First Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2019
In the mind of Isaiah the prophet, Judah faced imminent war because of its faithlessness. But he hopefully predicts a time when people of all nations will worship one God in the Jerusalem temple.
Saint Paul wants the Christians in Rome to avoid the sinful excesses of their neighbors. He's no longer certain that Jesus will soon come again in glory, but he wants the church to be ready, and to be more noble than their surroundings.
Jesus reminds his hearers of the arbitrary and capricious nature of disasters. He hopes his followers will be prepared for whatever happens whenever he returns.
Our Liturgical Setting and The Historical Setting of Today's Gospel: The readings in the early Sundays of Advent always carry forward the "end of the world" theme from the last Sundays of the previous year. Now because this is year A (of the A, B, C cycle of years/readings), our gospels this year come (mostly) from Matthew. His audience, Jewish converts to Christianity, suffered from the snubs of former Jewish friends who had not accepted Christ. They wondered why some "got it" and some didn't when it came to discerning Jesus' true identity as the long awaited Messiah. Matthew, then, is careful to record, and sometimes to recast, the sayings of Jesus that may bear on these questions. So in today's gospel, Matthew 24:37-44, Jesus is quoted on the apparently arbitrary nature of the election on the last day. Just as at the time of the Deluge, Noah and his small family were spared while others perished, so shall it be at "the end." This emphasis on the unpredictability of election may have helped Matthew's Jewish Christian audience deal with the fact that many of their fellow Christians were recently despised Gentiles.
The Historical Background of the First Reading: In the late eighth century B.C.E., God's people are already divided into a northern kingdom, called Israel, and southern kingdom known as Judah. Israel is already under the heel of Assyria, while Judah and its capital Jerusalem are quite shaky. Isaiah criticizes Jerusalem and its king for faithlessness in chapter 1. Then in chapter 2 (our reading today) he reveals to his audience the radical notion that God might love nations in addition to Judah. In the vision of Isaiah, Judah is still on top (its holy mountain, Zion in Jerusalem, where Solomon's Temple had stood, is the highest). But streaming toward it are not just traditionally faithful Jews, but "all nations." Many peoples will come there for instructions in righteous living.
One of the consequences will be universal peace. All nations, after all, will allow the Lord to mediate their disputes, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares.
The Lector's Proclamation: When you, as lector, proclaim the sentence about "All nations" and "many peoples," emphasize those words, so that the congregation understands that Isaiah is asking his audience to accept something new, surprising and discomforting.
To prepare for reading the famous words about "swords into plowshares," pause now and remember when the horror of war touched you. Perhaps you have had to fight in a war. Almost certainly you remember someone who died in war. You've been moved by television and Internet images of war's devastation. Do you remember the visit of Pope Paul VI to New York (first international travel by a modern pope)? On October 4, 1965, he addressed the United Nations. The world was at war then, in Viet Nam and elsewhere, when the Pope both demanded and appealed, "No more war; war never again!"
Now perhaps you're feeling what Isaiah felt, almost three millennia earlier, when he said:
Our Liturgical Setting: In each of three liturgical years, the Lectionary is at pains to give us, four Sundays in a row, a fresh New Testament passage about Christ's coming again (two in the last Sundays of the last liturgical year, two in the first Sundays of Advent). That's asking a lot of the epistles. But it gives us a chance to see the maturation of the early church's thoughts on this. The New Testament can be viewed as the story of the first Christians deciding how to be the church for the long haul, reinterpreting their young tradition in light of the unwelcome realization that Christ's return would be indefinitely delayed. By the late date at which Romans was written, Paul can only say that salvation is nearer than it used to be. The issue has become, "What does salvation mean if we frankly expect to die before Jesus comes again." We're unwilling to call these days the latter days of world history any more, but we seek to understand our roots by remembering how our ancestors in the faith wrestled with this change.
The Historical and Theological Background: This short passage seems, at least to this writer, not tightly related to what precedes it. But the Letter to the Romans tries to accomplish a variety of things, and a somewhat isolated passage about Christ's coming again should not surprise us. (Click here for an excellent overview of the letter, and several arguments about the relations among its parts. For a humbler survey of most of the passages from Romans used in the Lectionary next summer, click here.)
The occasion of the moral exhortation is fairly clear, though. The Roman Christians lived in Rome, after all. Some of them came from Jewish backgrounds, and had lived by the excellent moral code in the Law of Moses, which even pagans admired. Other early Christians had been pagans. They all may have been relatively innocent of the immoral excesses of their place and time, but none were ignorant of them or totally free of temptation. Romans is the letter in which Saint Paul says "For there is no distinction; all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23) Other sources tell us that the serious sinners in ancient Rome liked to do their carousing after nightfall. So Paul urges his audience to throw off darkness and put on the armor of light.
Proclaiming It: Give this reading a straightforward but emphatic proclamation. Contrast "darkness" and "light" in your tones of voice. There's nothing hidden here. It's all out front, and of life-and-death importance. The expression "put on the Lord Jesus Christ" is an interesting image. Don't rush over it.
"Manhattanhenge, 2015," a predictable moment when the sun crosses the horizon at a point clearly visible between the tall buildings of New York City, U.S.A. Found here (with the help of images.bing.com), among other places.
This page updated November 1, 2019