Commentary on the Readings
First Sunday of Advent – Year C – December 2, 2018
True Prophets Infuse Hope
To let the arms down, to give up in front of an overpowering sin that dominates in the world and in us is a dangerous temptation.
The prophets of doom are those who keep repeating: “It’s not worth to commit oneself; it will not change anything.” “There is nothing to be done, the evil is too strong.” “Hunger, wars, injustices, hate will always exist.”
They will not be heard. The ones who, like Paul, “have known the mind of God” (1 Cor 2:16) see reality with diverse eyes. They look at the new world that is being born and with enthusiasm announces to all: “Now it springs forth. Do you not see?” (Is 43:19).
In our personal life, we experience failures, miseries, weaknesses, and unfaithfulness. We cannot detach ourselves from defects and bad habits. The uncontrolled passions dominate us; we are forced to adapt ourselves to a life of distressing compromises and humbling hypocrisies. Fears, delusions, remorse, unhappy experiences make us incapable of smiling. Will it still be possible to recuperate trust in ourselves and in others? Can someone give us back serenity, trust, and peace?
There is no condition of slavery that the Lord can’t free us; there is no abyss of guilt from which he does not want to lift us out. He only waits for us to be aware of our condition and turn to him with the words of the psalmist: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.”
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“I am certain: The Lord will fulfill his promises of good he had done.”
To reconstruct a house, when one still sees the embers of the previous fumigant requires an extraordinary strength of spirit, above all if one is already advanced in years and not supported by stimulating future prospects. Disappointment and despair cause enthusiasm to dwindle and insurmountable difficulties appear.
The prophet directs the words contained in this reading to the Israelites. Their situation can be compared to that of a sad person who fixes the rubbles of his home.
A returning group of exiles from Babylon finds the city of Jerusalem in ruins. The wasted land has become a haunt of jackals (Jer 10:22). They turn their gaze around and can only see the signs of death and destruction.
The reconstruction begins, but works proceed slowly. A gloomy foreboding weighs on the mind of everyone, even if no one wants it to be known: we close our eyes and we will be reunited with our fathers before seeing the new Jerusalem. They wonder: why were we hit by such serious disasters? Has God abandoned us forever? Has he perhaps forgotten the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David?
To these discouraged people the prophet addresses a message of hope: our infidelities, those that have brought us to ruin, will not prevent the Lord to fulfill his promises because he is still faithful (v. 14).
The days are coming—he says—in which, a righteous branch in the family of David who “will practice justice and righteousness” (v. 15) shall grow.
If the justice and righteousness of God were of the forensic type, the Israelites should expect a verdict of condemnation. But he is never to pronounce a judgment, he comes to create justice, his righteousness consists in the involvement of people in his plan of salvation.
The change of Jerusalem’s name means the full success of his work. The city—image of all the people—will be called the “Lord-Our-Righteousness” that is, the Lord was able to instill in us His righteousness (v. 16).
The promises of the prophet aroused in many the hope for God’s miraculous intervention to rebuild the destroyed city. They were disappointed. The reconstruction of the country was slow and required many sacrifices and hard work.
The promises took time to be realized, but God has kept them.
The long-awaited descendant of David by the Israelites was sent—Jesus of Nazareth. The reign of peace and justice began with him. It is still a small tree that grows slowly and needs our commitment and collaboration.
The one who gets discouraged, who gives up in the face of difficulties, who becomes impatient with oneself and with others, who expects to get immediate and radical transformations has not understood the pace of growth of the Kingdom of God.
A true prophet is one who helps to understand the signs of the new world that comes up, instills confidence and hope, makes people understand that the kingdom of evil has no future, who, even in desperate situations, knows to indicate a path to recover, to rebuild a life that in the eyes of people may seem hopelessly destroyed.
The reason why this passage was chosen as the Second Reading of this first Sunday of Advent is that it speaks of the coming of the Lord Jesus with all his saints (3:13) and we are also told how we should prepare this coming.
Addressing the Christians of Thessalonica, Paul recognizes that they are very good, but asks the Lord to increase more and more their love for each other (v. 12). This—he says—is the path that leads to holiness and is the only way to vigilantly wait for the coming of the Lord (v. 13).
The words of the apostle are also valid for the communities of today as they prepare to welcome the Lord. The mutual relationships are probably already pretty good, but they can always be improved. Perhaps there is still some misunderstandings to overcome, some conflicts that must be resolved, and some tension to loosen. The search for understanding with all, the practice of mutual love—that Paul recommends to the Thessalonians—cannot be replaced by any good devotional practice with which one tries to prepare for Christmas.
Faced with the dramatic and very explicit expressions with which today’s Gospel begins, we are led to think that Jesus is giving some information in advance about what will happen at the end of the world.
This is how the text has often been interpreted, not only by the fanatics of the fundamentalist sects but, even by some preachers in our churches in the past.
The sequence of events described is chilling: signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, the powers of heaven which are upset and, on earth, the terrifying roar of the sea agitated by a terrible storm.
It seems the perfect prelude to the scene of the angels with their trumpets coming to wake the dead, and the apparition, on the clouds of heaven, of Christ the Judge. A severe judge (it’s hard to imagine him differently, knowing what was the history of humanity, at least until now) who came to pronounce the final verdict!
