First Sunday in Advent

Deacon Blaine Barclay

Dec. 3, 2017


In our opening hymn we just sang the words, ’’O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel. That mourns in lowly exile here, until the Son of God appear…. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.”

Bishop Robert Barron suggests that the whole texture of the season of Advent is contained in the lyrics of this most famous of Advent Hymns.  The Hymn, and not just the lyrics I have quoted, oscillates between despair and hope, between mournful loneliness and cheerful rejoicing.

Our first reading also captures this Advent mood, hope mixed with the anguish of absence.  The Prophet Isaiah knows that God has acted in the past; ’’Our Redeemer from of old is your name”, says Isaiah.  God has acted with, ‘’awe-some deeds’’, and, ’’quaking mountains’’.  But, Why?  Asks the prophet.  Why does God not act now in our own time and place?  To our hardness of heart, in anguish he cries out, ’’Open the heavens and come down’’.  The text, like a pendulum, moves back and forth between hope and despair. On the one hand, hope.  God, ’’works for those who wait for Him’’; ’’meets those who gladly do right’’; and, ’’who remember’’ the ways of God. On the other hand, despair; ’’we sinned’’; ‘’we transgressed’’ ; ’’all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth’’.  Such strong language. ’’Our iniquities, like the wind, take us away’’.  God’s face is ‘hidden’, says Isaiah.

Advent is ‘the’ season of the human heart, the heart that waits, poised between lonely anguish, the abyss of our own nothingness, and the tender presence of our loving Father.  The potter of our hearts of clay.  Hope, mixed with the anguish of absence.  Such is our first reading, such is the condition of the human heart, as we begin the waiting that is Advent.

In contrast to our first reading, in our second reading, St. Paul introduces us to a far more secure hope.  A hope that is still waiting, but nevertheless is filled with confidence in God’s faithfulness, in the gift of ’’the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus’’.  Yes, God’s presence is still also an absence.  We still need to be ‘’strengthened to the end’’, he says, so that…. ‘’We may be found blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ’’.  But the gift of God has been given.  Jesus is the presence of God in our midst, saturated, overflowing, embracing the anguish of the human heart, even our experience of the absence of God. ’’My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’’, cries Jesus from the cross.  He knows from the inside, right down to the bottom, the restless longing of our Advent hearts.

Jesus also knows just how easily our hearts can be lulled to sleep, seduced into trivialities, a false refuge for the lonely anguish of our longing hearts.  So, Jesus says to his disciples, and to us; ’’Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come’’. ’’Keep alert, be on the watch, keep awake, keep awake”, he emphasizes by way of repetition, just in case we didn’t hear him the first time. ’’Or else he  may find you asleep when he comes suddenly’’.

What does it mean to be spiritually asleep?  It can range from seeking distraction, to numbing ourselves with too much TV, alcohol, or shopping, to the deadly seven of sloth or acedia, when we are just too lazy to make the effort to wake up and get out of our comfortable spiritual beds.  Are we, am I, sleep walking through life?  Has the zombie apocalypse already taken place?  Unknown to myself, am I one of the walking dead?  Alive, but not really alive, living a kind of half life?  This Advent, Jesus calls us to wakefulness.  The season of Advent is a wakeup call our sleepy hollow hearts.  God is coming to us, be alert, be awake.

So how can we cultivate for ourselves, or, better yet, allow God to cultivate in us an awakened heart?  What does authentic Christian wakefulness look like?  What kind of concrete practices can open for us this necessary spiritual alertness?  We probably already have a sense of what these various disciplines of wakefulness look like.  The practice of the presence of God in daily prayer.  Regular reception of the Eucharist, the caffeine of the Christian life, so to speak.  Living the examined life through regular confession, perhaps taking the next step into getting a spiritual director. Lectio Divina, or sacred reading, especially of the scriptures, signing up or just showing up for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Advent may be a season of our waiting, but God is always already waiting for us, seeking us, desiring us, longing for intimacy with us, before we ever go in search of God.  God is always totally awake to our presence, we just need to wake up and show up.  God will do the rest. ’’And what I say to you, (says Jesus,) I say to all: keep awake’’.