On this first Advent Sunday, our readings direct us to the Lord’s Second Coming, not His first. Why?
Gospel (Read Lk 21:25-28, 34-36)
We must know the context of our Gospel reading today to truly understand its meaning. Earlier in the chapter (see Lk 21:20-24), Jesus describes for His disciples a catastrophic event that will take place within their lifetimes (see vs. 32). Jerusalem and its Temple would be destroyed by “the Gentiles.” Those days would be filled with horror. The Christians were to “flee to the mountains” when they see the city surrounded by armies. This must have given the disciples, all Jews, a jolt. Leave the holy city of Jerusalem when it is attacked? How could any devout Jew do this? Surely this instruction from Jesus was the first hint that the relationship Jewish believers had with the Old Covenant was about to undergo a dramatic change. [Note: We know from extra-biblical historical writings that the Jewish Christians did flee when the Romans arrived, because of these words of Jesus; they all survived the assault.]
Jesus described the destruction of the city and the Temple in the language and symbolism of Old Testament prophecies that had foretold the first time God visited His judgment that way on His people, at the time of the Babylonian Exile. It is important to recognize this. The apocalyptic language, so familiar to His disciples, helped them understand that the coming catastrophe was a judgment against Jerusalem for its rejection of the Messiah. That was why believers were to flee. The Old Covenant was coming to an end; the New Covenant would take its place. When the Romans encircled and sacked Jerusalem in 70 A.D., destroying forever the Old Temple, they were actually agents of God’s just judgment on His faithless, disobedient people.
So, why are we thinking about all this history on the first Sunday of Advent? A quote from the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible (pg 60) might help:
Like many religions in the Near East, the Israelites regarded their Temple as a miniature replica or microcosm of the world; it was an architectural model of the universe fashioned by God. Conversely, the universe itself was a macrotemple, where God also dwells with His people. This is best summarized by the Psalmist, “He built His sanctuary like the high heavens, like the earth, which He has founded forever” (Ps 78:69)…These considerations help make sense of Jesus’ words in their historical context. With the dawning of the New Covenant, God had to clear away the central symbol of the Old Covenant, the Temple. The Church is God’s new and spiritual Temple, built with the living stones of Christian believers (Mt. 16:18, Eph 2:20-22; 1 Pet 2:4-5). In this light, the devastation of the Temple and the judgment of Israel in A.D. 70 can be seen as an overture to greater things. That is, the termination of the Old Covenant world prefigures the destruction of the universe, God’s macrotemple, and the judgment of all nations by Christ (cf. 2 Pet 3:5-7). Thus, Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Mt 24-25) is initially fulfilled in the first century as He said (Mt 24:34). But imbedded in Christ’s words are spiritual truths that point forward to His Second Coming in glory and the end of the visible world.
The destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 points forward to the return of Jesus at the end of time—at an hour we do not know. So, just as Israel waited many centuries for the first Advent of Jesus, we are now waiting for His second Advent. The Church gives us a whole season to ponder this. Therefore, we should pay close attention to what Jesus tells His disciples as they had to wait for the coming time of tribulation, for we are likewise in need of His instruction: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.” We should notice that His concern for His followers is not food and weapons shortages, vigilante groups to ward off the Romans, or political posturing. No, He wants their hearts to be unencumbered. He wants them to be “vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent.” The preparations He urges on His followers are spiritual, not physical. This is our Advent work. We have four weeks to check our hearts for distractions, entanglements, and preoccupations that cloud our minds and siphon our energy away from growth in faith, hope, and love—the only preparation that will enable us to “stand before the Son of Man” when, once again, He comes to a people who long to see His face.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, in so much of my life, I seem to be waiting for something. Advent reminds me I’m waiting for You!
First Reading (Read Jer 33:14-15)
Jeremiah was a prophet who had to deliver to the Jews the terrible news of God’s first judgment on Jerusalem and the Temple, in about the 6th century B.C. However, in this reading, God makes a remarkable promise that is full of hope: “I will raise up for David a just shoot… In those days Judah shall be safe and Jerusalem shall dwell secure.” Did God keep this promise? We know that Jerusalem and the Temple were both destroyed within a generation of Jesus’ prophetic announcement. Because of how Judah’s history unfolded, we know that the fulfillment of this promise was much deeper than the protection of a territory or a building. Jesus, the “just shoot” of David, reigns now over a new Jerusalem, which is the Church. He and all who are baptized into Him form the new Temple, where true worship of God takes place. The season of Advent reminds us that we are still waiting for the full manifestation of this triumphant Kingdom. It is present in the world now in a veiled way, but someday, all creation will see and exclaim, “The LORD our justice.”
Possible response: Heavenly Father, our long wait for the return of Your Son is not “if” He comes, but “when.” Thank You for always keeping Your promises.
Psalm (Read Ps 25:4-5, 8-10, 14)
This psalm gives crystal clarity to what our preparation is to be as we wait for the Day of the Lord: “Guide me in Your truth and teach me, for You are God my Savior, and for You I wait all the day.” Our focus in this time of waiting is always to be on God and His will for our lives—this day, this hour. If we ponder this psalm, it will protect us from indifference, sloth, and self-satisfaction as we wait. It will also keep us from wasting energy on wondering how prepared others are for that Day—always a temptation. Sometimes we can look at our culture, our neighbors, and even our family members with an eye of judgment. We worry about the sin of others rather than our own. During this Advent, we can resolve to work only on ourselves; our antiphon is an excellent Advent prayer: “To You, O Lord, I lift up my soul.”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read 1 Thess 3:12-4:2)
Context will help us understand this reading, as it did with our Gospel. This is the earliest epistle written by St. Paul in the New Testament. It is addressed to a church he established after he preached the Gospel in Thessalonica on one of his missionary journeys. It is full of instructions for daily living for new converts. It is deeply pastoral in nature. These new Christians had many questions, especially about the Second Coming of Jesus. At least once in every chapter, St. Paul mentions the return of Jesus in glory.
When we know this, we can take note of the emphasis in the verses of our reading—it is entirely on growing in holiness. A true, sound preparation for the Lord’s Second Coming, whenever it happens, always includes striving to “increase and abound in love for one another and for all… to be blameless in holiness… at the coming of our Lord Jesus.” This emphasis is consistent with Jesus’ teaching in our Gospel. We are not to bog down in timetables, in discerning supernatural or cosmic signs, political machinations, or idleness as we wait for Jesus to come for us. No, we should make every effort to conduct ourselves “to please God.”
Advent gives us a fresh start on a new year of preparation. May we use it wisely.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, help me welcome another year in which to know and love You and to love others for Your sake.