First Sunday of Advent
It is strange to begin the new church year with images of sudden change and dramatic reversals. As Jesus participated in a disruptive march into Jerusalem with crowds waving palms and the ritual cleansing of the temple, he was warning that even things that seem permanent can disappear in an instance. Nothing withstands the ravages of time or upheavals in history - not power structures, environments, roles, grand structures and not even God’s temple. Change can appear like a disaster but can reveal how God draws near to us.
We need to be alert for the one who comes and loves us. Instead of fearing change in the season of watchful waiting, we can embody the faithful mindset of encountering dramatic change, even if, at first glance, it feels like our world is ending. Advent upends any notion of a distant God and reduces the distance between God and creation. It is a sign of hope for communities longing and waiting for transformation. Luke proposes that with the coming of the ‘Son of Man’ redemption is near because God in Christ has released creation from its traps and chains. We are reminded that the Incarnation continues. Father Karl Rahner spoke of ‘God’s becoming material’ as an ongoing cosmic event. It is not and was not a once-off event limited to one place and one time.
Today’s gospel could be any news item on any given day with people being hurt – as well as destruction of the earth. In New South Wales, Forbes has now been declared a natural disaster area as floods wreak havoc, and elsewhere dangerous winds tear down both natural and built environments. The readings do not allow us to ignore the violence that millions of people suffer around the world as victims of war or poverty. Amid this reality of violence, Pope Francis says that the greatest challenge is the ‘globalisation of indifference’ (Laudato si’ #52) where world events can be blocked out and responsibility for members of the human family ignored. Today, we see the staggering numbers and endless lines of people seeking security and a better life at the Belarussian and Polish borders, France and the UK. Traumatised people are threatened and deemed a threat as they face further violence from water cannons, gas and guns. Today’s gospel parallels Pope Francis’ warnings as to what is happening to Our Common Home. We cannot be passive as we wait for the God who does not abandon creation, but lives with us. Francis says, ‘Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems. Still, we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point….’ (Laudato si’ #61)
The gospel is a call to action. The language of earthquakes and shaking of the heavens suggest that an earthquake of new attitudes and the shaking of the heavens will bring forth a new creation. It is a call to mercy called a ‘revolution of tenderness’ by Pope Francis where we open the doors of our hearts and homes and countries to people who have been rendered invisible and voiceless. It is not something soft because we are called to seek alternatives to revenge and violence and war in dealing with conflict. So, Advent calls us to be open to new life and that comes through mercy.
There are voices struggling to emerge that call us to think about what we are doing to others and Mother Earth. They are encouraging us to be grounded in what is generous, accepting, welcoming, peaceful and inclusive. The psalmist today desires to know God's ways where justice, kindness and constancy characterise the paths for those who walk in God's way. Pope Francis connects the globalisation of indifference to the lack of consciousness as he addresses the violent reality that is marked by despair and fear. ‘We need to strengthen our consciousness that we are one family. There are no borders nor political or social barriers that permit us to be isolated and it is because of this there is no place for the globalisation of indifference.’ (Laudato Si’, 52). Our hope is based on God in us and with us and joining with like-hearted others. This emerges from listening to Jesus’ voice try to be the heart of God on earth and participate in transforming our world. Paul focuses on this love as the core element needed within the Christian community and the world for the sake of the common good. Jeremiah hints at God’s promise of the ‘virtuous branch for David’ - an organic metaphor to remind us of our interconnectedness as God’s people and creation across the ages.
God inspires us to be present by shining a light on the dark crevasses in our world. Though referring to tribulation and trial which are a part of our lives in some way, the passage holds these images as new paths, new ways, that lead toward the renewal of God’s community on earth as we communally build a new relationship with God. In the midst of our lives where worries threaten to overwhelm, we can cling to the certainty that Jesus 'goes, too' as he already has. This might be all that allows us to stay alert and strong in the face of whatever is still to come. God gives us insight that leads us, energises us, empowers us, and helps us understand our responsibilities to one another, to the world, and to creation.
The challenge is to remain alert and give attention to what it means that God is at work in the world, even in the most despairing of events. And God is at work in us. The uncertainty in the gospel is never a call to passivity. Jesus gives us something to do. We are told to go forward in hope. God is present and free to do new things and invites us to create the future together. It will not happen by staying behind to walls and closed doors or defending the past or its or institutions when they no longer serve. Pope Francis, in this spirit, is opening doors and calling us to do the same. He has done this with people who poor, people in prison, asylum seekers, people who are sick, people who are transgender or gay, people who are Jewish or Muslim. In the face of judgment, conflict, closed hearts, and exclusiveness that often characterises both the Church and much of society, Pope Francis proclaims the old but refreshing language of journeying together as one people, of mercy, of forgiveness, and of encounter.
Advent invokes the nearness of God’s presence, healing and reign within our contexts. ‘God made flesh’ has come and dwells with us. This means that reconciliation and reparation or healing of relationships which become key in striving for justice—whether in Palestine, climate talks, or anywhere else. The nearness of God inspires communities to work for justice. The One who comes walks with us and participates in the struggles of all creation that is striving for liberation.
Jeremiah points to the ‘One’ who will initiate a new way of relationship to others and mother earth. It has less to do with getting and spending, and more with loving, serving and caring. Paul said that ‘in Christ there is no division’ among people - based on race, gender, sexual orientation and class, but equality and loving acceptance beyond our human understanding and average human experience. When these are evident, God’s reign is certainly near. Let’s remember that God’s nearness inspires communities to work for justice, because ‘the Son of Man’ joins us in the struggles of creation. It can inspire us to share our possessions with the poor; to be generous to those people nobody cares about, to encourage us to not leave the transformation of the world to God or others but build that new earth by working together.
So may our attention and energies shift from some future fulfillment to present service and commitment? May we not look at the skies but rethink the word of God that has been spoken and continues to speak to the ever-changing circumstances of our lives. As we are grounded through prayer in that word – may it turn us from fear to hope.