Commentaries to the FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT – YEAR “B”
WAITING FOR HIS COMING
“Aman of noble birth went to a distant country to assume regal authority, after which he planned to return home. He summoned ten of his servants and gave them ten pounds of silver. He said, ‘Put this money to work until I get back’” (Lk 19:12-13).
From this parable and from the limited translation of some words of the Lord, as, for example, “I will not leave you orphans, I am coming to you” (Jn 14:18), the idea arose that, on the day of the Ascension, Jesus would leave his disciples to return, in the splendor of His glory, at the end of time. The expression “return of the Lord,” although commonly used, could be misunderstood. The liturgical texts avoid it because Jesus has not left us; he did not go away, our life is not lived in his absence.
The Greeks imagined Zeus imperturbable on Mount Olympus, blessed beyond human misery. He was, according to the oracle of Pausanias, “the one who was, is and will be.” The Christian God is different, “the onewho is, who was and who is to come” (Rev 1:8); not “the Lord who returns,” but one who never ceases tocome. Upon entering, the Lord commits himself to
in the history of the world and renews, together with man,the whole of creation: he cures the sick, heals the wounds caused by sin, stems the hatred, preaches love andguides the world “into the way of peace” (Lk 1:79).
The early Christians implored: “Maranatha: Come, O Lord!” (1 Cor 16:22). “Come, Lord Jesus” is the invocation which concludes the book of Revelation (Rev 22:20).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Come, Lord Jesus! Come and, with us, renew the world.”
First Reading: Isaiah 63:16-17,19; 64:1-7
The people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. A few years passed after the destruction of Jerusalem andthose deported kept alive the memory of the humiliation they still had engraved in the eyes of their minds thegruesome scenes of that terrible day in July of 587 BCE. The soldiers of Nebuchadnezzar demolishing the walls, the king’s palaces all in flames, the terrified women fleeing with children in their arms, and the Edomites, shouting: “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!” (Ps 137:7).
While the deportees were looking for the reason of such a horrible disaster, their poet wrote the touchingprayer from which today’s reading is taken. It is one of the most beautiful prayers of the whole Bible.
The passage opens with a heartfelt cry to God: “For you are our father… from the beginning you are our Redeemer” (v. 16).
Unlike the other nations, which normally attributed to their gods the name of “father,” the Jews werereluctant to give this title to their God. They did not call him father, first of all, because they refused to equatehim with the pagan gods that—it was said—generated sons and daughters and often married the women of the earth (Gen 6:2); Jews had a father, Abraham.
In Babylon, however, they realized that neither Abraham, nor Isaac, nor Jacob could help them. The patriarchs had every reason to be ashamed of their degenerate children, “Abraham does not know us nor has Israel any knowledge of us” (Is 63:16).
It is in this historical context that, for the first time in the Bible, God is invoked as a father, a name which will be constantly used by Jesus to refer to God. In the Gospels, it recurs 184 times in his mouth.
Even the term ‘redeemer’ is very significant. It referred to the nearest relative, the one who bore the responsibility to redeem a family member who had lost his freedom, was a prisoner, or because of debt
s, had become a slave to his creditor. This overriding duty was fulfilled in two ways: by collecting the amount requiredfor the redemption or handing oneself over in place of a relative.
After the destruction of Jerusalem, the situation was catastrophic for Israel. She could not count on any redeemer because all of them were slaves. All that remained was to turn to God, beg him to take on the task of
After this initial invocation, the prayer turns into a lament: “Why have you made us stray from your ways? Why have you let our hearts become so hard?” (v. 17).
The question is dramatic; it is an expression of the distressing enigma that men and women of all time find themselves asking:
. Why does God, almighty, not prevent evil? Why does he not preserve us from the failures and the choices of death? Why does he allow our vices and passions to drive us awayfrom his love?
These are questions that no one has ever been able to give a satisfactory answer! Only during prayer can one see the light.
