Commentary on the Readings
1st Sunday of Advent – December 1, 2019 – Year A
A Cross for a Throne
Fear the judgement of God
It is the threat that is still used by some preachers, as a deterrent—less and less effective—to distract us from evil.
The image of a judge God is present in the gospel, especially in that of Matthew in which it appears on almost every page. What’s the point?
The final showdown is too far away and too uncertain to make an impact on today’s choices. More importantly, this final judgment, of a forensic type, pronounced by God at the end of life will no longer be of help to anyone. At that point, it will be impossible for anyone to make up for the lost or badly used time.
We are interested in another judgment of God: the one he utters in the present.
Faced with the choice that we are all called to do, we listen to many judgments: that of friends, advertising, fashion, vanity, jealousy, pride, current morality … There is also… too often weak, muted, overwhelmed by other judgments, the judgment of God, the only one that shows the way of life, the only one that at the end will prove to be valid.
To keep watch means being able to discern, to be able to grasp this judgment that comes on time, although in the most unexpected ways and times.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Make me follow, O Lord, your judgments”
At least once a year, the Israelites had to go to the temple in Jerusalem to participate in feasts and offer sacrifices to fulfill the vows.
Isaiah—the prophet born and raised in the aristocratic and cultured ambient of the capital—observed every day groups of pilgrims climbing the mountain of the Lord “amidst shout of joy and thanksgiving, among the feasting throng” (Ps 42:5). It is a moving spectacle that aroused in his sensitive soul dreams, expectations and hopes that he gave us in the magnificent poem proposed today as a first reading.
Times are tough; the situation is dramatic for the small kingdom of Judah attacked by a coalition of peoples who want to engage in a rash war against Assyrians. The enemy army is approaching and the heart of King Ahaz and the heart of his people began to shake as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind (Is 7:2).
Everyone is stunned, only Isaiah keeps his cool and calls for trust in God. Jerusalem will not be conquered—he assures—then, enraptured as in ecstasy, and with his eyes fixed on the distant future, he delivers his oracle.
Here—he says—I see the mountain of the house of the Lord rise; it becomes the highest point of the earth. I saw a huge crowd of pilgrims from every people, tribe, language and nation (v. 2) that goes to the sanctuary. It does not go to offer sacrifices, burnt offerings, and incenses, but to hear the word of the Lord. It wants to learn “his ways” (v. 3).
The result of this approach to the mountain of the house of the Lord is peace, described with striking images (v. 4).
The instruments of death—swords and spears—are transformed into means of production, into plowshares and pruning hooks.
The people destroy their weapons and put an end to wars. It is the hope of universal disarmament. It is the kingdom of justice, of God’s blessings.
Similar messages—at least in appearance—have already been pronounced. There are countless inscriptions found on stelae and literary texts that celebrate the glorious deeds of the pharaohs and the rulers of the ancient Middle East, all announcing peace.
The enthronement of the new king was always hailed as the beginning of the golden era. A song of Ramses IV, in an almost messianic language, proclaims: Those who hunger have been satisfied and are happy; those who were naked are clothed in fine linen; those who were in prison were set free; those who were fighting in this country were reconciled.
Yet, on the day when he proclaimed himself a peacemaker in the world, the pharaoh ceremonially threw an arrow at each of the four cardinal points. It was a gesture with which he intended to terrorize anyone who had planned to attack his country. He promised peace but continued to believe it to be possible only with the threat of force, with the ostentation of the power of weapons.
Isaiah announces a different peace, not based on tricks or human calculations, but on the unity of all peoples—convened in the city of peace—to the word of the Lord. This word changes hearts. The people who welcome it, cease to build Babel and forever renounce aggression and the use of arms.
Christians have seen this prophecy fulfilled when, in Jesus, peace appeared in the world.
He is our peace; he came to preach peace, peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near (Eph 2:14-17).
Since the early centuries, the Jews have denied this interpretation. They said: Jesus of Nazareth cannot be the Messiah, the peacemaker announced by the prophet because the new world had not yet appeared. Perhaps!
The objection is serious, but it stems from a misunderstanding. The kingdom of God, the universal peace is not established miraculously, without the cooperation of persons. It develops slowly, like a small seed that takes years to become a large tree.
The last days spoken of by the prophet (v. 2) have already started; its promises have begun to be fulfilled in Christmas. The Fathers of the Church of the first centuries were well aware of this.
“The other men—Origen declared—continue to appeal to the sword, but we are a people that refuses to learn the art of war: through Jesus, we have become the children of peace” (Origen, Against Celsius v. 33).
Justin replied to the rabbi Trypho: “Although we were well experienced in terms of war, of murder and all kinds of evil, over all the earth we have transformed our instruments of war: the swords into plowshares, and the spears into pruning hooks, and now we build the fear of God, justice, humanity, faith and hope, the hope that comes from the Father” (Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, 110, 2-3).
Irenaeus was even more explicit: “We no longer want to fight, but if someone hits us, we turn the other cheek. If all this happens, then the prophets have not spoken of anyone other than the one who has created all these things: Jesus of Nazareth, our Lord” (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer, IV, 34, 4).
The world of peace will surely be established, but its construction will be more rapid when the choice of humanity to turn to Christ will be more decisive.
