Is 63,16b-17.19; 64,1c-7
1 Cor 1,3-9
The season of Advent opens with an invocation so that God may “rend the heavens and come down” (Is 64,1). It is the prayer that Israel, in the midst of weariness and affliction, addresses to Yahweh with the hope of a new beginning. It is also the great theme of the Christian Advent: to begin once again with God’s power and allow that the Lord reconstruct everything from the roots. To the action of God that “rends the heavens” corresponds the human attitude of the believer who is watchful in prayer and who gets out of the darkness of sin and selfishness in order to open himself to the light of God who is always to come. Today’s Gospel, in effect, exhorts to “keep watch”, to be attentive to the signs of the divine presence and to live attentive to the footprints of the Lord in history.
The first reading (Is 63,16b-17.19;64,1c-7) belongs to a penitential petition that is found in the writings of the so-called Third Isaiah (Is 56-66). It is one of the most marvellous and moving prayers of the Old Testament in which a prophet, on behalf of all the people, expresses the profound religious sentiments that spring at a tragic moment in the history of Israel. The text belongs to the period after the exile when the city of Jerusalem and the Temple lay in ruins, the hope of the people was weakening more and more and the effort to rebuild the nation seemed useless.
The prophet acknowledges that this situation is due to the sins of the people, whose effects are described by means of images taken from the ambit of cultic purity and decline: “Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean men, all our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind” (Is 64,4-5). However, the prophet does not close hopelessly in a dark past of sins and infidelities of the people, but is open full of trust in a God who has always shown His love and fidelity to Israel.
There is a “kinship” between Yahweh and Israel that is indestructible. In spite of all the evil committed, Yahweh is always the father of the people: “You, Lord, are our father” (Is 63,16), “Yet, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you are the potter” (Is 64,7). The invocation of God as “father” is not common in the Old Testament. This text of Isaiah is one of the few that speak of God with this image. In the Old Testament it alludes to the divine paternity basing on the historical actions of God: God is Father of Israel because God created it, liberating it from the slavery of Egypt, and because He has taught it throughout history as a father to his son (Ex 4,22-23; Dt 1,31; Hos 11,1-11; Is 1,2-3; etc.).
The strength and attractiveness of the paternal image to speak of God is undeniable. “It is the image of ‘Somebody’ in whom we can trust unreservedly, the port where our hardships can rest, sure of not being rejected… To say “father” is to evoke the origin, the land, the home, the heart in which we can place all that we are, the face that we can look at without fear, with the certainty of always being welcomed, purified, forgiven (cf. C.M. Martini, Ritorno al Padre di tutti, 1999).
In His attribute as “father” of the people, God is the go'el (v. 17: “redeemer”) of Israel, that is, the permanent responsible person of his people, and therefore, somebody who has to intervene, sooner or later, in their favour. The past history of the people give convincing proof of this. This conviction leads the prophet to proclaim with infinite trust: “We shall be saved” (Is 64,4), “No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him” (Is 64,3); “return for the sake of your servants” (Is 63,17). The great desire of the psalmist-prophet is, basically, that God manifest Himself again as loving father of the people in order to begin once gain the history of the covenant.
According to spatial symbolism with which God is spoken of in the ancient Middle East, God dwells “up high”, in “the heavens”, as separated and hidden from men. That is why it is necessary that the firmament, conceived as a solid dome, be rent and allow God to come down from on high to the earth: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, as when brushwood is set ablaze, or fires make the water boil!” (Is 64,1). The mountains, the sea, the sky represent the most solid elements of creation, all of them are deeply shaken before God’s manifestation (Ps 24,2; 65,7; 90,2). The apocalyptic images of the mountains that disappear and of the water of the seas that boils express a radical change in the cosmos, reflection of still another deeper change: the transformation of the historic situation of the people of God, when the clay of our humanity and of our history will be moulded anew by God the Father and Creator (Is 64,5).
