First Sunday of Advent, Year B

By Benedictine Father Paul Nord


First Sunday of Advent, Year B

First Reading: Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7; Response: Psalm 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Gospel: Mark 13:33-37

We begin the new liturgical year with Advent – which means coming. During Advent, we recall Jesus Christ’s first coming (the Incarnation); but also, Advent urgently prepares us for Christ’s second coming – at the end of time (the Parousia). In our Gospel today, Jesus tells his disciples: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” Our gospel passage today is the final climax of chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel, which begins with Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. After this, Jesus warns his followers of persecutions to come (v. 9-13), and false messiahs/prophets (v. 22) who will precede the coming of the Son of Man. The imagery in Mark 13:26 of “the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory” is taken from the very important prophecy of Daniel 7:13-14. Mark 13:30 leads most interpreters to the conclusion that Jesus is describing the consequences of his first coming. Indeed, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 after Christ’s birth, as spoken by Jesus in Mark 13:2. Jesus is, therefore, warning his disciples that the conclusion of his present mission is coming near. Thus, in verse 30, Jesus speaks of “all these things” taking place before the present generation passes.

But verse 32 introduces the strong contrast, “But of that day or hour, no one knows.” Here, it seems likely that Jesus changes to speaking about the unknown future hour of his second coming at the end of time. Therefore, Jesus is preparing his disciples for the completion of his present mission in the crucifixion and resurrection, while also telling them that they must watch and wait expectantly for his return in glory. This is communicated by Jesus with the imagery: “It is like a man traveling abroad.” We Christians are thus compared to the servants of the house who await our master’s return from his journey. We are told three times to watch or be watchful – verses 33, 35 and 37. We need to be constantly watchful as we anticipate Christ’s return at the end of time; this essential theme of Advent is, thus, the subject matter of today’s gospel passage for the first Sunday of Advent. So, our gospel today contains the final verses of Mark 13. Next, in Mark 14, the “Passion Narrative” begins, which describes the conspiracy to arrest Jesus; his anointing at Bethany; his betrayal by Judas; and the preparation for the Passover meal. These events precede Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, as described in Mark 15 and 16 – which conclude Mark’s gospel.

Now, we turn to the first reading, from Isaiah. These verses are similar to some of the psalms in which God’s people lament their sins. The prophet asks: “why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways?” The prophet confesses on behalf of the people: “we are sinful” (64:4) and “our guilt carries us away like the wind.” (64:5). Consequently, the prophet says to God: “Behold you are angry” (64:4) and “you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt.” (64:6).

Despite this, these verses also express hope for God’s redemption. In the first verse of our reading, the Lord God is called “our father” and “our redeemer.” Similarly, the prophet begs God: “Return for the sake of your servants.” Our reading concludes with the hopeful verse 64:7 “Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.” This emphasizes the complete dependence of Judah’s people upon God.

But most interesting is Isaiah 63:19b – which asks God to reveal himself to his people: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you.” This is called a theophany – when God reveals himself to humanity. But when God reveals himself to humanity, he also acts and, thus, the prophet continues: “while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for…. No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him” (64:2-3).

These verses of Isaiah are perfect for Advent. Not only do we watch and wait for our master’s return – as Jesus commands us in our Gospel reading from Mark. Also, we fully trust that God will do mighty deeds for “those who wait for him” (Isa 64:3). We watch eagerly for Christ’s return when he will fulfill his promise of our redemption. May we join Isaiah in praising God’s mighty deeds.

Finally, we look at our second reading, from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul’s greeting in the first verse is typical of the beginning of several of Paul’s letters: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” After this, the remaining verses of our reading are Paul’s act of thanksgiving, introduced by, “I give thanks to my God….” (verse 4a).

Next, Paul names the reasons for his gratitude to God, which can be divided into three parts. First, Paul tells the Corinthians that he is thankful “for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus” (verse 4b). This is something that the Corinthians have already received – faith in Jesus Christ since they have received “the testimony to Christ.” Second, Paul is thankful that the Corinthians faithfully “wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 7), which describes Christ’s anticipated return in glory – the Parousia. Third, Paul tells the Corinthians that he is thankful that Christ Jesus “will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” With this phrase , “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8), Paul describes the same event as “the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 7).

Paul concludes his words of thanksgiving with these powerful words: “God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” This fellowship is the Greek word koinonia, which indicates that God has granted the Corinthians to share (participate) in the salvation accomplished by Christ through his crucifixion and resurrection. This shows God’s faithfulness to his promises, as expressed in the Law and the Prophets. So, we also, during this Advent season, eagerly await the fulfillment of Christ’s promise to return in glory to fulfill God’s kingdom.

Benedictine Father Paul Nord is a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, and teaches at Saint Meinrad Seminary. His Sunday Scripture columns are © Father Paul Nord, O.S.B.