First Sunday of Advent, Year A

First Sunday of Advent, Year A

First Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5; Response: Psalm 122:1-9; Second Reading: Romans 13:11-14; Gospel: Matthew 24:37-44

On this Sunday, the liturgy begins Year A – the year when most of the gospel readings are taken from the Gospel of Matthew. It is called Year A because Matthew’s gospel is the first document in our New Testament. The first reading is from the eighth-century B.C. prophet Isaiah. His activity roughly covers the years 740 B.C. to the 680s B.C. His ministry centers on Jerusalem, its kings, nobles and people. His oracles and experiences indicate a well-educated man from an upper-class family or, perhaps, even some branch of the royal family. This we can surmise from his easy access to the palace and to the kings. He was married to a woman called “the prophetess” in Isaiah 8:3. They had two sons: Shearjashub (7:3) and Mahershalalhashbaz (8:3). Both names never made it into modern name lists, but both names had symbolic significance for Isaiah’s God-given ministry. In the first reading, Isaiah had a vision of Jerusalem. It was all good news. The bad news comes in the second part of the vision, which is not included in today’s reading. Jerusalem was envisioned as the center of the earth. The hill named Zion, on which the temple of the Lord was built, would be the highest mountain. “All nations shall stream toward it.”

Was Isaiah envisioning the flow of tourists to Jerusalem all the way to the 21st century? No; he was God’s cheerleader stirring up his people to recognize the role God had given to his people and to live up to that privilege. In Isaiah’s view, people from all over the earth would be drawn to Jerusalem, “that the Lord may instruct them in his ways,” and that they may walk in the paths outlined by that instruction. A key sentence that Jesus quotes to the Samaritan woman in John 4:22 is this, “For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” To which Jesus adds words every Christian should remember: “…for salvation is from the Jews.” The best known part of Isaiah’s vision is, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” It is a vision of peace. Rarely has it come to pass. Instead, we see throughout history the very opposite – about which the prophet Joel (see Joel 3:10), four centuries later and more realistically, had this to say: “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears, etc.” The selection of this reading for the first Sunday of Advent was probably determined by the closing words: “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” Only then can Isaiah’s glorious vision be realized.

Psalm 122:1-9 was chosen as a Response Psalm to the first reading because, from that reading, it picks up the theme of the importance of Jerusalem as the location of “the house of the Lord.” In the Psalm, however, which is older than Isaiah, we see only “the tribes of the Lord” going up to city and temple. Isaiah moves beyond such narrow limits to envisioning the whole earth, “all nations,” attracted to city and temple. A theme of peace is found in both Isaiah’s reading and in the Psalm; but in the Psalm, the peace of Jerusalem is only for the tribes of Israel.

In Romans 13:11-14, Paul warns the Christians of Rome to wake up. Night is over. The day is at hand. Paul must have had some negative reports about the Roman Christians. He neither founded that Church, nor had he yet visited it. What were some problems? Revelry (partying and what that infers), drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness (sexual immorality), quarreling and jealousy. Paul calls these the works of darkness. He advises them to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” This reading was selected because a major theme of Advent is preparing ourselves for the return of Jesus. This short excerpt from Matthew tells us nothing about the context of the words attributed to Jesus in today’s gospel. Worse yet, the headline is omitted, which reads like this: “But of that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” He is talking about the day of judgment, the so-called “Day of the Lord,” the end of time and his return. Let’s look at the context. Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem for Passover. They had just left the temple. The disciples pointed out to him the beauty of the temple buildings. He replied, “You see all these things? Amen, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another….” They went out to the Mt. of Olives. The temple was in full view. The disciples want more information. “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” That is the introduction to Jesus’ final discourse, Matthew’s version of it.

It is noteworthy that Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man,” a favorite title of Jesus in all four gospels. It is based on the judgment scene of a vision in Daniel 7. There a “son of man,” meaning a human being, is given power by the “Ancient of Days” (God), to judge and destroy “the Little Horn” (an animal’s horn on its head). The Little Horn refers to a King of Syria who, at the time (168 B.C.), was violently persecuting Jews in Jerusalem and vicinity. The Little Horn is described as a ruler “whose mouth was full of boasting, who destroyed other horns to make room for himself.” In Daniel, the Son of Man was a symbol representing persecuted Jews and victory over their persecutor. As time went on, interpreters concretized Daniel’s symbolic figure into a historical figure who would free the Jews from their oppressors. Christians interpreted this Son of Man in Daniel as a “prediction” applied to Jesus, who would destroy their own persecutors before or at the end of time, which they were convinced was close (first century A.D.).

What are we to do with all this? Christians and scam artists have been setting the date of Jesus’ return since Christianity began. They are still doing it. Instead of following the date-setters, we turn to the Church Father Origen of Egypt (died 254). He asks his reader to keep in mind that each individual’s death will arrive at an unknown day or hour. Therefore, be vigilant at all times.