Homily for the First Sunday of Advent

27 – 28 November 2021

Brothers and sisters, we should wish each other a happy new year as we start the new liturgical year on this first Sunday of Advent. Indeed, when we begin a new year, we reflect and consider how we are needing to reorient our- selves, return, convert, and come back to the Lord in different ways. Every Advent, the Liturgy of the Word gives our sense of time a reorientation as well. There’s a deliberate tension in the next four weeks’ readings between looking forward and looking back, promise and fulfilment, expectation and deliverance. Looking back, we think about the Incarnation of Christ at Bethlehem as an historical and eternal event 2000 years ago. Looking forward we consider the coming of Christ at the end of time.

St Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the great teachers preachers of the church’s history, however, wrote not about two comings of Christ, but about three: three Advents of Christ. In the first coming, Christ, he says, was seen on Earth. This is the moment of Jesus’s earthly life, his 33 years of dwelling amongst us walking with us, a man like us all things but sin. This coming was towards all of humanity, indiscriminately an eternal gift of God himself to all people. In the final coming, all flesh will see the salvation of God. At the end of time, all things will be reconciled in Christ; all flesh will see the salvation of God and they will look upon Him whom they have pierced. St Bernard says that this is a coming against humanity. Not that God is against his own creation, but “against” in the sense of a measuring up, or a time of judgment. The intermediate coming, the Third Coming of Christ, is a hidden one. In it, only the elect see the Lord within their own selves and are saved. This is a coming into humanity; into those who choose, through their free will, to open their hearts to Him. Let us look at these three comings individually and the tasks that they present to us as disciples of Christ.

This first coming: When we look back to this coming of Christ as a tiny baby, what we see in the Scriptures for the most part is the people of Israel looking forward to it! In today’s first reading, the prophet Jeremiah focuses our gaze on the promise God made to David some 1000 years before Christ. God is saying through the prophet that He will fulfil this promise by raising a “just shoot”, a righteous offspring of David, who will rule Israel in justice. In today’s Psalm, as well, sounds the theme of Israel’s ancient expectation. “Guide me in your truth and teach me for you are God my Saviour and for you I will wait all day.” When we think about this coming of Christ, we know that God has already made good on these promises to Israel by sending His Son into the world: Jesus, that just shoot, the God and Saviour for whom Israel was waiting.

We are presented, perhaps, with two tasks. Firstly, we are called to celebrate this mystery of the Incarnation with tre- mendous joy and solemnity. We do not need much encouragement to do this, as, over the next four weeks, it’s not just the Church telling us to celebrate, but rather the whole world! But we certainly must celebrate this with joy, with togetherness, forgiveness and reconciliation. The second task, however, is to imitate Israel’s desire and anticipation. This great desire and hunger for Christ in the people of Israel is something that we’re really called to imitate. Do I hunger for Christ? Do I long to receive him? Do I long to spend eternity with Him in Heaven? Do I long to see him glorified in my life and in the world around me?

The final coming: When we think about the final coming of Christ, we see Jesus’s description of this and his warn- ings. The Kingdom of God is near at hand, and will come like a thief in the night. It is reminder of our own mortality, and a call to be prepared for the reality of our own death. Knowing that He is a God who keeps His promises lends grave urgency to the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel. Urging us to keep watch for His return in glory, He draws on Old Testament images of chaos and instability—turmoil in the heavens (see Isaiah 13:11, 13; Ezekiel 32:7–8; Joel 2:10); roaring seas (see Isaiah 5:30; 17:12); distress among the nations (see Isaiah 8:22; 14:25) and terrified people (see Isaiah 13:6–11). He evokes the prophet Daniel’s image of the Son of Man coming on a cloud of glory to describe His return as a “theophany,” a manifestation of God (see Daniel 7:13–14).

Which generation can say that they don’t experience such chaos in the world around them? Surely, we, particularly at this moment, are also experiencing chaos in the world. Disease, turmoil uncertainty, fear. We are once again faced with new developments in the current pandemic that we’re facing. The Lord’s message is not to say these things won’t happen nor touch the lives of Christians and disciples, or not even that they won’t harm us. But Jesus does say that we should greet the end-times with heads raised high, confident that God keeps His promises, that our “redemption is at hand,” that “the kingdom of God is near” (see Luke 21:31).

So the task that we are presented by this coming of Christ is also twofold. Firstly, we need to stand reminded and warned that our earthly life is temporary and passing away. There’s nothing that we can do about that. This calls us to repentance, conversion and readiness. However, the second part of the task is to have hope. Not a superficial optimism or positivity, but a hope that is grounded in eternal life, the reality of our redemption, the reality of eternal life, and that call to faith and discipleship in which we have this eternal promise.

The middle coming: This then brings us to this middle coming, the one where we are found most of the time. We are called to remember that when we bring out the nativity set at Christmas, or when we are reminded of our mor- tality in moments of crisis, disease and suffering, for the most part, Christ comes daily as an abiding presence and an indwelling in His Body, the Church. He comes to us who have been baptized and remain faithful, who welcome him into our lives on a daily basis. He comes to us in the sacraments, from the moment of our baptism; he comes to us in the Sacrament of Confession; he comes to us in prayer, and in the Word of God. He comes to us where two or three are gathered in His name. He comes to us most beautifully and most intimately in the Holy Eucharist, where he gives his very self to us, to nourish us and give us strength. St Teresa of Avila reminds us “when you have received Holy Communion, close your bodily eyes so that you may open the eyes of your soul. The look upon Jesus in the centre of your heart”.

The important other side of this reality is that he comes to the world in us. We, members of His Body, are also the ones who are called to bring him to the world. In us, his advent is manifest when we, as Christians, imitate him, obey his commandments, bring the love that we are called to show to one another in our works of charity, when we love our enemies, forgiving those who need our forgiveness, and reach out in acts of reconciliation. We manifest Christ’s advent when we act with the gentleness, love and the joy that Christ shows in the Gospels. Christ comes into the hearts of those who choose to open them to him, that we may indeed, bring him to others, that we may bring his light into a chaotic world.

So, the task that we are given in this Advent is to open in our hearts to the Word of God and the love and grace that he pours into our hearts, in the sacraments, prayer, and the scriptures. And, secondly, to be conscious and active in the way that we bring Christ to others: in our works of charity, care for the poor, in our love of our enemies as He has loved us. Christ does not promise us life free from suffering or disease, but he does say that he walks with us in these places. Likewise, we are called to walk with others in their sufferings and in their diseases, in their persecutions, in their difficulties, bringing him who comes to us and dwells in us.

So, this Advent, let us rise to these three tasks. Firstly, to celebrate with great joy, that Jesus has come amongst us, and to imitate Israel in the desire and longing for Christ that they have. Secondly, to be warned and reminded of the passing nature of our own earthly lives, yet also to live in hope that our redemption is near at hand. And thirdly, to recognize Christ’s presence abiding presence in our daily life, coming to us in word, sacrament, prayer, and call to conversion. And how, in these ways that the Lord comes to each of us and dwells with one of us we are called to take Christ whom we have received to all people that in us, Christ’s Advent may indeed be manifest