Celebrating the Word of God

Commentary on the Readings

1st Sunday of Advent – Year B – December 3, 2017

Waiting for His coming

Introduction

“A man 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 incorrect 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 surged up that, on the day of the Ascension, Jesus would leave of 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 the 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 one who is, who was and who is to come” (Rev 1:8); not “the Lord who returns,” but “one who never ceases to come.” Entering in, he commits himself in the history of the world and renews, together with humans, the whole of creation: he cures the sick, heals the wounds caused by sin, turns off the hatred, preaches love and guides the world “into the way of peace” (Lk 1:79).

 
The early Christians implored: “Maranàtha: 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 and the deported kept alive the memory of the humiliation. They still engraved in their eyes the gruesome scenes of that terrible day in July of 587 B.C. The soldiers of Nebuchadnezzar demolished the walls, put the king’s palaces in flames, the terrified women fleeing with their children in their arms and jackals behind lions, the Edomites, who hurled themselves on the wounded prey to death (Ps 137:7).

 
While the deportees were looking for the reason of such a horrible disaster, their poet wrote the touching prayer 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 were quite reluctant to give this title to their God. They did not call him “father,” first of all because they would not equate him to the pagan gods that—it was said—generated sons and daughters, and often married the women of the earth (Gn 6:2); they 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, as a result, 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 on whom hung the responsibility to redeem a family member who had lost his freedom, made a prisoner, or because, burdened by debts, he had to give himself a slave to his creditor. This overriding duty was fulfilled in two ways: by collecting the amount required for the redemption or handing oneself 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 “redeemer.”

 
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 asked themselves. Why God, almighty, does not prevent evil? Why does he not preserve us from the failures and the choices of death? Why does he allow that vices and passions move us away from his love?

 
Questions that no one has ever given a rational response! Only during prayer one can see light.

 
In order to strengthen their faith, to find reasons for hope, the author of this wonderful passage looks back to 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 finding, 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, optimistic look to the future are graces always obtained through well done 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 to Babylon is an image of the mishaps that, inevitably, go towards those who choose paths that lead away from God. Disappointment, loneliness, shame, misery are the bitter consequences of sin.

 
Why God does not intervene to prevent us from making mistakes? This is the question that we too ask.

 
Since he created man free, God is no longer omnipotent. Even the rabbis had understood and spoke zimzum of God. In some way—they believed—he has limited 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” (Sg 8:6); it is never resigned to defeat. God, who puts into account our waste, 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—said Edith Stein—it is “infinitely improbable” that, even in one case, he can get out of it 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 to the old vices. The Apostle was aware of these moral miseries and hereinafter of the letter, he will condemn them severely. However, at the beginning, he employs a gentle and polite language with which he highlights the wonders wrought by the grace of God. He recognizes that the Corinthians have been enriched with all spiritual gifts, that of word and knowledge (v. 5).

 
It is surprising that there is no reference to virtue and the most important qualities: to faith, hope and love that shone among the Thessalonians (1 Thes 1:3) or to the generous dedication to the cause of the gospel in which the Philippians excelled (Phil 1:5). Covertly, Paul gives a hint to the Corinthians that, in their communities, not everything is perfect and that the grace of Christ would get better results if there was a better response. The falling back on the realities of this world has made them forget the 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 human response. If he called the Corinthians to salvation, he will continue to accompany their spiritual growth until he has brought them into the glorious fellowship with Christ.

 
This statement is not an expression of naive and superficial optimism, but it is an invitation to cultivate Christian hope which is based on the gratuitousness of God’s love.

 

Gospel: Mark 13:33-37

To be alert and to keep watch are the key words of this passage. They are resumed with an almost excessive insistence: “Be alert and watch!” (v. 33), “he orders the doorkeeper to stay awake” (v. 34), “so stay awake” (v. 35), “I say to all: stay awake!” (v. 37).

 
The recommendation to be alert is so important that Jesus repeats it with a simile: “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. As a result the evangelist has seen fit to extend it to all the members of his communities, to remind them to be vigilant, in waiting for the “coming” of the Lord.

 
What does to be alert mean? Why such insistence on the night? Why does the master, instead of coming during the day, arrives suddenly when nobody expects him? Who is the doorkeeper? Who is the master? 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 a must to bring a change to the translation 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 to an unspecified distant future, but his constant renewing presence in the world.

 
We begin to identify the main character of the parable. “The master of the house” is Jesus, but not gone. He only changed his way of being present among his own. Now he is closer to any person than when he was walking the streets of Palestine. Having entered the world of the resurrected, he is no longer subject, as then, to the limits of our human condition. That’s why he invited his disciples to always keep alive the sense of his presence in their midst: “I am with you always, even to the end of this world” (Mt 28:20). It is not an easy perception because only one who has a sight that can scan beyond the thick darkness of the night can have it.

 
The fact that 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” (Gn 1:3). There was a second night, one in which God made the covenant with Abraham (Gn 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 waits: 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 spoken, it refers us to this “fourth night.” This is our night; it’s the time we live in, time that is dark, time in which the proposals of life that shake the major consensus are hedonistic, not the beatitudes of Jesus.

 
This “fourth night” is carefully subdivided by Mark, according to the popular Roman computation, in four parts, duly called: “evening,” “midnight,” “cockcrow,” “morning” (v. 35), to meticulously emphasize the warning to be alert, not to doze off even for an instant.

 
Anyone who has the sight guided by love allows himself to be challenged by the events and knows how to capture 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; sees him in the poor who, without resorting to violence, are committed to justice; 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 the sight of fine 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, last night) is almost over and the day is at hand!” (Rom 13:12).

 
There is a secret to keep oneself awake: 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 everyone else, to the dark of the night that envelops the world (Mk 14:37-40).

 
“The servants,” another character in the parable, represent the disciples engaged in the execution of their Lord’s projects. To each is given a task, a mission to be carried out in accordance to his own capabilities. No one has to wait passively for the host to accomplish his work alone. These servants are the performers.

 
“The doorkeeper” who has to be more vigilant than others indicates those that, in the Christian community, are responsible for carrying out the most important services, those on which the life of the church depends: the proclamation of the Word of God, celebrating the sacraments, the support of the disciples who are wavering in their faith. These doorkeepers have to be more vigilant than others: in their thoughts, their words, in their choices of lifestyle they are encouraged to always behave as “children of the light,” never “children of darkness,” because they have to also keep awake their weaker brothers, those who are in danger of being deceived by the dominant mentality of this world.



Fernando Armellini


Fernando Armellini is an Italian missionary and biblical scholar. With his permission we have begun translating his Sunday reflections on the three readings from the original Italian into English.

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Sunday Reflection


There is a video available by Fr. Fernando Armellini with commentary for today’s Gospel