Happy New Year! 1st Sun. of Advent

(These commentaries are available in book form here.)

Happy New Year, everyone!  The Church Year begins this Sunday with the First Sunday of Advent, and we are back to reading cycle A in Church Year 2023. 

There is a very ancient tradition in the Church of reading the Book of Isaiah during Advent.  In antiquity, both Jews and Christians considered the Book of Isaiah to be one extended prophesy of the “age to come,” the “latter days” when the Anointed One (Heb. “Meshiach,” =”Messiah”) would arrive.  The First Readings for Sunday Mass and for weekday masses, as well as the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours, are dominated by Isaiah during this liturgical season.

The Gospel sequence, the First Sunday of Advent focuses on Jesus’ Second Coming, forming a good transition from the month of November with its focus on the Last Things.  The Second and Third Sundays of Advent focus on John the Baptist, the fore-runner of Jesus.  The Fourth Sunday finally casts its gaze on the events leading directly to Jesus birth. 

That’s the journey we are about to begin, so without further ado, let’s plunge in!

1.  The First Reading is Isaiah 2:1-5:

This is what Isaiah, son of Amoz,
saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come,
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest mountain
and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it;
many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may instruct us in his ways,
and we may walk in his paths.”
For from Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and impose terms on many peoples.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
one nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again.
O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the Lord!

At the risk of repeating myself from other posts, let me give some background on the Book of Isaiah:

“Isaiah is the great prophetic book of the Bible, and is rivaled only by the Psalms in its influence over subsequent Jewish and Christian theology and liturgy.  Although not a systematic theologian, to a certain extant Isaiah is to the Old Testament what St. Paul is to the New: the great, comprehensive theological mind who provides a framework into which the insights and contributions of other inspired authors can be fit.

In Judaism in antiquity, the Samaritans and Sadducees accepted as inspired only the Books of Moses, but Isaiah held unquestioned authority among all other religious Jews, whether in Palestine or the Diaspora, and within the early Church. 

The Book was usually called simply by the name of its prophetic author—in Hebrew yeshîyahu, “The LORD saves,” in Latin Isaias, in Greek Ēsaias—or a longer variant thereof, for example, in Hebrew sepher yeshîyahu, “Book of Isaiah,” or in Latin liber prophetae Isaias, “Book of the Prophet Isaiah,” cf. Luke 4:17, 3:4.  

Within the Jewish tradition, Isaiah eventually settled as the first book of the Latter Prophets (nevi’im ’aharim), preceding the other two major prophets (Jeremiah, Ezekiel) and the Book of the Twelve (Hosea–Malachi).  The canonical order of the Septuagint was unsettled: in some ancient manuscripts, the Wisdom books are followed by the Twelve, which precede Isaiah and the other major prophets.  This order eventually became standard in the Greek tradition.  In other ancient LXX manuscripts, Isaiah followed the Wisdom literature as the first of the major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, following chronology and length) followed by the twelve minor prophets.  St. Jerome and the Latin tradition followed this alternate order of the Septuagint, which became the canonical order now familiar to Christians in the West.

The only complete, intact copy of a biblical book to be recovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls was a manuscript of Isaiah, the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaiaha).  In addition, fragmentary remains, often substantial, of another twenty-one manuscripts of Isaiah were discovered at Qumran, a number exceeded only by the Psalms (36) and Deuteronomy (30). Furthermore, Isaiah is the most-quoted biblical book in the non-biblical Dead Sea Scrolls, and no less than six commentaries (pesharim) on the book were also found.  The influence of Isaiah at Qumran is paralleled in the New Testament.  Isaiah is second only to the Psalms as the most-quoted biblical book by the New Testament authors; furthermore, the quotations are often not merely important but fundamental or definitional for the Gospel message (e.g. Isa 40:3 in Mark 1:2-3; Isa 42:1-4 in Matt 12:18-21; Isa 6:9-10 in Matt 13:14-15).  Thus, in the early Church, the Book of Isaiah was often considered “the fifth Gospel,” and indeed St. Jerome calls Isaiah “not only a prophet … but an Evangelist” who “pursued … all the mysteries of Christ and the Church to clarity.”

