First Sunday of Advent

(Cycle B)

Is. 63: 16b-17,19; 64: 1c-7

1 Cor. 1: 3-9

Mk. 13: 33-37

The Season of Advent opens with an invocation so that God “would tear the heavens and come down” (Is. 64: 1). It is the prayer that Israel in the midst of weariness and affliction directs to Yahweh with the hope of a new beginning. It is also the great them of Christian Advent: to begin another time with the strength of God and let the Lord reconstruct everything from the roots. The action of God that “would tear the heavens” corresponds to the human attitude of the believer that keeps awake in prayer and leaves the night of sin and alienation to open him or herself up to the light of God that is about to arrive. The Gospel of today, in effect, exhorts to “keep awake”, to stay attentive to the signs of the divine presence and to live attentively to the footprints of the Lord in history. Advent invites us to hope in the faithfulness of God and open our hearts to him so that the arrival of the Messiah in our lives will not find us sleeping.

The first reading (Is 63: 16b-17,19; 64: 1c-7) belongs to a penitential supplication that is found in the writings of the so-called Third Isaiah (Is. 56-66). It is one of the most stupendous and moving prayers of the Old Testament in which a prophet, in the mane of the all the people, expressed the profound religious sentiments that overflow in a tragic moment in the history of Israel. The text belongs to the posterior period of the exile when the city of Jerusalem and the Temple lied in ruins, the hope of the people would continue to fall each time more and the efforts for the reconstruction of the nation seemed useless. The prophet recognizes that this situation is a result of the sins of the people whose effects are described by way of images taken from the ambiance of the purity for worship and of decrepitude: “You have been angry and we have been sinners; now we persist in your ways and we shall be saved. We have all been like unclean things and our upright deeds like filthy rags. We wither, all of us, like leaves, and all our misdeeds carry us off like the wind” (Is. 64: 4-5). Nevertheless the prophet does not close himself off losing hope in a black past of faults and infidelities of the people, but opens himself up full of trust in a God that has always shown his love and fidelity to Israel. There is a relation of “relationship” between Yahweh and Israel that is indestructible. In spite of everything bad committed, Yahweh is always the Father of the people: “After all, you are our Father!” (Is. 63: 16), “And yet, Yahweh, you are our Father; we the clay and you our 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. The prophet expresses the divine fatherhood with the understanding of the historical actions of God: God is Father of Israel because God has created them. In each case the paternal image is suggestive whose strength and attractiveness is undeniable: it is the image of “Someone” in whom we can trust without reserve, the door when we can rest from our fatigue, secure of not be rejected ever… To say “father” is to evoke the origin, country, home, and heart in which we can place everything that we are, the fact that we can gaze upon without fear with the certainty of being always welcomed, purified and pardoned (cf. C.M. Martini, Ritorno al Padre di tutti, 1999).

In his quality of “father” God is the go'el (“redeemer”: v. 17) of Israel, that is to day, the permanent responsible for his people, and therefore, will have to intervene –later or early- in their favor. The past history of the people gives continual proof of this: the history of creation (Genesis) and the liberation (Exodus) demonstrate that God is Father and Redeemer (go'el) of Israel. This conviction carries the prophet away to proclaim with infinite trust: “we shall be saved!” (Is. 64: 4), “Never has anyone heard, no ear has heard, no eye has seen any god but you act like this for the sake of those who trust him” (Is. 64: 3); “Return for the sake of your servants” (Is. 63: 17). The great desire of the psalmist – prophet is, in the end, that God would manifest himself again with all of his power to begin again the history of the covenant. According to the Semitic spacial symbolism God dwells in “the heights”, in “heaven”, as separated and hidden from men and women. For this reason, it becomes necessary that the firmament, conceived as a solid vault, is torn and permits God to come down from heaven to heart: “Oh that you would tear the havens open and come down – in your presence the mountains would quake, as fire sets brushwood alight, as fire makes water boil” (Is. 64: 1). The mountains, the sea, and the sky represent the most solid elements of creation, all of these here suffering an immense commotion before the manifestation of God (Ps. 24: 2; 65: 7; 90: 2). The apocalyptic images of the mountains that quake and of the waters of the sea that boil, express a radical change in the cosmos, reflecting an even more radical change: the transformation of the historical situation of the people of God when the clay of our humanity and of our history will be molded again by God, Father and Creator (Is. 64: 5). This psalm-prophecy of Isaiah offers a triple reflection for mediation during Advent: (a) it is an invitation to trust in a faithful God; Lord of nature and of history; (b) it is an exhortation to hope patiently for his divine intervention without expecting proofs nor immediate consolations; (c) it is a serious call to reorient the entire existence in alignment with the will of God. God is always disposed to concede the benefits of his renovating action to all those that act with a good and upright intention: “You come to meet those who are happy to act uprightly; keeping your ways reminds them of you” (Is. 64: 4).