To describe the life of Christians, Paul draws on biblical images of light and darkness. Before baptism—he says—they walked in the darkness of the night and accomplished work that we are ashamed to do in the light of the sun: drunkenness, revelries, immorality, and strife. They are actions that cloud the mind, harden the heart and prevent to grasp God’s judgments on the reality of this world. After baptism, they abandoned them and entered the realm of light; they are stripped of old clothes and put on a new one: Christ. In them, today, it is possible to contemplate the works, the look, the words and the smile of the Master because they are wrapped up in the person of Jesus as a mantle.
Paul, however, observes that darkness, even among Christians, is not yet over: he is aware that a somber night still weighs on the world. The wars, revenge, envy continue… but he does not let despair take over him, as it often happens to us. His words are an invitation to hope: the night is already advanced, in fact, it’s about to end, a new day is about to dawn; a new humanity is about to begin.
What confidence Paul shows even after thirty years of Christianity!
Today the problems exist and are dramatic. The world is going towards ecological and demographic disaster—they warn—everywhere, there is a loss of values. It’s true, but it is not possible, after two thousand years of Christianity, to see only darkness and look pessimistically to the future. Qohelet already warned: One who says that the former days were better than the present is not wise (Ecl 7:10).
If we had the perspective of the Apostle, if we believed, like him, in the presence of the Spirit, we will notice, even in the darkest moments, the bright signs of the new world that started.
The language used in this Gospel passage can lead to extravagant interpretations (or even rants) on the end of the world and the punishment of God. It can also be reduced to the invitation to be always ready because death can come suddenly and take us unprepared. These interpretations stem from a lack of understanding of the apocalyptic literary genre that was widely used at the time of Jesus, but that is quite alien to our mentality and culture.
One principle we should always keep in mind: the gospel is, by its nature, good news, the message of joy and hope. Whoever uses it to inspire fear and to create anxieties—one can be sure—is using it incorrectly, is distanced from the true meaning of the text.
In today’s passage—it is real—the tones are ominous: cataclysm, destruction, and danger of death. The language is deliberately tough and incisive; the images are those of punitive judgment because Jesus wants to warn against the grave danger of losing the opportunity of salvation that the Lord offers. Negligence, ignorance, lack of attention to the signs of the times, and spiritual insensitivity lead to catastrophe. Whoever loses his head to the realities of this world and is absorbed in business, lives in slumber, being blunted, in the pursuit of pleasure, undergoes a dramatic awakening.
But what are these images? We recall the context in which the passage is taken.
One day the disciples invite the Master to admire the magnificent building of the temple. Instead of sharing their justifiable pride, Jesus surprises them with a prophecy: “You see all these things? I assure you, not a stone will be left upon another here. All will be torn down” (Mt 24:2). Jerusalem who refuses to be converted is decreeing its downfall.
Amazed, the disciples ask him two questions: when will this happen and what are the warning signs? (Mt 24:3).
Instead of satisfying their curiosity, Jesus responds by introducing a teaching that is valid for people of all times: it is necessary to remain vigilant. To better clarify, he cites three examples:
The first is taken from a story in the Bible (Gen 6−9). In the days of Noah, there were two categories of people: some thought only to eat, drink and be merry. They were unprepared and perished. Others were vigilant, attentive to what might happen. They realized that the flood was approaching; they were saved and they began a new humanity (vv. 37-39).
As the flood came suddenly—Jesus says—the ruin of Jerusalem will suddenly come. As in the days of Noah many died, so also the Jews who will not recognize him as God’s messenger and not listen to his word, will perish in the catastrophe of the city. Those who have their eyes and hearts open to recognize and accept his message will be saved and will give birth to a new people.
The second is inspired by the activities that men and women do every day, working in the fields and preparing the flour to make bread (vv. 40-41). Just as they live more normal and apparently banal situations, some are attentive and behave as wise people and they see the Lord who comes. Others are distracted, careless, negligent, and lay the foundations of their ruin. The deeds they do look identical: they engage in work, earn a living, eat, drink and marry. How they perform them is radically different. Some are careful, are led by God’s light and they are taken, or saved. Others are overwhelmed by the cares of this world. They do not keep in mind the judgments of God. They “are left”, meaning that they are not involved in the new reality of God’s kingdom.
The decision to be taken is urgent and dramatic; it comes to choosing between life and death, which is why Jesus insists: “Keep watch because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (v. 42). It’s worth repeating: Jesus is not coming to the showdown at the end of our lives. He comes today with his saving judgment.
The third example is even clearer: the thief will not warn you before he arrives, which is why the owner cannot doze off, even for a moment. He has to keep himself awake, otherwise, he risks of having all his possessions stolen (v. 43).
This God is truly amazing! He acts like a thief, and seems to want to seize the moment in which a person is unprepared.
The picture may not be the best because it suggests the idea of threat than salvation. However, it’s effective; it is a wake-up call: it draws attention on the impending danger of not noticing the favorable moment of the day in which the Lord comes to involve us in his peace.
Even the inhabitants of Jerusalem—Jesus meant—would have to be vigilant not to be surprised by the tragedy that would later strike them. On another occasion, Jesus expressed his heartfelt appeal: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you. How often, would I have gathered your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you refused” (Mt 23:37).
The final conclusion takes up the theme of the passage and applies it to the disciples of every age: “So be alert, for the Son of Man will come at the hour you least expect” (v. 44).
We know what it means to miss favorable opportunities. So many times we have had the experience. The more surprising and unexpected they are, the more they come out of our criteria of judgment, then the easier we let them pass by.
The comings of God in our lives are always difficult to grasp because they do not conform to human wisdom; they are incompatible. They are in contrast with the current mentality.
And only the one who is vigilant knows how to recognize them and is saved here and now.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.