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FIRST SUNDAY OF
Patricia Datchuck Sánchez
The Advent Experience
ISAIAH 63:16-17,19; 64:2-7
1 CORINTHIANS 1:3-9
Much of the season of Advent is spent in waiting for something or someone to come. Depending upon the age, experience and level of responsibility of those who wait, expectations vary. For some, the season is marked by a delicious anticipation of good things to enjoy. Christmas is coming. . .Santa Claus is coming . . .New skates are coming. . .Parties are coming . . .Bonuses are coming. . .Days off from work and/or school are coming. . .Snow is coming, and with it, the possibilities for skiing and sledding are coming. . .
For some there may be a pall hung over the season. . . With the snow comes the inevitable shoveling!. . . Also coming are credit card statements and bills. . . Another year is almost upon us, adding yet another year to a life that seems to pass before our eyes too quickly to be tamed and savored. . . Company is coming. . . there are many things to do, so many gifts to buy and wrap and deliver. . . So many meals to prepare and cookies to bake, so many decorations . . . so many lights . . . so many . . . Too many!
In its wisdom the Church, through the scripture readings for Advent gathers the preoccupied thoughts, wandering hopes and scattered energies of each believer to focus them once again on the reason for the season: Jesus who comes!
Advent celebrates the coming, into time and space and human flesh, of Jesus, . . . not as a past event but also as a present experience and future joy yet to be fully realized. We know that Jesus will come because he is already here. He who was borne of Mary and lived and died and rose again to reveal the ways and will of God to humanity remains present in the sacred word; in the living bread; in the sacramental moments which mark the passages of our lives; in the midst of the community gathered in his name; and through the abiding power of the Spirit.
Scholars call this present experience of the God who comes realized eschatology. During Advent, perhaps more than at any other time of the year, believers are deeply engaged in the awareness of the future being disclosed in the present. Karl Rahner once described Advent as the time of the secret experience of the apparently inexperienceable. (The Great Church Year, Crossroad Press, New York: 1994). Advent is not simply a waiting for something that has not yet occurred but a period for the calm enjoyment and quiet cherishing of a gift already given. Indeed, God has given this gift in Jesus. He has come; he is come and he will come again.
But, the experience of Jesus presence and realized eschatology notwithstanding, most believers will admit a lack of preparedness for the climactic second Advent of our God. To that end, Mark in todays gospel counsels his readers to be constantly on the watch, to be busy, but not obsessed with the tasks at hand and to be daily prepared for a divine surprise.
Paul, in his Corinthian correspondence, reminds believers that each of us has been duly equipped for recognizing and receiving the Lord. Every good gift of speech and knowledge and every spiritual blessing are available to those who will appropriate them in trusting faith.
Isaiah, whose prophecies and visions have perennially set the tone for Advent, suggests that believers can best prepare a welcome for God by surrendering to the divine mercy and forgiveness as clay submits to the hands of a potter. Not an altogether attractive analogy, particularly in a society which touts the importance of independence and lauds the ambition of the self-made man or woman, nevertheless, Isaiahs image of potter and clay warrants serious consideration.
While there may be a willingness to approach the divine potter, acquiescing to be molded like clay, there may also be an inclination to insist on a certain design and particular specifications. The prayers of Advent invite believers to yield to God, to surrender like the anawim or poor ones, to wait for God, to call upon Gods name, to cling to the experiences of the inexperienceable and to pray, each day, as Isaiah exhorts: Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways! (Isaiah 64:4).
ISAIAH 63:16-17,19; 64:2-7
One of the many prayers of lament found outside the book of Psalms, this anguished cry by Trito-Isaiah gave voice to Israels experience of the absence of God as well as their intense desire to know Gods coming once again.
Occasioned by the ambivalent emotions of a people freed by Cyrus to return to their own land (after 538 B.C.E.), and yet discouraged by what seemed a daunting task of the reconstruction of their former way of life (before 538 B.C.E.), this lament erupts in a melange of both grief and trust.
