First Sunday of Advent, Year B



First Sunday of Advent, Year B

First Reading: Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7; Response: Psalm 93:2-3, 15-16, 18-19; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Gospel: Mark 13:33-37

The readings of Year B (Gospel of Mark) begin. The first reading is from Isaiah. It is generally agreed by scholars that the prophetic oracles of this book were assembled by editors from the oracles attributed to three Old Testament prophets. Chapters 1-39: Isaiah of Jerusalem. His minis-try as prophet extended roughly from 742 B.C., the year in which he was called to his ministry, (See Isaiah 6:1), to 680 B.C. His activities were centered on Jerusalem. The second part of the Book of Isaiah consists of chapters 40-55. This section of the book is Deutero-Isaiah. The Greek word Deutero means ‘Second.’ The approximate date of these oracles is 540 B.C. These oracles are no longer directed to inhabitants of Jerusalem, as they were in the first section. The move of Israelite exiles to Babylon began in 598 B.C. and continued at least to 586 B.C. This second prophet, Second Isaiah, is called to ministry to his fellow exiles in Babylon (Iraq today).The third part of Isaiah, chapters 56-66, is called Trito-Isaiah, that is, Third Isaiah. The approximate date is 516 B.C. The exile had ended in 540-538 B.C. Third Isaiah’s ministry is in Jerusalem.

Today’s first reading is taken from the oracles of Trito-Isaiah. What is the situation which this prophet addressed? Return from Babylon is by now two decades in process. The temple, destroyed by the Babylonian army in 587 B.C. has probably been rebuilt, though not in the splendor of Solomon’s building of the temple 400 years earlier. Our reading gives the impression of a loss of hope, a general decline in morals. The prophet boldly seems to blame the Lord. “Why do you let us wander from your ways? You are angry and we are sinful. We have been an unclean people.” (Not a matter of hygiene, but of spiritual contamination — sin.) “No one calls on your name.” Who gets the blame? “You have hidden your face from us.” But there is hope, as the prophet reminds the Lord, “You are our Father and our Redeemer forever. Tear open the sky and come down. We are the clay and you are the potter.” So not all is lost. Since Advent is not only a time of hope but also a time of repentant preparation, this reading encourage Christians not to be despondent in sinfulness, but to put themselves like fresh clay into the hands of the Divine Potter.

Psalm 80 continues the theme of divine help. Referring to God as ‘Shepherd of Israel,’ the Psalmist begs, “Stir up your power and come to save us.” He uses a standard Old Testament symbol of a vine to represent God’s people, a vine planted by the Divine Gardener. “Take care of this vine, and protect what your right hand has planted.” (God is apparently not a lefty!) After reminding God that it was his right hand that planted the vine and made it strong, and after a plea for continued help, the Psalm concludes, “Then we will no more withdraw from you . . ., and we will call upon your name.”

The second reading is taken from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Paul had founded this Greek Christian community about 50 A.D. He spent 18 months with them, the returned to Ephesus in what is today southwest Turkey. The letter responds to some unfavorable reports brought to him by messenger or by letters from Corinth. His rebukes are quite strong in the letter, but these new Christians had to be softened by flattery before he takes them to task. Paul thanks God for the grace they received, enriched in every way. In view of what he will write later, what he now says seems a bit humorous, “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” A note of hope, “God is faithful and will keep you irreproachable to the end.”

The reading from the Gospel of Mark is part of what is known as ‘The Little Apocalypse.’ It is so called because of its similarity in tone to the Book of Revelation. The alternate name for the Book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, is ‘The Apocalypse.’ A theme of both apocalypses is the end times, the return of Jesus, final judgment. The early Christians believed that Jesus would return quickly, even momentarily. Even like today, any human upheavals — war, famine, pandemics, even upheavals of nature, such as earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, unusual events in the sky — all were understood by Christians as signs that Jesus’ return was imminent. St. Paul, at least in his earlier letters, was also convinced that the return of Jesus was at hand. The Gospel of Mark is clearly expecting an imminent return of Jesus. This is why Mark includes no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. The only appearance of Jesus that mattered was his reappearance. For Mark and his Christian community the certain sign of the end was the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Roman army from 68-70 A.D. This was the very time at which the Gospel of Mark was composed.

The setting for the Little Apocalypse: Jesus and his disciples had just exited the temple. The disciples point out to him the wonderful stones of which the temple was built. Jesus replies with a prediction of the destruction of the temple, which had happened or would soon happen as Mark was writing his gospel. The disciples want to know the date of this event. His response is Mark’s composition of the Little Apocalypse — a response to his conviction that the end of the temple would bring on the end times and Jesus’ return. It did not! So what can we do about Mark’s and Paul’s theology of an imminent Parousia — the technical term taken from Greek for the advent or coming of Jesus? We can do what Matthew and Luke and other New Testament literature did.

The Parousia has been delayed. The Second Letter of Peter 3:9 gives a reason for the delay, that the Lord is giving more time for repentance, “not wishing that any should perish.” Or we can redirect Mark’s warning of the return of Jesus to our own end of time — the moment of our death. Thus Mark’s warning, “Be watchful! Be alert! For you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming. May he not come and find you sleeping. Watch!”