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FIRST SUNDAY OF
Patricia Datchuck Sánchez
A New Word for A New Year
1 THESSALONIANS 3:12-4:2
LUKE 2:25-28, 34-36
Here we go again! Another liturgical year has ebbed away; a new one is upon us. . . like it or not, time, like an ever-rolling stream is carrying us forward. Having come full circle to a new beginning, things nevertheless look quite familiar. When we read the ancient scriptural selections for yet another Advent, we wonder if there is anything new under the sun. Weve heard the texts before, we know the hymns by heart. Weve met all the protagonists of this season and can anticipate what John the Baptizer, Paul, Luke, Jeremiah, Isaiah and the other prophets are going to say even before their words are proclaimed in our midst.
As we make our way from the church to the mall and marketplace, to work and to play, we quickly realize that we have become veterans of this season. Well make the lists and do the shopping; well wrap the presents and decorate the tree. Well write the cards and bake the cookies. Well attend the pageants and parties and when the Christmas story is read, well mouth the words that have become so indelibly engraved upon our memories. . . the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we have seen his glory: the glory of an only Son coming from the Father, filled with enduring love (John 1:14, gospel for Christmas Mass During the Day). In that moment and by Gods grace the words we have spoken and heard for decades will challenge us to shake off what may have become rote and routine and awaken to the ever startling and fresh newness of God, present and alive among us!
The difference between the passing of yet another year, like so many other years, and the promise of a new day dawning is Jesus Christ. From the moment the incarnate word became flesh and blood, the course of human history was forever altered. Gods gift of Jesus has communicated new meaning and new direction to every individual human story. History, because of Gods word to us in Jesus, is no longer a cyclic repetition of similar events but a linear movement with a beginning, a purpose and a goal, all of which originate and are subsumed in God.
Therefore, as Arthur Dewey (Proclamation, Augsburg Press, Minneapolis: 1996) has noted, each advent signals a return to the beginning but it is always a new beginning. Communities of faith start all over again each Advent. In the midst of a world where God is seldom felt, we yearn to experience God again, for the first time.
As we read and listen to our ancestors in the faith, we trust that memory and hope will come alive; this trust is not misplaced because the word, as it is proclaimed, is a living entity, speaking a new message, in a new manner, in a new year, to a people who long to be new again. Each Sunday of Advent (as well as each Sunday of the year) the word calls the gathered assembly to reach beyond rote and routine and to move from cyclical rehearsal to personal breakthrough.
To aid each member of the community in their breakthrough to newness, Jeremiah (first reading) reminds us that Gods promises are never left unfulfilled. The long awaited just shoot of Davids lineage made his first appearance in Jesus. In the interim between Gods promises, we long with certainty for the full flower of his second coming.
Paul, in his correspondence with the Thessalonians, offers wise counsel to those who are striving to evolve from cyclical rehearsal to personal breakthrough, viz., God is ever present, strengthening us and making us holy as we try to keep our lives consonant with the word we have been taught.
Lukes word to us in the gospel is couched in the apocalyptic vernacular of the first Christian century C.E. Piercing the symbolism, we can discern the essence of his message. . . be watchful, pray constantly and stand secure.
Considering the circumstances of Jeremiahs contemporaries, his word of promise, as expressed in todays first reading must have seemed like a breath of fresh, new air. No doubt, they felt as if their lives were on a never ending downward spiral, a cyclical rehearsal of one tragedy after another.
First, those who were old enough had witnessed the demise of their fellow Israelites in the northern kingdom in 722 B.C.E. The power of the conquering Assyrians remained unchallenged until the death of Ashurbanipal in 633 B.C.E. At that time, according to Herodotus, Scythian hordes from the Caucasus plowed through the near east, plundering the land and its peoples. Stirred to action by the onslaught, Babylon made its initial campaigns into the region in what was to be a successful attempt to dominate the entire fertile Crescent. Soon Assyria (612 B.C.E.) fell, then Haran (609 B.C.E.) and the attack on Egypt began (601 B.C.E.).
In the midst of all this chaos, Jeremiah received his call to prophesy (ca 626 B.C.E.). To a people shaken to their political and spiritual roots, he spoke first a word of warning. If Judah did not renew its covenantal loyalties, it too would topple like a domino before the Babylonian forces. A guiding voice in Josiahs religious reform, Jeremiah (11:1-14) called his people to a renewal of heart and mind. Unfortunately, his words went largely unheeded and Josiahs reform foundered soon after his death in 609 B.C.E.
With the ascendancy of Jehoiakim, the threat of political reversal was renewed with a vengeance. Despite the prophets warnings the inept king did little to stem the increase of idolatry and other abuses of the covenant. Before long, Jerusalem fell (597 B.C.E.) and within ten years Judah was totally controlled by Babylon (587 B.C.E.).
Amid the mournings and tears of a defeated people bound for exile, Jeremiah spoke a word of promise and comfort. Judah had been unfaithful; that fact was unquestioned. But Yahweh, their partner in covenant, was faithfulness personified; that too was an unquestioned fact on which Jeremiah and his contemporaries could hang their hopes. The messianic throne, despoiled by Jehoiakim, Zedekiah and so many others, would one day be occupied by a worthy king. The Semah saddiz or just shoot (v. 15) promised by Jeremiah, became a classic prophetic term for the messiah or anointed one of God (Isaiah 11:1, Zechariah 3:8, 6:12). Because of this just shoot, Judah would once again grow and flourish in safety and a renewed Jerusalem would receive a new name, Yahweh Sidgenu, The Lord our justice (v. 16). A paranomasia (word play) on the name Zedekiah (the last and weakest of Judahs kings), Yahweh Sidgenu would inaugurate a new era, i.e., the age of Gods saving presence, later called the messianic era.
