The First Sunday of Advent
First Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 122:1-9
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 13:11-14
Gospel: According to St. Matthew 24:37-44
About a month before the secular world turns the page on 2019 and looks ahead to 2020 the Church begins the new year with the First Sunday of Advent. On January 1 we will all wake up, look in the mirror, determine what we don’t like and resolve to change it before the next year rolls around. Statistics show that fewer than 10 percent of Americans stick to their New Year’s resolutions and that by the end of the first week of January about one-fourth of us are already out of the running.
Psychologists and cultural gurus have come up with a number of reasons why we seem almost destined to fail, inventing such phrases as “cultural procrastination” to explain our inability to come good on our promises to ourselves. Yet despite our past experiences, we continue to resolve to be a better version of ourselves by year’s end. Maybe that is a better topic for research: Why do we, year-in and year-out make promises that we almost instinctively know we will not keep?
I think that the answer is encapsulated in one of the most important words in the human vocabulary – hope. We are hard-wired for hope in the same way that we are hard wired for logic and order and truth and goodness and beauty. Those wires can sometimes get crossed or rerouted, but by and large we are people who instinctively want to have hope in the future.
At the end of a long year, with the arbitrary new beginning on the horizon, we yearn for that metaphysical do-over and Advent offers it to us on a level that far exceeds that of the simple tearing off of the December page from a calendar. Advent is a true beginning as we take on the role of the Magi and look for the signs of the coming into the world once more of the King of the Universe who was celebrated one week ago on the last Sunday of the liturgical year.
This weekend we begin the four week vigil that anticipates the most amazing and awe-inspiring event in human history – the birth of the Son of God to Mary and Joseph. We look for a Messiah whose coming was foretold by Isaiah in the words of our opening reading – a reading that focuses on the greatest hope of humankind: true and lasting peace.
When I was a senior in college a group of nuclear weapons protesters led by Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., were arrested in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. They were charged with, among other things, trespassing onto the General Electric nuclear missile facility and damaging nose cones of nuclear warheads. The group was given the name the ‘Ploughshares Eight’ because of the symbolic nature of their action – they were metaphorically beating swords into ploughshares, citing one of the most famous lines from Isaiah and one that is at the heart of this weekend’s first reading: “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.”
No matter what one might think about their means or about the appropriateness of their actions, everyone should be able to feel a sense of brotherhood with their sentiments, especially as we begin our official liturgical preparation for the entrance into human history of the Prince of Peace.
But peace does not live in a vacuum. Pope St. Paul VI understood this when he uttered his most famous quote: “If you want peace, work for justice.” Justice, one of the cardinal virtues – the four necessary building blocks of a happy life, is beautifully defined by the great Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper as “the ability to live truly with the other.”
So what better time to strive for justice than Advent, a time when living with ‘the other’ seems most challenging as the hustle and bustle of life seems to turn us all into Grinches? There could be no better resolution, as we begin this new Church year, than to beat our personal swords into plowshares so that in four weeks, as we arrive for Christmas Mass we can be living signs of the fulfillment of the words of Isaiah, and we can, as the Psalmist says, “go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.”