Unfinished business at the start of the liturgical year

Homily for the First Sunday of Advent, 2023


The readings from sacred scripture on this first Sunday of Advent, this first Sunday of a new liturgical year, can be a bit of a shock, can’t they?

We’ve only just lit the first candle of the Advent wreath, but in many ways Christmas is already in the air. We don’t expect to hear “Joy to the World” or “Silent Night,” but we’d be surprised not to hear “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Already in some of our homes there are Christmas trees, and some have set up, or soon will set up, crèches or Nativity displays, often with Mary and Joseph kneeling before an empty manger, all set for the arrival of the coming newborn king.

Coming to Mass, we might vaguely expect some hint of the child to be born in the readings. The first reading is from Isaiah, who elsewhere wrote: “Unto us a child is born” and “the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son.” Or think of the prophet Micah: From Bethlehem “shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.” So today’s readings, if we’re paying attention, may feel almost like a slap in the face! The first reading from Isaiah stings like Ash Wednesday:

Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful;
all of us have become like unclean people,
all our good deeds are like polluted rags;
we have all withered like leaves,
a nd our guilt carries us away like the wind.

For the Gospel reading, after a whole year focusing primarily on the Gospel of Matthew, we hear the first of many readings for the year ahead taken from the Gospel of Mark. Yet Jesus’ stark message of watchful readiness and vigilance is familiar from the last few weeks with the parables of the talents and the wise and foolish virgins.

Works in progress

A new liturgical year has begun, but somehow we haven’t quite turned a corner — as if we still have unfinished business from last year. And why not? Don’t we always? We did hear, last Sunday, on the Solemnity of Christ the King, about the finishing of all unfinished business, in the beautiful and terrifying parable of the Sheep and the Goats: a parable of the Last Judgment, when the full truth of who each of us is will be established once and for all, every wrong will be righted, and evil, injustice, and death itself will be ended. Until that day comes, we’re all works in progress in a world that’s a work in progress.

The mystery of sin and evil and injustice is still with us, in forms both large and small, from the renewal of violence between Israel and Gaza to the last unkind or unfair word that you or I said about someone who gets on our nerves. The hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and imprisoned, for whose care or lack of care the Lord will judge us all, are all around us. And so the need for vigilance and watchful readiness is still with us.

Advent is the promise of good news, but we can’t fast-forward past the bad news to get to the good news. Those that are well don’t need a physician, Jesus says, but those who are sick. The road to Christmas begins with acknowledging our sickness, our brokenness. It begins with stern warnings to be watchful and vigilant.

We all know these things. We know we’re broken. We know we need to be watchful and vigilant. But, as a famous writer, Samuel Johnson, once said, “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed” — and long before that the great philosopher Plato wrote that “The greater part of instruction is being reminded of things you already know.”

Holy mother Church is a great teacher — and in the rhythms of the liturgy, year after year, she teaches us, in large part, by reminding us of things that are true all the time, but which we may not always keep vitally in mind. We spend these brief weeks of Advent (as brief this year as they ever are, with Christmas falling on a Monday) preparing our hearts for our Lord’s coming, yet the joy of our Lord’s Incarnation is always with us, while the work of preparing our hearts is never complete. We spend six comparatively long weeks of Lent in penance and purification to celebrate the Paschal Triduum and the Easter season — yet the glory of our Lord’s resurrection, along with the sorrow of the cross, are always with us, while the work of penance and purification is never complete.

Not accepting what we can’t change

It’s easy, over time, to become dull to the truth, to become complacent about the way things are. What are you going to do? What are we going to do? It’s true: We can’t fix the brokenness of the world, or even ourselves. Does that mean we accept it? Does Jesus accept it? Does Isaiah in the first reading? Does this sound like acceptance?

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
with the mountains quaking before you,
while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for,
such as they had not heard of from of old.

The prophet longs for God to come crashing down into the mess of the world and set things right. That longing — that rejection of complacency, combined with faith in God’s power and goodness — is where we must begin to fully appreciate what we celebrate 22 days from now. What happens in the stable at Bethlehem may not look like God rending the heavens, but appearances can be deceiving, and what starts as small as a mustard seed in time can become something very different.

The kingdom of God also is a work in progress in all of our hearts, in our Church, in our world. May we be watchful and vigilant for opportunities to build it up. May we make our own the spirit of this Advent prayer prayed by Pope Benedict XVI exactly 15 years ago today:

Come Jesus; come, give strength to the light and to the good; come where dishonesty, ignorance of God, violence and injustice dominate; come, Lord Jesus, give strength to the good in the world and help us to be bearers of your light, workers of peace, witnesses of truth. Come Lord Jesus!