Homily for the First Sunday of Advent

December 2, 2007

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44)

The circle comes around and once again we find ourselves entering into the time of Advent. You know, there is not just one way to celebrate this season. We might choose among several.

Surely the most popular, the one we have all known since childhood, is to see Advent as the time of looking forward to the birth of Christ at Bethlehem. It’s a preparation for Christmas. That approach has a long tradition — but it was not the way Christians celebrated for long centuries.

We have to go back to the 13th century. The church was, quite frankly, a mess. People had lost all sense of the faith. Then Francis of Assisi had a mystical experience in which the Lord said to him, “Re-build my church.” What to do?

We don’t normally think of Francis as a catechist. But it turns out that he was a catechetical genius. He realized that the ordinary people were illiterate (only the clergy could read in those days). They couldn’t get to the great cathedrals where the glorious stained=glass windows could educate them in the faith. So he discovered the way to bring the reality of Christ’s coming right into their homes. He taught people to create manger scenes, or creches, with statues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and shepherds and animals, so the story would be physically in front of them and hold their attention and wonder. It is a solid spirituality and has transformed the lives of millions of believers. We’ve all also seen those advent calendars that are so significant in many countries of the world, where each day of Advent you open one of the ‘windows’ and discover a new gift or prayer to focus on.

This is solid spirituality. As long as we don’t turn it into Hallmark sentimentality, just undemanding American feel-good stuff.

Let’s face it, stables stink.

Hay scratches your butt.

And life as undocumented migrants — which is what Mary and Joseph were — is anything but pleasant.

Another focus for our Advent prayer might be to reflect seriously, not on Christmas in general but on Christmas-as-it-has-become-in-contemporary-America, on the reality of Christmas today. Then we might conceive of Advent as the time for us to reflect deeply on the distortion of Christmas into an orgy of buying and selling. Advent would be the occasion for us to do a personal assessment on how much we have allowed ourselves to be caught up in our consumerist culture. (And in case you need an example of how bad it can be, I was reading an article in the rectory between Masses. A woman reported that she saw in a store a display with Jesus in the manger — holding gift certificates in his hand....)

How much are we unfree — caught up in the need for things, for ‘stuff?’ How strong are we at resisting the pressure of advertising, the glitter of the latest fad, the newest electronic toy or gadget that ‘you’ve just got to have?’

I think it could be a salutary exercise at the beginning of Advent to go through our homes and find all the things we bought last year that sit gathering dust, the toys in the closet or attic.

It can be a time to reflect on what we adults are modeling for our children. We love to beat on them when they play that broken record of “me! me! me!" But how much of that attitude are they learning from us?

Once we begin to take seriously our captivity to things it can lead us further, into an examination of our responsibility as followers of Jesus for our use of the goods of this earth. Jon Paul II used a phrase frequently: “the goods of all for the benefit of all.” And that means all people on this planet.

We live in a society which bombards us every day with a message that runs counter to the Gospel: “Hey, we deserve it! We’re number One! What’s so wrong with 5% of the earth’s population consuming 80% of its resources?”

They’re two good approaches to the call of Advent: looking to the birth of Christ in a new year, and allowing the Lord to challenge us and deepen our sense or responsibility for justice in our world.

But it’s interesting that the church in selecting readings for our prayer as we begin the Advent season doesn’t go that route. If you’re going to make it the tale of Jesus’ coming and birth you’d think of beginning with the story of the Annunciation, with his conception in the womb of Mary. The church doesn’t do that in its readings. Nor does it focus on the ethical challenges of a Christian life.

No, instead the readings invite us to go to a much deeper level. They invite us to go to that place in our spirit where we are stripped of everything and called to face our radical creaturehood and dependence on God. “You know not the day nor the hour.”

The readings call us to wake up, to be alert. To see past the all the illusions and darkness that keep us from confronting and acknowledging just who we are and the kind of Creator we worship. The Lord is coming with salvation and not destruction, but we are challenged to be ready.

Who are we — really?

The Psalmist give us a very sobering answer when he says we are like the grass which springs up with the morning dew and is gone by noon, turned to dust.

I read recently a quote that stays with me and just won’t let me go. It reads “Only the poor can really receive the Gospel.”

Only the poor can receive the Good News. I think it means that only someone who has nothing can really appreciate a gift. Only the one who is naked can appreciate the gift of a cloak, only the one who is famished can appreciate the gift of food; only the one whose throat is parched can really grasp what a drink of water means.

Only those who know their emptiness can be filled.

Perhaps these readings are calling us to allow the Lord to teach us our poverty, so he can offer us salvation in a way that we can experience with the fullest joy.

The reading from Isaiah opens up for us that so compelling vision of peace: the end of violence we all long so much for. Swords into plowshares; no nation will train for war again. It moves us deeply.

But we don’t know how to do that, it’s beyond us. It takes a commitment that we’re unable to make.

How many times have you or I had to stand with a sister or brother who is broken and in pain and we can only experience our inability, our poverty, our emptiness. We can’t make it whole. We don’t know how to break the cycle of violence and drugs and guns that cuts down the youth on our streets — or in our McMansions. We may be rich in things but we are poor in the skills of reconciliation and healing broken relationships.

Only the poor can really receive the Gospel. . . .

So let’s do what we have always done in Advent. Let’s put up our Advent wreaths and take our take our crib-sets out of storage. Let’s look forward with the wonder of children to the birth of the Christ-child. And let’s step back from the fuss and bustle of this crazy world and risk challenging the insidious need to have more things that can’t satisfy us and diminish others.

But then let us also stand naked and empty-handed before the Lord. Hungry and thirsty and poor, asking only to appreciate the amazing compassion of a God who only desires one thing: to give us eternal life and joy.