Ironically, even though it was Israel who had departed from God, in a moral as well as in a geographic sense (the time away from Israel in Babylon was thought of as being apart from God), this prayer calls upon God to return (vs. 17). And, although, it was Israel who had sinned and become hardened to the divine overtures, everything is attributed to God. Why do you let us wonder. . . and harden our hearts? (vs. 17).
While human culpability for sin is not being denied, neither does the ancient author (nor his colleagues) make any distinction between the active will of God which intends the good of all, and the permissive will of God which, out of respect for human freedom, allows those who choose to do so to stray. As James Muilenburg (Isaiah, The Interpreters Bible, Abingdon Press, New York: 1956) explained, Sin and grace are both conceived as originating in God. The only answer in this perplexity is the experience of the soul whose life is everywhere rooted in the consciousness of God. God is not being blamed for human sin, but in the context of this lament the mystery of the divine providence and sovereignty over every area of human life is recognized and celebrated.
Claus Westermann and Walter Brueggemann, two preeminent scholars on the prayers of Israel, have suggested that the lament shows Israel at its best, giving authentic expression to their real experiences of life. While the boldness of the complaint may, at times, surprise contemporary believers, it is precisely this frank, tell-it-like-it-is, style of prayer which is perhaps lacking in the church today. Israel knew that things were not as they should be and, in that experience of disorientation, turned to, and demanded help of the only one capable of remedying their situation.
The faith expressed in the lament is nerve, it is a faith that knows that honest facing of distress can be done effectively only in dialogue with God who acts in transforming ways. (Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith, Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 1995).
Israels nerve is palpable in this Isaian lament. Although the exile in Babylonia had been interpreted and accepted as the inevitable consequence of Israels infidelity to the law and covenant, their trust in God was so intense that there was never any doubt that help would come. Moreover, because Israels relationship with God was rooted in the memory of Gods past deeds and gifts on their behalf, their trust in a future, similarly blessed, was unshakeable.
Prodigal children though they had been, their security in Gods love prompted Israel to remind God, You are our father (63:16; 64:7) and to fully expect that God would parent them once again.
Israels absence of doubts, the unshakeableness of their trust and their almost brassy presumptuousness of Gods abiding love form a fitting atmosphere for an Advent spirituality wherein, each year, sinful people wait in bold anticipation for the past, present and future comings of God. Perhaps, all has not gone well over the past year but the God who comes to parent, to redeem, to heal and to reshape, as a potter molds clay, will never disappoint.
1 CORINTHIANS 1:3-9
Because of the impressive network of 250,000 miles of paved roads which linked all areas of the Roman empire and because of the imperial postal service begun by Augustus, the travels and correspondence of the early Christian missionaries was greatly enhanced. In a commentary about the spread of the ancient church, Irenaeus of France wrote, The Romans have given the world peace and we travel without fear along the roads across the sea wherever we will. Among the cities which benefited from the Roman genius and Christian zeal was Corinth.
All thoroughfares, whether by land or sea, whether north, south, east or westward bound, converged in the city. Located in the narrow strip of land which connected southern Achaia with the rest of Greece, sailors preferred to transport their ships by dragging them across the 3.6 mile wide isthmus on wooden rollers rather than risk the treacherous 180 mile sail around the rocky southern shore of Corinth.
Paul traveled to Corinth after an unsuccessful mission in Athens. Seeing great possibilities for a Christian foundation in the city, he worked for about eighteen months to secure it. While he was not able to return to Corinth for several years, Paul was conscientious in his pastoring of the church, sending missionaries in his name and letters which offered guidance and inspiration. Although it may have given Paul reason to wonder why anyone would save and make a collection of his correspondence, the church, for centuries, has been privileged to be counseled, comforted and challenged by the insights of the great apostle.
