1st Sunday of Advent B
Readings: Isaiah 63:16-64:7 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 Mark 13:33-37
We all know what it’s like to await the return of a loved one. During Advent the whole Christian community waits in partial darkness, but also in hope and trust, for the Second coming of our light: Jesus the Messiah. The liturgy for the First Sunday of Advent in the B Cycle confronts us with our sin and need for God but also challenges us to await Christ’s return in hope. We pray in the words of the Entrance Antiphon: “No one who waits for you is ever put to shame.”
The Isaiah reading is a lament pleading that God save the Jewish community which has just returned from exile in Babylon. Haunted by guilt over their sin, the returning exiles, through the voice of the prophet, beg in desperation that the Lord come in a mighty theophany as on Mount Sinai: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,/ with mountains quaking before you. . .” They pray that the Lord will find them living justly. “Would that you might meet us doing right/ that we were mindful of you in our ways!” Although tortured by guilt over sin, the exiles must have a deep confidence in the Lord who has saved them in the past. The prophet both confesses the nation’s sins and places absolute trust in God’s care: “We have all withered like leaves,/ our guilt carries us away like the wind./ . . . O Lord, you are our father;/ we are the clay and you are the potter;/ We are all the work of your hands.”
The second reading from the thanksgiving section in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians captures the mood of the Church during Advent. We Christians live in hope because of the gift of salvation brought by Jesus’ death and resurrection, but we also confidently await his future return in power. We, like the Corinthians, have been “richly endowed with every gift of speech and knowledge,” and therefore we can trust that we will “lack no spiritual gift” as we “wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus.” But our challenge is to be found “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent always dove tails with the readings at the end of the previous Church year because they are about Jesus’ second coming to complete the Kingdom of God. During this year’s B cycle of readings, we will read Mark’s Gospel, and so this Sunday gives us part of Mark’s version of Jesus’ apocalyptic sermon to his disciples at the end of his public ministry.
The setting is ominous. Jesus has just cleansed the temple and been engaged in violent controversy with the temple leaders over his authority for this prophetic action (see Mark 11-12). Now he and his disciples have left the temple, and when they express admiration for its building, Jesus announces, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.” When Mark is writing his gospel, these events have probably already happened, as the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.D. during the Jewish-Roman war.
In the first part of his sermon Jesus warns his disciples about wars and persecutions that will threaten them from without and the false prophets and Messiahs from within the community who will attempt to lead them astray. Despite the apparent signs of the end time, Jesus insists that the day or the hour is known only to God, therefore, he urges the disciples to be alert and watchful like servants put in charge by a master who travels abroad or like a doorkeeper who is to open to the master of a house upon his return at some unknown hour of the night. Although these images emphasize the need for being watchful, they do not provoke anxiety. The completion of the kingdom will be the work of the returning Son. Each disciple is only expected to be doing the assigned task. There may be no better way to keep Advent than to be attentive to our assigned duties as we long for the return of our Master.