In order to strengthen their faith, to find reasons for hope, the author of this wonderful passage looks backto the past (64:1-3). He remembers that God always intervenes to illuminate the dark nights of his people. He has in mind especially the night of liberation from Egypt and concludes: “No one has ever heard or perceived, no eye has ever seen a God besides you who works for those who trust in him” (64:3).
Gathered in prayer, the deportees re-read their story and become aware of their mistakes: “You are angry with our sins…. We have all withered like leaves, blown away by our iniquities” (vv. 4-6).
This realization, which should bring them discouragement, instead makes them confidently exclaim: “And yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay and you are our potter; we are the work of your hand” (v. 7).Inner peace, hope, an optimistic look to the future are graces always obtained through sincer
e prayer. A person cannot but feel safe when he is aware of being in the arms of a father who takes care of him.
Read in the light of the whole biblical revelation, the story of the exiles is an image of the mishaps thatinevitably befall those who choose paths that lead them away from God. Disappointment, loneliness, shame, and misery are the bitter consequences of sin.
Why God does not intervene to prevent us from sinning remains a question that we also ask.
Since he created man free, God appears no longer omnipotent. Even the rabbis had understood and spoken of the tzimtzum of God (the consequence of God granting free will to people, is a contract whereby He limits himself from acting against a person’s free choices). In some way—they believed—he haslimited his own power and is exposed to the risk of receiving a humiliating “no” from his creatures.
But love “is as strong as death … it burns like a blazing fire” (Song 8:6); it never resigns to defeat. God, who takes into account our waste of his gifts, is forced by his love to continue to look for us. He cannot impose himself; he cannot overpower our freedom, but his passion is so overwhelming that—according to Saint Edith Stein—it is “infinitely improbable” that, even in one case, he will remain forever defeated.
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
The first letter to the Corinthians begins with these verses. It was written by Paul to a community that had enthusiastically welcomed the Gospel, but then gave in to the lure of paganism; it had fallen back into the old vices. The Apostle was aware of these moral miseries and, later in the letter, he condemns them severely. However, at the beginning, he employs a gentle and polite approach with which he highlights the wonders wrought by the grace of God; he recognizes that the Corinthians have been enriched with all spiritual gifts, including of word and knowledge (v. 5).
It is surprising that there is no reference to virtue and the most important qualities: faith, hope and love thatshone in the letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thes 1:3) or to the generous dedication to the cause of the Gospelin which the Philippians excelled (Phil 1:5). Subtly, Paul gives a hint to the Corinthians that, in their communities, not everything is perfect and the grace of Christ would greater fruit if there was a better response. Their falling back into the ways of this world has made them forget they are waiting for the Lord who comes.
In the second part of the passage (vv. 6-9), the Apostle recalls this truth: “Await the glorious coming of the Lord.” He is aware of his Christians’ spiritual fragility but is also convinced that, despite their weaknesses, God will bring to completion the work begun. His loyalty is not affected by their human response. If he called the Corinthians to salvation, he will continue to accompany their spiritual growth until he has brought them into theglorious fellowship with Christ.
This statement is not an expression of naive and superficial optimism, but an invitation to cultivateChristian hope based on the gratuitousness of God’s love.
Gospel: Mark 13:33-37
The recommendation to be alert is so important that Jesus repeats it with a parable: “When a man goes abroad and leaves his home, he puts his servants in charge, giving to each one some responsibility and he orders the doorkeeper to stay awake” (v. 34).
The bond of the parable with “So stay awake, for you don’t know when the Lord of the house will come” (v. 35) is not immediately apparent. The invitation to stay awake was first addressed only to the porter (v. 34),then it is extended to all (v. 35). It is a small discrepancy probably due to the fact that Jesus had addressed the parable to his disciples, to remind them of the duty to preserve and make fruitful the treasures left by him, before returning to the Father. It is the evangelist who sees fit to extend it to all the members of hiscommunities, to remind them to be vigilant, in waiting for the coming of the Lord.