The second reading (1 Cor. 1: 3-9) belongs to the initial greeting of the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians. Paul does not hesitate in affirming a community marked by rivalries and divisions (Corinth), the gratitude and magnanimity of God that has distributed generously his gifts of word and knowledge in its midst (v. 5). Paul underlines this: “you are not lacking any gift” (v. 7). But they have to respond to this initiative of God with hope and trust (v. 7), because in the end the greatest charism the community has received is the love of Christ that does not have limits nor will ever end (1. Cor. 12: 31-32). For this reason, the Christian waits with joy for his glorious return and evaluate everything in existence having this as a parting culminating moment “while you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed” (v. 7). While this glorious day is yet to arrive the Christian walks joyously and confidently in the divine power, because “God is faithful” (v. 9). He will make it so that the disciples of his Son arrive firm in the end, “so that you will be irreproachable on the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).

The Gospel (Mk. 13: 33-37) corresponds to the conclusion of the so called “eschatological discourse” of Mark (Mk. 13) and in the context of the Gospel prepares the Christian community to face up to 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 phase that resumes the exhortation of Jesus (v. 33: “Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come”); (b) an illustrative parable that speaks of a man that was gone away from his home leaving each one of his servants work to do and a doorkeeper as well to stay awake (vv. 34-35); (c) a final exhortation about the theme of staying awake (vv. 36-37).

The text speaks of a surprising return but prepared with anticipation, from the moment that the lord of the house began to travel abroad. A return that will be unexpected but certainly will happen. It can happen at sundown, in the shadows of the night or when already is heard the singing of the roosters and sunrise (Mk. 13: 35). It is not known when. Twice, the “not knowing” is insisted upon: “you never know when the time will come” (v. 33), “you do not know when the master of the house is coming” (v. 35). It is precisely this “not knowing” that is the strongest stimulus to duty and faithfulness. The servants cannot wait on their master sleeping, nor indifferent or lazy, as happened with the foolish virgins of Mt. 25. Each one of the servants has remained with “task” to realize and work to accomplish in his absence. This work will be realized waiting for him with fidelity and careful attention. The master of the house that is to return is Jesus and the servants are those disciples that have listened to the message of the kingdom. Therefore, to wait for Jesus is to discover one's mission, to accept it and fulfill it with dedication. The coming of the Lord ought not to produce fear, nor superficial expectations, nor obsession for an end that no one knows when it is to occur. That which is important is that the Christian lives responsible in the daily exigencies of every day and assumes con seriousness his mission in history. The key verb of the evangelical text is “to stay awake” (Greek: gregoréo) that appears three times (vv. 34, 35 & 37) and indicates a state of alertness, of promptness, of attention and loving hope, without anxieties nor being confused. It is very important, this evangelical attitude that can be considered as an authentic metaphor for all of Christian life: the disciple is always awake, attentive, faithful and undertaken with the mission received from the Master.

To say that the Lord is close, or “right at the gates” (Mk. 13: 29), according to the Gospel, does not mean simply to think of a well-defined moment, of a day that can be marked on the calendar (Mk. 13: 32: “but as for that day or hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son; no one but the Father”). All calculation about the day and the hour of the coming of the Son of Man is useless and superficial. The Lord is always close, he comes each day through sacramental signs of the Church, through our brothers and sisters and through the signs of the times, and he will come personally for each at the moment of death, and will come again gloriously in the end of time. That which is expected of each Christian is an attitude of responsibility and of seriousness to live one's own vocation, in constant vigilance, to be faithful to the word of Jesus, thus “sky and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mk. 13: 31). “And what I am saying to you I say to all: Stay awake!” (Mk. 13: 37).