1st Sunday of Advent – C • November 28, 2021 at St. Luke’s

It often seems that there’s so much bad news out there, doesn’t it? Of course, we live in an age in which we are constantly inundated with news from multiple outlets in a way that just didn’t exist centuries ago. In the Middle Ages, for example, if there was a tsunami in Asia that caused thousands of deaths, peasants in Europe would never know about it. Now, we hear about everything – about much of which there’s absolutely we can do. On the one hand, it’s good to be aware of what’s going on in the world, but on the other hand, it often leaves us feeling anxious and agitated.
And the times we live in sometimes do seem a little apocalyptic! Wars and famine and disease and violence and crime and supply chain disruptions and worker shortages and climate change…it goes on and on. But I wonder if there has ever been a time in the history of the human race that the world hasn’t been on the verge of disaster. Was there ever an age in history when everyone was at peace, free from disease, had enough food, and really had nothing to worry about? I don’t think so: study any age in history and you’ll hear all the same disasters and tragedies over and over. In every age, there have been “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations…in dismay,” as Jesus said in today’s Gospel.
Since the time of Christ, when he talked about the end of the world, has there ever been a generation that has not felt that we are in the end times, that the apocalypse is just around the corner?
The fact of the matter is: we are in the end times; in fact, the end of this world in a sense began with Jesus’ first coming into the world. It’s just that the end times have lasted for 2000 years and no one knows how much longer they will last. But, we do know, as Jesus tells us, that this world is passing away. And so we ought to be aware of the signs around us of this world’s passing, the signs that are present in every generation for all to see.
Sine the time of Christ, people have wondered when he will come again. Probably every generation that has lived since then has believed that the second coming of Christ is imminent. But Jesus also tells us that no one knows when he will come again – that particular piece of information is not really our concern. But whether Jesus is coming again for all of humanity sometime soon or thousands of years from now, we know that he will be coming for each one of us personally – and most likely that will happen before his second coming.
So the point is, none of knows how long we have left here in this life: either as individuals or as the human race. We don’t know if we have decades or years or months or days. That is a reality that every single human being has had to contend with. So, Jesus tells us, because we don’t know how much time we have left, we ought to be vigilant and attentive, always prepared for when Jesus comes – whether he comes for us personally at the end of our own life, or whether he comes for all of humanity at the end of time. Pay attention to the signs of the times in the world around us, and be prepared.
In the cathedral in Strasbourg, France, there is an enormous glockenspiel from the Middle Ages: a huge clock with characters that come out of doors and march around on the quarter hour, the half hour, and the hour. And up near the top in the center, there is a grim-looking skeleton with a grimace on his face. On the quarter hour, he violently strikes a bell, while some of the medieval characters march past him – merchants selling things, farmers plowing their fields, clergy preaching, and so on – people carrying on with their regular, day-to-day lives. To us it probably looks quite macabre, but the enormous clock is trying to convey a message: while we go about our everyday lives, time is passing, and we all are getting that much closer to meeting our maker. So pay attention, be vigilant, and be prepared.
That is what this season of Advent is about. Yes, Advent is a time of preparation for the celebration of Christmas, when we remember how Jesus Christ was born into this world – Jesus’ first coming. We often think of it as a time to prepare for the external aspects of Christmas – decorating, shopping for Christmas presents, making food, and so on. But Advent is much more than just a time to prepare for the celebration of Christmas – it is also a time of preparation for Jesus’ second coming, whether that second coming be for us personally at the end of our own individual life here on this earth, or whether that be His second coming at the end of time. So Advent should primarily be a time of spiritual preparation.
And Jesus warns us that we should not let ourselves be distracted in the meantime: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life….” In other words, he is warning us not to get so caught up in either the pleasures or the cares of this life that we lose our focus on what is truly important. It’s easy abandon ourselves to the pursuit of physical and material pleasures at the expense of everything else, including our relationship with God. There are so many ways to do so. And that’s because God did create a beautiful world with lots of beautiful things in it. We ought to thank Him for this beautiful world, and it’s true that we do not need to go through life depriving ourselves of anything that brings us joy – but at the same time, we need to seek the proper balance, to maintain the proper perspective towards the physical and material pleasures of this life. All of which are passing away and as such are not worth all our time and attention. And likewise, it is easy to get caught up in the cares and anxieties of this world. As I mentioned at the beginning, thanks to the 24-7 news cycle we live in, we are kept in a state of perpetual anxiety and agitation, and the general anxiety out there just seems to be getting worse. It is easy to get wrapped up in our problems and to turn our focus inward, onto myself, and my problems, and my agenda, and what I need to get done.
But whether we become too focused on physical pleasures or worldly cares and anxieties, the result is the same – we become more and more self-centered. We think less and less of others and of our relationship with God. And we become unprepared for the coming of the Lord, and liable to be unpleasantly surprised at his coming. As St. Paul tells us in our second reading, as we anticipate the coming of the Lord, we ought to conduct ourselves in a certain way. We are not supposed to just sit in dread and do nothing while waiting for the end. We do have something to do while we await the coming of the Lord. We ought to conduct ourselves according to “the instructions [he has] given us through the Lord Jesus.” In other words – to conduct ourselves according to the way of life Jesus has taught us. And we learn about this – how to live our lives – through the reading of Scripture and the study of the teachings of the Church.
Jesus calls us not to a self-centered life, focused on worldly pleasures or our own personal anxieties and worries, but to a life directed outwards, towards love of neighbor. If we do this, dedicating ourselves to prayer and the study of Scripture and Church teaching, we will remain vigilant and prepared for the Lord’s coming, and so will have nothing to fear. Rather, we can anticipate with joy and hope the coming of the Lord.