he is calling attention to the fact that people ate, drank, married, and carried on business as usual till the ark door slammed shut with Noah and his entourage on the inside.
France continues his commentary on the text with the unsettling image of farmers being plucked away while others remain behind. Aside from the suddenness of it all, what are we to make of those who are “taken?” Taken where? France, who writes from an Evangelical background, is aware of the popular notion of “the Rapture,” a concept drawn from this text which France dates to the nineteenth century. He provides two interesting alternatives. The first possibility is that Matthew, who like Luke wrote his Gospel after the fall of Jerusalem, may be drawing from memory of the suddenness of military invasion when certain victims of invasion were carried off for a variety of unfortunate purposes; one might call this a “suddenness of horror” metaphor.
The better interpretation has the advantage of stronger internal Gospel support, specifically, that at the end time there will be a “sorting.” This is borne out in subsequent text beyond our Sunday reading, the famous judgment scene in Matthew 25 where the great king rewards those who fed the hungry and damns those who did not. This interpretation explains the balance of Sunday’s reading where the reader is advised to “be prepared.” Were we to continue reading Matthew’s text through Chapter 25, the daily preparation plan is spelled out in unquestionable detail: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, care for “the least of the brethren.” Matthew notes parenthetically that we may very well be sleeping through the night at the Lord’s coming, but it will be our waking hours that determine our destiny.
Advent is more muscular than we think.