The ominous announcement of the end of the world today dismays less a few. It psychologically disturbs some people and makes those who should be shaken to reflect and bring to reason, smile.
If the aim of Jesus was to instill fear he would not have reached the goal. Jesus does not intend to provoke fear, but to get just the opposite. He wants to free us from fear, inspire joy, and infuse hope. We will see him: he is not threatening cataclysms but announces a happy event.
Let us try to understand the meaning of this difficult passage, difficult because it uses a language that is no longer ours.
To describe a big change, a radical transformation of the world, a resolute intervention of God, the Bible usually employs striking images—the so-called apocalyptic images—much used by preachers and writers of the time of Jesus.
We note, first of all, that the elements mentioned above (the sun, the moon, the stars, the powers of the heavens, the sea) are the same ones that appear in the story of creation.
The book of Genesis begins with the words: “The earth had no form and was void; darkness was over the deep” (Gen 1:2). No light, no life, everything was chaos and darkness until God intervened with his word. Then the sun and the moon appeared to mark the regular rhythms of days, nights and seasons.
The sea—imagined by the ancients as a mythical monster—invaded the earth, but God “shut the sea behind closed doors … he sets its limits … and said: you will not go beyond these bounds; here is where your proud waves must halt” (Job 38:8-11).
Thus it went from chaos to cosmos and the earth became habitable for humans, animals, and plants.
In our passage, an opposite movement is announced: the return to the primordial chaos. It is said that the forces that keep order in the universe are upset; it regresses to the confusing, formless, and dark situation that existed before the creation.
The apocalyptic images used by Jesus does not refer to explosions of stars, to catastrophic collisions of stars and planets. They speak of what is happening today. It becomes impossible to live in our world. People commit abuses and injustices; hate reigns; there is violence, war, inhumane conditions. Nature herself is destroyed by the overexploitation of resources. The pace of the times and the seasons are no longer regular.
Distressed people are asking: what will happen? Where are we leading to?
That’s fear. Facing the surpassing evil and not being able to control people, they only know how to be frightened and tremble: “People will faint with fear at the mere thought of what is to come upon the world”—says today’s Gospel (v. 26).
It is the terror that people feel in the face of disasters that they provoked with the rejection of any ethical law, the contempt of the most sacred values and the loss of all points of moral reference.
Is the history of humanity thus headed toward an inevitable catastrophe?
No—Jesus assures us (and this is the central message of the passage)—but rather toward a new creation. Where signs of the disorder caused by sin are seen, there the Son of Man with power and great glory should be expected. His power will bring forth a new world from chaos (v. 27).
Jesus wants to warn us of the danger of fear and discouragement in the face of evil. He invites us to open our hearts to hope: the world dominated by injustice, malice, selfishness, arrogance has come to an end and a new one has already sprung up.
What to do while waiting? (v. 28).
Although the chaos that still exists is scary, the disciple does not break down. He or she does not bend like others bent by anguish, “stunned by fear.” They get up and raise their head, not expecting a miraculous intervention of God nor lulling in the vain hope that something can change suddenly for some unexpected coincidence preordained from heaven. The new world can spring up from any chaotic situation. It’s enough to let the Word of God work, as it happened at the beginning of creation.
How many people do we see walking “bent,” oppressed by sorrow and misadventures, numbed with fear? They do not have the strength to lift their head because they lost all hope: a wife abandoned by her husband, parents disappointed by the choices of the children, a professional ruined by envy of colleagues, men, and women victims of hatred and violence, people who feel at the mercy of their instincts …
Today’s Gospel invites everyone “to lift up the head.” There’s no chaos from which God cannot obtain a new and wonderful world. This world is born the instant we allow God to fulfill his Advent in our lives. In the face of evil forces that seem to always get the better, in addition to discouragement there is the danger of escape, the search for palliatives, bogus solutions (vv. 34-35).
Luke—who perhaps has an eye on the behavior of some Christians of his community—crudely lists them. He primarily emphasizes gluttony, swilling. They are the symbol of all debauchery, evasion, and dissipation through which we try to anesthetize disappointments and failures. These escapes are “a snare” (v. 35), a trap that many people fall into, remain entangled without being able to meet the Lord who comes.
How to stay awake, alert, and ready to seize the moment and the place where the Lord is? It is very easy to get confused, deceived, waiting for him where he is not, and precluding instead the road where he does not want to enter (in our bad habits, our attachment to the goods of this world, in our projects of greatness…). There is only one way to stay vigilant: to pray (v. 36). Prayer—Jesus says—will have two effects: it will give the strength to “escape all these things that are going to happen,” that is, it will make us see all the events with God’s eyes and ensures that we are not caught by fear. Nothing will scare us because we will grasp at every event—happy, sad, and even tragic—the Lord who comes. He comes to make us grow, mature, to get closer to him.
Prayer will also enable us to stand, that is, to wait without fear for the Son of Man. It will make us ready to welcome him and go with him to the extent of freedom where he wants to lead us. It is prayer that frees from the corrupt mentality of this world. It makes us savor and enjoy God’s judgment on history and makes us closer to people.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: