enaissance master Pintoricchio's fresco of "The Resurrection" in the Vatican's Borgia Apartments is seen in this photo provided by the Vatican Museums. CNS photo/courtesy of Vatican Museums

Be prepared for when the Lord returns

  • November 20, 2014

First Sunday of Advent (Year B) Nov. 30 (Isaiah 63:16b-17; 64:1, 3-8; Psalm 80; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37) 

Who is responsible when disaster or collapse strike? It is human nature to make excuses and look for something and/or someone to blame. The passage from Isaiah dates from the fifth century B.C. The exiles had returned from Babylon but the land of Israel still had not recovered. The temple and the city of Jerusalem were shadows of their glory days, and the land was depressed socially and economically. Various factions competed for dominance in the governance of the nation. People were clearly disillusioned and cynical, and most of us at one time or another have shared their feelings. 

The passage is a prayer of lament and penitence, but many voices are present in the text. One voice wanted to blame God, accusing God of “making them stray” from God’s ways and for “hardening their hearts.” Not a word about personal choices, free will and responsibility! Later on, another voice made a frank admission of sin and guilt, but even then, God was chided for “hiding” from them. But throughout this prayer one hears their pain and a heart-rending cry for God’s presence. They wished that God would tear open the heavens and come down to put things right. All of the wonders and deeds of power that God accomplished so long ago would be rekindled. The people were longing for the excitement and joy of their initial relationship with God. 

Many people today share their pain-filled sense of God’s absence and their fervent wish that God would be present in ways that they could see, touch and feel. The people in Isaiah’s prayer realized that “God will gladly meet all those who do what is right” and they realized that they had fallen far short. 

In the end they seemed resigned to the fact that for their relationship with God to be restored and given new life they would have to cleanse their hearts and minds. The image of the potter and the clay signaled their surrender to God’s will and judgment and a willingness to be molded anew — no more excuses. The lesson is as relevant today as it was in the fifth century B.C. — human nature does not change all that much. 

This humble surrender was lacking in the Corinthian community. Paul thanked God that the Lord had granted them untold riches: speech, knowledge and spiritual gifts. On the surface, the text means what it says, but there is a sharp and deliberate irony in Paul’s words. All of the chaos and division that Paul battles in the letter had been caused by their misuse of precisely these gifts. Instead of unity and love, the community was an example of selfishness, factionalism and elitism — all because these graces had been used for selfish ends instead of the common good. He reminded them that they would be measured by the standard of love on the day of the Lord, and that the most important thing in the world was their invitation to fellowship with Christ. Again, both the problem and the rebuke resonate with our own time and our own communities. 

There are so many human activities for which we must remain awake and alert, but probably the most important is our spiritual life. Many people live on automatic pilot — they let one day and activity flow into another without a thought as to why they are here or what their life means. Most mystical traditions insist on the importance of attentiveness or mindfulness. The early Christians lived each day in eager anticipation of the Lord’s return and the beginning of eternity with Him. Spiritual sleep — laxness and inattention — was to be avoided at all costs. It was so important to be able to present to the Lord a post-baptismal life well-lived and spiritually rich. They treated each day as a precious gift and as if it were their last, paying attention to the many opportunities presented to them. 

Most people today do not live in expectation of the immediate return of the Lord or the end of the world. Ironically, end-of-the-world scenarios are now played out in the ecological, natural or military realms. 

Regardless of when or how the end comes for us it is important that we are ready. The Gospel’s warning still stands: Stay awake — for your sake and for others!