What can contemporary Advent believers in Jesus learn from this foray into the times and ministry of Jeremiah? George Santayana (The Life of Reason, 1906) suggested that familiarity with ones history is valuable because those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it. While this may be one small part of the lesson Jeremiah offers, it is not the most important. Of greater significance is what believers can learn about the quality of Gods love and the character of Gods fidelity.
In what appeared to be a cyclical rehearsal of sin and its consequences, viz., a cavalcade of endless political tragedy, God spoke a word of healing and promise. On the strength of that word, Judah was renewed; where there had been no hope, God spoke hope. Where there had been sin, God spoke forgiveness.
So it is this Advent. Each of us approaches this season with our own catalog of tragedies and failures. In the midst of it all, God will speak a new word of hope, life and forgiveness; that Word is Jesus!
1 THESSALONIANS 3:12-4:2
Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of traveling with children is probably familiar with the question. . . Are we there yet? Little people (and big people too) are eager anticipators. A trip is no sooner begun than we seem to grow weary with the course that will take us from A to B. So it is with promises. In the interim between a promise and its fulfillment, many of us are tempted to impatience. In a sense, the early Christians could be characterized by a comparable eagerness and impatience. Through the apostolic preaching, they had been assured that they were on a journey toward the full realization of Gods reign among them. Along the way, when difficulties arose and their hopes faltered... they were wont to demand, Are we there yet? Similarly, the early believers had been promised that Jesus, who came among them to bring near the reign of God, would soon return. As weeks grew into months and then years, their impatience for his return mounted. Some even began to doubt the promise. When these difficulties threatened to disrupt the stability of one of his ecclesial foundations, Paul wrote quickly to remedy the situation.
As expressed in todays second reading, Paul prayed that those whom he had introduced to Jesus would not lose heart but would channel their impatience into increased efforts at holiness and faithfulness. In order to be prepared to reach their destination (Are we there yet?) and to see the fulfillment of the promises that had been made to them, Paul exhorts his readers (then and now) to remember all that they had learned from him (4:1). As he did in establishing other communities of faith, Paul would have handed on to them what he also had received, viz., that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day, and that he appeared to his own (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). Having thus preached this word of salvation, Paul would then have aided those who heard this word and accepted it in their efforts to keep and live it.
Like our Thessalonian brothers and sisters in the faith, we too, are privileged to hear the saving word spoken anew today. With them, and following their lead (which you are indeed doing, 4:1), we are called to a daily integration of that saving word with who we are, by living prayerfully, morally and lovingly in Jesus name. Moreover, each day, we are called to learn to make still greater progress (4:2). Perhaps this could be accepted as an Advent challenge for 1997. . . to listen to Gods new word, with new ears and a new heart so as to keep and live that word with renewed zeal and thereby to make greater progress on the journey. Are we there yet?. . . Each day lived in faithfulness to the word brings us closer to our destination and nearer to the fulfillment of Gods promises.
LUKE 2:25-28, 34-36
By the time Luke wrote the first of his two volume opus in the mid-eighties C.E. the church had extended the route of its pilgrimage toward the kingdom far beyond Jerusalem and its Jewish roots. A diverse community of many languages and cultures, many were second and third generation Christians who had never seen or heard Jesus during his earthly ministry. Aware of the promise of Jesus return and growing uneasy as to the when of its fulfillment, many began to wonder if their journey would ever end. Are we there yet? and When will that great day finally arrive? were two questions with which the Lucan evangelist dealt quite handily.
From the outset, Luke made it clear that his purpose was to offer asphaleia or assurance (1:3-4) that the word of salvation which God had begun to speak in Jesus continued to be proclaimed in and by the church. As to those who were impatient for their journey to end and for the promises of God to be fulfilled, Luke offered a different perspective. By the time he wrote, it had become obvious that the churchs urgent preaching about the imminence of the parousia had to be rethought. Realizing that the church was here to stay, at least for an indeterminable little while, Luke focused the attention of his readers on how they were to wait and prepare for the Lord in their present situation.
Just as the angel messengers present at Jesus ascension into glory asked the disciples, Why are you standing here looking up into the sky? (Acts 1:11), Luke invited his readers to shift their attention and energies from future fulfillment to present service and commitment. Rather than search the skies for apocalyptic portents, in the sun, moon and stars, or shrink in fear at the cataclysms of sea and waves, Luke advised his readers to rethink the word of God that had been spoken and which continued to speak to the ever-changing circumstances of their lives. Anchored in that word, they were to guard against flagrant licentiousness on the one hand and an excess of paranoia on the other. Only by daily attending to the word in constant prayer they hope to be prepared for whatever the future may bring. Confidence and hope would enable them to put to rest useless anxiety. Watchfulness and prayerfulness were to be their best line of defense and preparedness.
We have heard the words of Luke before, just as weve rotely performed all the routines (gifts, cards, etc.) which come our way at this time each year. But the grace of Jesus, word of God incarnate, the grace of the God who spoke him into being, and the grace of the abiding Spirit will enable us, during this Advent (and each day of the new liturgical year), to hear the ever new message of this saving word as it speaks to us. . . for the first time.
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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.
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