Isaiah dominates the liturgical traditions of both Judaism and Christianity.  In the synagogue, it is the prophet of choice read for the haftarah portion—the selection from the prophets read to accompany the Sabbath unit from the Law (the sederah).  In the Catholic liturgical tradition, the frequency with which Isaiah is proclaimed in the Liturgy of the Word second only to the Psalms among Old Testament books.  In fact, the Isaiah is read in the lectionary more frequently than the Gospel of Mark.  Following an ancient tradition, the Liturgy of the Hours reads the majority of the Book semi-continuously throughout Advent, where it is understood as a prophecy of both the first and second coming of the Christ.”

Now to look at the specific passage for this Sunday:

Isaiah 2 occurs near the beginning of the Book of Isaiah, and in many ways summarizes the prophet’s hopes for the restoration of Jerusalem in the coming age.  For much of the period when Isaiah was writing in the 700’s BC, northern Israel was near to being annihilated, or already had been (c. 722 BC), and southern Judah had been reduced by the Assyrians to a rump state consisting of the area around the capital, Jerusalem.  In Judah itself, sincere worshipers of the LORD (YHWH) were few in number, and the culture was dominated by hypocritical or “cultural” Yahwism and/or syncretism with paganism.  It was a very discouraging period for those wholly devoted to the the LORD, God of Israel, who found themselves outnumbered, powerless, and culturally impotent in the face of forces that seemed ready to extinguish any witness to the true God from the face of the earth. 

Nonetheless, in this time period, Isaiah sees a vision of hope: against all odds, the day will come when the nations of the earth will seek out the LORD and come to Mt. Zion to learn his law, and the Word of the LORD will judge nations and bring them peace.

Has the prophet’s word been fulfilled, or do we still await a fulfillment?

It is essential to recognize that Jesus celebrated the Last Supper and instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice and covenant at Mt. Zion in the year of his death.  Every time we celebrate Mass, we are taken sacramentally into the Upper Room on Mt. Zion, in order to renew there our covenant with the LORD, who has shown his face to us in the man Jesus of Nazareth, the “Word of the LORD” of whom Isaiah speaks in our Reading.

Thus, the Mass makes Mt. Zion present.  As people from all nations stream to Mass this weekend, there is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s words, that “many peoples shall come and say:

Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain!”  The Church is the New Zion, as the Book of Hebrews makes clear (Heb 12:22-24).

The way God has fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy through the Church is a superior fulfillment than if a literal, physical shrine had been established in Jerusalem where everyone had to go to learn, say, the Ten Commandments.  A physical fulfillment of the prophet’s words would have limited our interaction with God to those times when we were able to afford plane fare to Israel, but by making Zion sacramentally present to every place on the planet—“from the rising of the sun even to its setting, they bring a pure offering to my name” (Mal 1:11 my translation)—God has facilitated the education of the nations in the Law of God.

And for those who may feel discouraged because it seems like many nations that once streamed to the LORD have now turned aside to follow a secular mindset—let us take heart!  In Isaiah’s day, the fortunes of those who worshiped the God of Israel were so much lower than the Church of our own day.  The secular worldview of modernity is so literally sterile that its adherents cannot muster the joy and courage to raise enough children to replace themselves.  The culture of death is quickly killing itself.  In the meantime, let us take every opportunity to lay new foundations for Zion, for the time will come when the winds of the times will change, and we must be ready to accommodate the streams of pilgrims to the New Zion who will come in future generations. 

P.  The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 122: 1-2, 3-4, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9:

R. Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
I rejoiced because they said to me,
“We will go up to the house of the LORD.”
And now we have set foot
within your gates, O Jerusalem.
R. Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
Jerusalem, built as a city
with compact unity.
To it the tribes go up,
the tribes of the LORD.
R. Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
According to the decree for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
In it are set up judgment seats,
seats for the house of David.
R. Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
May those who love you prosper!
May peace be within your walls,
prosperity in your buildings.
R. Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
Because of my brothers and friends
I will say, “Peace be within you!”
Because of the house of the LORD, our God,
I will pray for your good.
R. Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.