Todays first reading is comprised of the thanksgiving portion of Pauls letter; after greeting the church, he then gratefully celebrated the blessings enjoyed by its members and their responsiveness to those blessings. This was the conventional literary pattern Paul followed in all his letters with the exception of the letter to the Galatians. Therein Pauls obvious annoyance seemed to preclude any sense of gratitude.
Quite apropos for the Advent season, Pauls prayer of thanksgiving for the Corinthian believers exhibits a three dimensional character. He began with a mention of the past favors with which the community had been endowed. Among these were the gifts of speech and knowledge (vs. 5). But, as he would explain later in his letter, these gifts had not always been used to their best advantage. Paul continued with praise for the fact that the Corinthians were confirming the witness he had borne among them in their present situation while waiting for Christ to come again. The third dimension of Pauls prayer of thanks looks to an eschatological future wherein those who rely on the strength of Christ will be found blameless at his appearance.
Here at the outset of Advents season of waiting, Pauls prayer reminds this gathered community that it is founded firmly in Gods past comings and manifestations of love; it is sustained in the present by the God whose coming never fades and it already has one foot in the future in which it finds the hope and inspiration to continue to live and serve and welcome every Advent experience.
An ancient psalmist once praised God for the fact that wisdom could be found spilling forth from the mouths of babes (Ps 8:3). When a child delights an adult with a gem of innocent insight, the psalmists words are often repeated in affirmation of the fact. Most would agree that there are also other lessons to be learned from these little ones.
While their motivation may not necessarily be the purest, many children undergo a remarkable attitude adjustment in the weeks before Christmas. Traditional songs remind children that Santa Claus is coming to town, that hes making a list and checking it twice. . . that he knows whos naughty or nice. Eager to please and eager to be pleased when Christmas finally arrives, children do chores without complaint and make such efforts at goodness that their behavior during the rest of the year dims by comparison. On the eve of the long-awaited day, many little eyes and ears strain to remain alert so as to be able to catch a glimpse when the great jolly one appears. Perhaps this yearly Christmas phenomenon which brings out the best in our children also holds an insight from which adults may benefit.
Mark, today, advises his readers to remain watchful and alert, and, like good servants, to be about the task of doing the best that can be expected of them while awaiting the coming of Christ. These admonitions and others like them are repeated each Advent to awaken in believers a sense of the imminence of Jesus coming and to foster an attitude of quiet, childlike eagerness with which to prepare a welcome.
Significantly, each of the servants in Marks illustrative parable (vv.34-36) had been given a specific task by the master. In his writings, Paul preferred to speak in terms of the unique gifts and charisms which each believer had received (1 Corinthians 12). Luke and Matthew told similar parables regarding the talents entrusted to each servant by their master (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-27). While children spend December in anticipation of receiving gifts, the spirituality of Advent challenges believers to acknowledge and develop the gifts (tasks, talents) each has already been given and to devote these toward the realization of the coming reign of God in Christ.
Although some interpreters of scripture press the text into a literalness not intended by its various authors, the phrase, you do not know when the appointed time will come (vs 33) seems to be an exception to the fundamentalist rule. As Arthur J. Dewey (Proclamation, Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 1996) has noted, with the approach of the third Christian millennium, much ink will be spilt and hard disks filled to capacity over speculation concerning the end times. . . Such simplistic interpretations actually miss the deeper possibilities of this material. This passage calls for a special alertness that permeates ones entire life.
Jesus, himself had professed to be ignorant of the specifics of the end time (see Mark 13:32). Neither would his disciples (or any one else) be privy to that information (vs. 33). But rather than be frenzied by anxiety or lulled into a torpor, Jesus called for constancy, conscientiousness and a sharp eye. In further comment on this gospel, Arthur J. Dewey (op. cit.) advises, Life is in movement, the games afoot! We are not victims to the givens of our culture; instead, we are responsible servants of the future.
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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.
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