This prophetic psalm of Isaiah offers a triple viewpoint for meditation for Advent: (a) It is an invitation to trust in the faithful God, Lord of nature and of history; (b) It is an exhortation to wait patiently for his divine intervention without asking for proofs or immediate consolations; (c) It is a serious call to redirect our entire existence in syntony with the will of God who is always ready to give the benefits of His renewing actions to all those who do good with right intention: “Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways” (Is 64,4).
The second reading (1 Cor 1,3-9) forms part of the initial greeting of the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians. The Apostle does not doubt in affirming to a community like that of Corinth, marked by rivalries and divisions, the gratuitousness and magnanimity of God who has generously bestowed His gifts of speech and knowledge on them (v. 5): “you lack no spiritual gifts” (v. 7). But the Corinthians, in their turn, should respond to this initiative of God with hope and confidence (v. 7). Therefore, the Christian waits with joy for the glorious return of the Lord and values whatever exists from this culminating moment “as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 7). While this glorious day comes, the Christians walk, joyful and confident in the divine power, because “God is faithful” (v. 9). He will make that the disciples of His Son remain strong until the end, “so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).
The Gospel (Mk 13,33-37) corresponds to the conclusion of the so-called “escathological discourse” of Mark (Mk 13) which prepares the Christian community to face the uncertainty of the moment of the passion and death of Jesus. In the text, it is possible to distinguish three parts: (a) an initial phrase that summarises the exhortation of Jesus (v. 33: “Be constantly on the watch! Stay awake! You do not know when the appointed time will come.”); (b) An illustrative parable that speaks of a man who went from his house, leaving a task to each of his servants and a steward to watch (vv. 34-35); (c) A final exhortation on the theme of watchfulness (vv. 36-37).
The text speaks of a surprising return but prepared beforehand, from the moment that the master of the house went to travel. A return that will be unexpected but will certainly happen. It can occur at dusk, in the darkness of the night or when one can already hear the crowing of cocks at dawn (Mk 13,35). It is not known exactly when. Twice, the “not knowing” is emphasised: “You do not know when the appointed time will come” (v. 33), “you do not know when the master of the house is coming” (v. 35). The stronger stimulus to commitment and to fidelity is precisely this “not knowing”. The servants cannot wait for their master sleepy, indifferent or lazy, like what happened to the foolish virgins of the parable in Matthew 25. Each one of the servants are left with a “task” to fulfil and a work to accomplish in his absence. To wait for the master of the house means to fulfil this task with fidelity and care. The master of the house who is to return is Jesus and the servants are the disciples who have heard the announcement of the Kingdom. To live with the hope placed in the return of Jesus is therefore to discover one’s own mission, to accept and to fulfil it with dedication.
The coming of the Lord should not produce fear, superficial expectations or obsession for an end that nobody knows when it will happen. What is important is that the Christian lives responsibly the ordinariness of every day and assumes seriously his mission in history. The key verb of the Gospel text is “to watch” (Greek: gregoréo) that appears thrice (vv. 34.35.37) and that indicates a state of alertness, promptness, attention and loving waiting, without anxieties or bewilderment. This evangelical attitude is very important that it is considered an authentic metaphor of the whole Christian life: the disciple is always on the watch, attentive, faithful, committed to the mission received from the Master.
To say that the Lord is near, or “at the door” (Mk 13,29), according to the Gospel, does not simply mean to think of a well-defined moment, of an exact date that can be fixed on the calendar, since “as to the exact day or hour, no one knows it, neither the angels in heaven nor even the Son, but only the Father” (Mk 13,32). All calculation about the day and the hour of the coming of the Son of Man is useless and superficial. The Lord is always near, He comes every day through the sacramental signs of the Church, of our brothers and sisters, and the signs of the times. He will come personally to each one at the hour of death, and He will come in glory at the end of history. What is demanded from every Christian is an attitude of responsibility and seriousness in order to live his own vocation in constant watchfulness, in order to be faithful to the word of Jesus, since “the heavens and the earth will pass away but my words will not pass” (Mk 13,31). “What I say to you, I say to all: Be on guard!” (Mk 13,37).