By providence, this is the same psalm as last week’s Feast of Christ the King, only with a longer reading of it.  In the context of today’s Mass, this psalm functions as a confession on all of our lips, that we have come up to the New Zion, and now inhabit the sacramental Jerusalem which is the Church, ruled by the episkopoi who sit on the seats of the House of David, “giving thanks” to the name of the LORD in the Eucharist.

This psalm and Isaiah 2 share the theme of peace.  This peace is given to us by Jesus Christ: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27, RSV2CE).  This is a supernatural peace, a peace that does not depend on external circumstances, which often can seem quite dire.  As St. Paul says, “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7, RSV2CE).  God’s peace “passes understanding” because we may experience it at times when it doesn’t seem that there is any visible reason to have peace.  It is the gift of God.

Nonetheless, let us pray for visible peace, which is good in itself.  Let us pray especially for peace in the Holy Land, which is a material sign and reminder of the truths of our faith; and for peace in Syria, so torn apart by war; and Venezuela, wracked by destitution and government oppression; and Nigeria, scarred by Islamic terrorism.

2.  The Second Reading is Rom 13:11-14:

Brothers and sisters:
You know the time;
it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep.
For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed;
the night is advanced, the day is at hand.
Let us then throw off the works of darkness
and put on the armor of light;
let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day,
not in orgies and drunkenness,
not in promiscuity and lust,
not in rivalry and jealousy.
But put on the Lord Jesus Christ,
and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.

This Sunday we reflect on the Second Coming of Christ, and St. Paul helps us to meditate on it, and guides us in our behavior until that day arrives. 

Throughout the Scriptures, spiritual vigor is described as “wakefulness” or “alertness”; whereas turning aside from God in order to seek pleasure in this present life is described as “sleep” or “drunkenness.”

So St. Paul gives us a “wake up call” in today’s Epistle.  Jesus is coming back.  If not visibly during our lifetime, he will come for us personally at our own deaths, the timing of which we do not know.  So we conduct ourselves “as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy.”  St. Paul lists the works of darkness as indulgence in sexual pleasure outside of marriage, substance abuse, sexual fantasizing (lust), and infighting within the church (“rivalry and jealousy”).  There is nothing new under the sun.  These are still very live issues for the Christian today, especially when the internet has made virtual orgies, promiscuity, and lust available as close as one’s smart phone.

The problem is that the pursuit of one’s personal pleasure through physical sensations (whether by food, sex or drugs) is almost always at odds with authentic love for other persons, both human and divine.  Physical indulgence distorts our personality, inhibits our ability to sacrifice and give ourselves, and therefore makes us bad “lovers”, persons not able to love well.  Since God is love, we end up estranged from God.

It is time to throw all that “darkness” off and live in the light.  It can be helpful to practice small acts of self-denial, as St. Josemaria recommends here.

G.  The Gospel is Matthew 24:37-44:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“As it was in the days of Noah,
so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
In those days before the flood,
they were eating and drinking,
marrying and giving in marriage,
up to the day that Noah entered the ark.
They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.
So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man.
Two men will be out in the field;
one will be taken, and one will be left.
Two women will be grinding at the mill;
one will be taken, and one will be left.
Therefore, stay awake!
For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
Be sure of this: if the master of the house
had known the hour of night when the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and not let his house be broken into.
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

The themes of the Gospel are very similar to those of St. Paul in the Second Reading.  So we see St. Paul’s fidelity to the preached Gospel of the Lord.

Jesus uses the Noahic flood as a type of the end of the age.  “They were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,” all images of sensual indulgence.  Most of the world will be distracted with pleasure-seeking in this life when the end comes.

