Reflections on Advent 2014
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
The Annunciation, today's gospel, is difficult because we feel we know the scene so well. We may indeed view the scene through other people's eyes, those of many artists.
Gabriel means ‘God is strong'; ‘he' is an angel, probably one of the seven who stand before God. The word ‘angel' means ‘messenger'. He has been sent now to tell that God's people is to be set free, an outcome he had been sent to promise earlier, according to the book of Daniel [9,21]. Nazareth is not even mentioned in the whole Old Testament, so it was a place of no importance. In St John's gospel [1,45-46] after the apostle Philip told Nathanael they had met Jesus from Nazareth, the one ‘of whom Moses and the prophets wrote', the reaction of Nathanael was: ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?' And Nazareth was in Galilee, which people from Judea thought half-pagan. All in all, it is an unlikely setting in human terms for an event which will alter human history.
[There were two distinct stages to marriage: betrothal before witnesses, with exchange of consent (a legal binding contract, broken only by divorce), and about a year later the groom took his bride to his home].
Mary (Miriam) is of marriageable age, so in her early teens. Tradition in the east suggests that the Annunciation took place at the well; but perhaps she was at prayer. Favoured one. The Lord is with you: fully turned towards God, but perplexed, upset. Jesus means ‘God saves': the name states his mission. Great/ Son of the Most High/ throne of David mean he will be a king. David was the ideal king of history, to whom the prophet Nathan gave God's message: "I will be a Father to him, and he a son to me", and Psalm 2 says of the king: "You are my son." This Son will be different, however, because "his reign will have no end". Who exactly Jesus is will not be stated as clearly again in St Luke's gospel until after the Resurrection.
Because she is familiar with the Old Testament Mary understands, but there is a problem. There is no false modesty here. Mary asks a straight question, seeking clarity. The Spirit of God hovered over the waters of chaos at the dawn of creation. A cloud rested over the Tent of Meeting as the Israelites passed through the desert. At the Transfiguration cloud covered the scene. All recall the presence of God. Abraham's wife Sarah laughed in disbelief when told she was to have a child, and God said: "Is anything impossible to God?" [Gen 18,14]. Now God proves the point, but He has to await Mary's response. The gospels picture Mary as the disciple of faith and trust. As handmaid and disciple, she will serve, for the Lord himself was to come "not to be served but to serve".
• Might I reflect on what has come to pass between the start and the end of this reading? How does it affect me?
• What sort of character does Mary show?
• Once again we see God being faithful to his promises, working to a pattern He has established from the start. We see how crucial was the choice given to Mary. My choices are not so important perhaps, but one thing they do share with that of Mary. They are unique to me. No one else will ever be in my circumstances or deal with the same cross-section of people or have the effect I can have. Can I serve?
• Mary shows no fake innocence about conception and child-bearing, and she stands on a point of principle as unmarried. How do I feel about that?
• Jesus and Joshua mean ‘God saves'. How will He bring that about in my case?
• Nazareth in Galilee, an unlikely place to start a new world, they all say. God seems to enjoy choosing the unlikely to do something different. Is there anything different that He has asked of me up to the present? Might He still have plans for me? Could He get through?
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
St John's gospel begins: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.
St Mark states bluntly at the start: The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. Mark puts his reason for writing at the start. As you read you know immediately what this story is about but no one in his gospel knows yet. St Mark's gospel is very short, so for the Sunday reading it is filled out from the others, today by St John. Neither Mark nor John tells us anything about the youth of Jesus.
Mark deals with events as they happen, whereas John fills out what Mark says about the Son of God by starting his gospel in eternity with the Word. Into this picture of the life of God in heaven there suddenly steps a man, sent by God. God has broken into history in a new way, putting into action a new plan, bringing light to where there was darkness. This man has a special task, to draw attention to the true light which will enlighten everyone coming into the world. He is to help all men and women to recognise the light. For John the evangelist John the Baptist is not a precursor or forerunner. He is most of all a witness.
The "Jews" query his credentials. We should not forget that almost everybody in the gospels is a Jew, Jesus included, except Pilate, the Syro-Phoenician woman, Roman soldiers, etc. St John's gospel comes out of an early Christian community, many of whose members were Jews. Because of adherence to Christ they had been expelled from the synagogue, cut off from a form of religious practice many would have grown up with. Since they were the minority community at the time they had no recourse but to accept, but the pain that they felt shows in the gospel. However, that cannot be taken to mean they were anti-Semitic. Furthermore, the authorities in Jerusalem had to keep a weather eye on people like John, because at the time there was strong expectation that the Messiah was about to come. Men putting themselves forward as the Messiah had led revolts against Rome which Rome put down ruthlessly, with great slaughter. Those sent ask John who he is claiming to be. Is he the Messiah? Is he Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah, foretold by the prophet Malachi [3,23]? Is he the prophet like Moses, foretold in the book of Deuteronomy [18,18]? The Word made flesh has not yet appeared as Jesus in St John's gospel, but already he is proving to be different from what is expected. Already there is tension. The question asked by the "Jews" runs through the gospel, as a question about Jesus, asking us: "Who is this man?" Much will depend on how we answer. [St John's gospel, last of the four, was written about 90 AD].
• What might it mean to me that God broke into human history when the Word was made flesh?
• By becoming man God made Christianity a ‘historical religion', working in and through human history, unlike those religious attitudes which picture God or a god up in heaven and human beings down on earth. Does it bring a special value to my day to day living?
• Do I need to think again about my attitude towards Jews?
• This gospel puts emphasis on John the Baptist as a witness. Would it expect from me that I also be a witness? What is the source of light in my life?
