First Sunday of Advent, Year A

First Sunday Of Advent, Year A

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122:1-9; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44

The first reading of Year A (Matthew) for the First Sunday of Advent is taken from the oracles of the Prophet Isaiah. His ministry can be roughly dated: 740-680 B.C. His activity centered on Jerusalem. The literary quality of his oracles indicate a well-educated man from an upper class family. His easy access to the kings of Judea, though usually unpleasant, may point toward kinship with royalty. He was married to a woman who is called a prophetess in Isaiah 8:3, though this may be no more than the custom in Germany of addressing the wife of a doctor as Frau Doktor (Mrs. Doctor). They had two sons with unusual names, Mahershalalhashbaz, and Shearjashub, names that have never become popular and are rightly relegated to obscurity.

This oft-quoted reading opens with an introduction identifying the prophet as “Isaiah the son of Amoz.” He has a vision of the future of Jerusalem, a vision of glory and peace. The vision must be put into the context from which it arose — the dangerous imperial pretensions of the Assyrian Empire in the Northeast and the decline of morals in Jerusalem and Judea. Isaiah compares his fellow-citizens to the inhabitants of ancient Sodom and Gomorrah! In contrast he exalts the hill on which the Lord’s temple was built as the highest of the mountains. The nations (Gentiles) would be flowing like a river to the Israelite temple to join up with the Lord. A well-known saying in this reading names Zion (Jerusalem and temple) as source of God’s revelation. In John 4:22, Jesus refers to this saying to point out that salvation is from the Jews, a fact we must never forget. Then the more famous words, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks . . . .” (Less well known is the fact that the prophet Joel 3:10, in other circumstances four centuries later, reverses Isaiah’s famous peace imagery.) The choice of these oracles of Isaiah for the First Sunday of Advent may have been determined by their emphasis on renewal and the closing invitation, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

The Responsorial Psalm 122:1-9, picks up the theme of the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.

Isaiah’s oracles in the first reading are far advanced beyond this ancient praise of Jerusalem and its temple. Isaiah speaks of the universal attraction of Jerusalem, not just for Israel as in this Psalm. Even the Gentiles in Isaiah’s vision will swarm to Jerusalem and the house of the Lord. The theme of peace is shared by Isaiah’s oracles and the Psalm, but again the Psalm seems to narrowly restrict peace to the tribes of the Lord, to Israel. No mention of Gentiles (the nations).

The second reading is taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. A major theme of this reading is a correction of morals among the Christians of Rome. One wonders what kind of reports Paul had received or what rumors he had heard about the conduct of the Roman Christian Community, which he had neither founded nor ever visited. Problems mentioned are the following: revelry (partying and what that can infer), drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness (sexual immorality), quarreling, jealousy. It is clear why Paul warns these Christians to wake up, “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is gone. The day is at hand.” “The Day” refers to the final return of Jesus, an event Paul thought would happen in his lifetime. His conviction that Jesus would return quickly and his proclamation of the same would lead to problems he had to deal with in some of the Christian communities he founded. This reading was selected because a major theme of Advent is awaiting and preparing for the final return of Jesus.

The gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent is an excerpt from Jesus’ final discourse. There are three versions: Mark, Matthew, Luke. This year the selection is taken from Matthew. Noah is cited as an example of awaiting and preparing for divine intervention. The rest of humankind in Noah’s time went about its “eating, drinking, marrying” until they were caught by the flood. This, says Matthew, is how it will be when the Son of Man returns to the earth for the final time. Son of Man is a favorite title for Jesus in the gospels. It is based on a judgment scene in Daniel 7, where a Son of Man (a human being) is given power by “the Ancient of Days” (God) to judge and destroy “the little horn (ruler) whose mouth was full of boasting, and who destroyed other horns to make room for himself.” Thus the gospels rely on the title of this symbolic figure of Daniel 7 to refer to Jesus’ power to judge the oppressors of his people at the end of time.

Matthew cites domestic examples as further warning for Christians to be prepared for the Son of Man. Of two men in a field, one will be taken, the other left behind. Of two women grinding grain into flour, one will be taken, the other left behind. Parables were a favorite teaching device used by Jesus. So Matthew adds a brief parable. If the head of a household would know in advance when a thief was approaching, he or she would watch and prevent a break in. We may cringe a bit when we see how Matthew compares the approach of a thief to the advent or return of the Son of Man (Jesus) in a final warning to Christians to be prepared for that event: “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

Keeping in mind that Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and most New Testament authors expected the imminent return of Jesus in their time, which did not happen, what are we to do with these warnings? Are they still valid? Yes, they are! Since, however, we have no certitude whatsoever about the time of the return of Jesus and/or the final judgment, it is best to understand the warnings of Paul and Matthew in relation to our own personal end of time — our death. All of us are in need of being on guard against the corruption of personal morals. All of us know that we must die at some time, and that we will stand before Jesus our judge at the moment of our death.

Therefore the important words that follow today’s excerpt from Matthew’s gospel, “. . . you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”