These statements of the Lord about “one will be taken, and one will be left” and the coming of the “thief in the night” have given rise to the modern doctrine of the “rapture,” a concept of Christ’s Second Coming in which believers are suddenly “beamed up” from the earth, and the non-believers left behind experience a tribulation before the end of time.  This is not a traditional Christian doctrine—it first began to be formulated by John Nelson Darby, a Plymouth Brethren pastor of the 1800’s.  Carl Olson has a published a good critique of the theory here. Darby interpreted “being taken” as a positive thing–the man and the woman who were “taken” in the Gospel were brought into the presence of the Lord. However, when we compare the parallel passage in Luke 17:34-37, it becomes clear that “being taken” refers to dying, whereas “being left” means surviving.

The First Reading and the Psalm present the Christian life as a “pilgrimage” to Zion.  The Second Reading and Gospel present the Christian life as “wakefulness” and abstaining from sensual indulgence in this life.  The two images can be combined.  On a pilgrimage, one doesn’t get caught up in pleasure-seeking.  You have to walk long hours on the camino during the day, and sleep where you can—sometimes in austere places—during the night.  And if you make a habit of stopping and “hanging out,” you’re not going to finish the way.  The Readings for this Mass call us to renew our commitment to living this present life as a pilgrimage to the heavenly Zion, as we await the coming of the Son of Man.

We can distinguish at least four senses of the “coming of the Son of Man.”

First, there is an act of divine judgement within human history. If we study the use of the phrase, “the coming of the LORD” in the Old Testament, we find that it often refers not to the end of time nor to an apparition of the God of Israel, but to a definitive moment of judgment sent by God, often through the means of a enemy army (Isa 19:1, 26:20, 27:1; Jer 4:13-17). In this sense, the judgment that fell on the earthly Jerusalem in the year A.D. 70 at the hands of the Roman army was a “coming of the Son of Man,” since the Son of Man is the LORD. In subsequent centuries, there have been many “comings of the Son of Man” in judgment on different nations that have defied him or defected from him.

Second, there is the personal “coming” at each of our deaths. The Church teaches that at the moment of our death, there is a particular judgment when we face Jesus and our eternal fate is determined (CCC §§1021-1022). None of us knows the day or the hour when this personal coming will take place. A reckless driver or an errant blood clot could take any one of us at any time. Therefore we have to live our lives ready to face Jesus at any moment.

Thirdly, there is the liturgical “coming” of Jesus at every Mass. Jesus becomes present to us at every Mass: body, blood, soul and divinity. Every time we receive the Eucharist, it is an encounter and judgment by the Lord. This is why St. Paul warns us to examine ourselves before we receive the Eucharist, lest we be judged by the Lord (1 Cor 11:27-32). In keeping with this Scriptural warning, the Church requires that, if we have lost the state of grace through a mortal sin, we receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before communing in the Eucharist. Every reception of the Eucharist is like a “trial run” for the final judgment. In the Eucharist, we encounter Jesus face to face and receive either grace or discipline. If we strive to stay in a state of grace by frequent recourse to Reconciliation and the Eucharist, we have nothing to fear from the personal or final judgments.

Fourthly, there is the final judgment at the Second Coming of the Lord (CCC §§1038-1041). This is the sense of the “coming of the Son of Man” that most readers think of immediately. The Catechism says,

§1040 “The Last Judgment will come when Christ returns in glory. Only the Father knows the day and the hour; only he determines the moment of its coming. Then through his Son Jesus Christ he will pronounce the final word on all history. We shall know the ultimate meaning of the whole work of creation and of the entire economy of salvation and understand the marvelous ways by which his Providence led everything towards its final end. The Last Judgment will reveal that God’s justice triumphs over all the injustices committed by his creatures and that God’s love is stronger than death.”

It is the Church’s intention that we should look forward to this event not with fear, but with hope and anticipation. In fact, the Church offers all her resources—all her Sacraments, her devotions, her liturgical year—toward the end that we be fully prepared to “stand in the judgement” (Psalm 1:5). Let’s take advantage of this beginning of the season of Advent to make sure that we are ready!

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