• How important to me is this plan that God devised?
• I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap. How do I react if another is preferred to me? Does recognition of the talent of another make little of the gifts I have?
SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
In the readings today we encounter the two people who point most clearly to the coming of Christ, the prophet Isaiah and St John the Baptist.
In the gospel today St Mark sums up in one sentence who it is he is writing about and what is his message: it is THE Good News, about Jesus who is the Messiah, fulfilling the promises of the Old Testament, and who furthermore is Son of God. The next person in Mark's gospel to refer to Jesus as Son of God will be the centurion at the cross [Mark 15:19]. It is as if Mark is saying: "This is what I believe. Now, where do you stand?"
It is written reminds us that Mark is writing for a literate audience, since Jewish Law commanded that children be taught to read. What he quotes comes partly from the prophet Malachi and partly from Isaiah. The wilderness of Sinai was where the Israelites got to know God after leaving captivity in Egypt. John lives in the steep, dry wilderness of stone and rock, with little vegetation, between Jerusalem and the Jordan near Jericho. He invites people into the wilderness to meet God again, as their ancestors did. Interestingly, the presence of God in the Temple in Jerusalem does not seem to come into John's preaching. The people go away from the holy place to find God in the desert. The messenger is sent to proclaim like a herald, to summon people and to demand an immediate response. The response is to be conversion, the confessing of sin with washing by baptism as a sign of cleansing, a symbol of hoped-for forgiveness. Confession of sin in public and in private was strong in Judaism, often in terms of the sacrifice offered in the Temple. Among the few insects that Jewish Law permitted as food were locusts, crickets and grasshoppers [Leviticus 11:22]. Camel skin clothing would have reminded Mark's readers of the prophet Elijah. In the other gospels John preaches about judgment and punishment; in St Mark he simply points towards Jesus, to whom he is merely a servant. He says of Jesus that he will baptise with the Holy Spirit. St Matthew adds ‘with the Holy Spirit and fire'. In both cases the idea is of purification, almost like a chemical process, like producing iron or gold. As we turn from sin, what is dross and unworthy, what turns us away from God, is burnt off. The Holy Spirit is God at work in us bringing about renewal and holiness of life.
• In the passage quoted from the Old Testament, the words of action: am going; will prepare; a voice cries; describe something happening at present, followed by words calling for action: prepare a way; make straight his paths. Should I see this as a call to action for me here and now?
• Our Lord used to go aside into quiet places to be alone and pray. The Baptist calls people out of their normal way of living to go off into the desert to find God. Should I think of a real space for God in my day? Could I bring my family in?
• The people went out into the desert in crowds and were set free of sin through water. Does this suggestion of a need to be relieved of a load appeal to me? Where do I go regularly to seek relief from the wear and tear of life? Do I seek escape from reality in ways that have not worked for me in the past?
• There are no locusts in this country to dine on. In Ireland long ago Advent was seen as similar to Lent. Could I try out some discipline in my eating habits?
• We see purity as a state of innocence that we have lost and would like to return to, whereas today's gospel sees purity as a state towards which we mature as the power of the Holy Spirit gradually gets to work on our good intentions. Should I take time to think about the Spirit at work in me since my Baptism?
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Gospel Reflection - Mark 13:33-37
Stay awake, because you do not know when the master of the house is coming.
Advent means ‘coming' or ‘arrival' and suggests the need to prepare a greeting. Few of us at this stage of November wish to be reminded of the inexorable approach of Christmas. Many of us will even be concerned about whether we can afford Christmas, given the trend of events, but then our people have celebrated happily when they had even less than us. What today's gospel suggests is that we might like to adjust our focus a little.
On hearing the gospel today we might be pardoned for thinking that we have heard it all before, and quite recently, during the final Sundays of the last liturgical year, the Year of Matthew. But then waiting is how we spend a great deal of our time anyhow.
St Mark suggests that the person for whom we should be waiting is the One who will help us make sense of our lives, and this person comes at different times and in different ways. The Church Year helps us to think about these ways in bite-size pieces. In this way we are helped not to take everything for granted as we do all too often. We can get used to the idea of Christ coming to us in Holy Communion. We often do not concentrate when He speaks to us through his Word at Mass. We do not notice when we experience his love in the love we receive from our family or from friends. As a result we need times like Christmas to remind us that the Son of God became man so that we will know how much God thinks about us. God became man two thousand years ago, but that will be of little importance to anyone if He does not become incarnate in my life and yours.
So we need to be alert, to keep watch and wait, with something of the expectancy of a mother making preparations for the birth of her child, because a new world can be born through the modest efforts of each of us together. In our case, fortunately, the master of the house only seems to have gone away. Like the doorkeeper we have been commissioned to do our share in charge of the house and cannot afford to be caught asleep on the job. The feast of Christmas reminds us the master is still willing to do most of the work-if we are there to allow him in the door.
• Today's gospel comes at the end of a passage where Jesus foretells gloom and doom, the destruction of Jerusalem, the tribulations that people will experience, ‘wars and rumours of wars', ‘the abomination of desolation in the Temple' (probably a statue of a Roman emperor, worshipped as a god), and so on. St Mark is reminding his readers that things will be bad. There will be conflict and rejection, as happened to Jesus, but the suffering would end in glory with the risen Christ. Mark ends with a quiet call to vigilance today to help us find sense, direction and purpose in life. Is it worth talking over?
• Is there one something worthwhile that I might try to bring about with my family, or within my family, this Advent?
• Somebody in every family carries most of the pressure of seeing to others at Christmas? Who is it in my family? Can I set about planning now what I intend to do to ease the load? Do I think there is plenty time yet?