What does it mean to ‘be alert’? Why such insistence on the night? Why does the master, instead of coming during the day, arrive
s suddenly when nobody expects him? Who is the doorkeeper? Who is themaster? Where did he go? What powers has he left to his servants?
Before answering these questions, which will introduce us to the message of the parable, it is important to plumb the meaning of v. 35: “So stay awake, therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house comes.” Jesus is not referring to his return at an unspecified distant moment in the future, but his constantrenewing presence in the world.
We begin to identify the main character of the parable. The master of the house is Jesus, but he has notgone; he has only changed his way of being present among his own. Now he is closer to every person thanwhen he was walking the streets of Palestine. Having entered the world of the resurrected he is no longer subject to the limits of our human condition. That’s why he invited his disciples to always keep alive the senseof his presence in their midst: “I am with you always, even to the end of this world” (Mt 28:20). It is not, because only one who has the light of faith can truly scan the thick darkness of night.
The fact the Lord warns that he comes at night is also worth noting. Like a thief, he comes when the world is shrouded in darkness: “If the owner of the house knew at what time the thief was coming, he would certainly stay up and not allow his house to be broken into” (Mt 24:43). The ten virgins were also surprised in their sleep. They were waiting for the bridegroom who tarried; they all slumbered and slept; “But at midnight, a cry rang out, ‘the bridegroom is here, come out and meet him’” (Mt 25:5-6).
Why so much emphasis on the theme of the night?
The Masters of Israel taught that, in the history of the world, there were four great nights. The first at the time of creation: the sun and the moon did not exist and it was night when God said, “Let there be light”(Gen 1:3). There was a second night, one in which God made the covenant with Abraham (Gen 15). Then a third, the mother of all nights, the liberation of Israel from Egypt; it was “this is the watch for the Lord—all Israel are also to keep vigil on this night, year after year, for all time” (Ex 12:42).
The fourth night is the one Israel still awaits: God will intervene in it to create the new world and to begin his reign.
When, in the New Testament, the coming of the Lord during the night is mentioned, it refers to this fourthnight. This is our night; it’s the time we live in, the time that is dark, the time in which the proposals of life that shape the majority consensus are hedonistic, not the beatitudes of Jesus.
This fourth night is further subdivided by Mark, according to the popular Roman computation, into four parts, duly called: evening, midnight, cockcrow, morning (v. 35), to emphasize the warning to be alert, not todoze off even for an instant.
Anyone who has sight guided by love allows himself to be challenged by the events of life, and knows how to identify the signs that the hopes of a new world are beginning to be realized. The one who is vigilant is ready to welcome the Lord who comes and is able to recognize him in those who seek peace, dialogue, and reconciliation; he sees him in the poor who, without resorting to violence, are committed to justice ; and sees him in the stranger who seeks aid, and embraces him in those who are alone and in need of comfort.
Darkness scares and, at some point, it becomes so dense that even the Christian gifted with strong faith can lose sight of his Lord and be overcome by fatigue, boredom, despair. When he feels his eyelids grow heavy with sleep, he must call to mind Paul’s exhortation: Take courage! “The night (the fourth and final night)is almost over and the day is at hand!” (Rom 13:12).
There is a secret to keeping oneself awake, it is prayer understood as a constant dialogue with the Lord.The one who does not pray dozes off. He will eventually end up resigned and will adapt, like unbelievers, to the darkness that envelops the world (Mk 14:37-40).
The doorkeeper, who has to be more vigilant than others, represents those in the Christian communityresponsible for carrying out the most important services, those on whom the life of the Church depends
on for the proclamation of the Word of God, the celebration of the sacraments, and the support of disciples who are wavering in their faith. These doorkeepers have to be more vigilant than others in their thoughts, their words, in their choice s of lifestyle. They are encouraged to always behave as “children of the light,” never “children of darkness,” because they have to keep awake their weaker brothers and sisters who are in danger of being deceived by the dominant mentality of this world.