For most Christians the First Sunday of Advent is a sign of hope. We begin a new cycle in the church year. We look forward to celebrating Christmas and getting into the “holiday” spirit. And we think about the coming of Christ and what that event has meant in our lives and our history.
The Scripture readings for the First Sunday of Advent, however, say nothing about the first coming of Christ and Christmas. Rather, they lead us to focus on the second coming of Christ and the fullness of God’s kingdom. They provide not only a bridge from one liturgical year to another but also place before us the kingdom of God as the goal and horizon of all Christian hope.
When defining hope, most dictionaries include something like the following: Hope is the desire for something with the possibility of, or belief in, its realization. Hope must have an object or goal; we need to hope for something. Hope must have a basis; otherwise, our hopes are daydreams or fantasies. And hope involves the belief that what we hope for can be accomplished. The readings for the First Sunday of Advent can help to place our Christian hopes in the larger context of hope for the fullness of God’s kingdom.
The Old Testament text is from that part of the Book of Isaiah (Third Isaiah, Chapters 56 to 66) that reflects the dark days in Jerusalem, around 500 B.C., after the return from exile in Babylon. The bright hopes of the new creation and the new exodus that make Second Isaiah (Chapters 40 to 55) the high point of the Hebrew Bible had not turned out so well. The prophet expresses frustration at the poor state of the Jewish community in its worship, morale, basic morality and religious observance. Does this sound familiar? Nevertheless, the prophet’s hope in God is stronger than his frustration, and he utters the classic statement of biblical hope, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down.” Christians believe that this cry of hope has been fulfilled literally (and beyond the prophet’s dreams) in the person of Jesus.
The Gospel passage from Mark 13 comes at the end of Jesus’ eschatological discourse. Its context is hope for the full coming of God’s kingdom, what we pray for when we say, “Thy kingdom come!” The text begins and ends, and is punctuated in the middle, with calls to be watchful, always on guard and vigilant. The reason for this constant watchfulness is that we do not know exactly when the fullness of God’s kingdom will come.
The short parable illustrates watching in hope as the proper way to act in the face of the coming kingdom. Waiting for the kingdom is compared to the attitude shown by servants in a household as they await their master’s uncertain return. Since they do not know the precise time of his arrival, they should be expecting him always and be careful to be found doing their duty always.
The object of Christian hope is the kingdom of God. The basis of that hope is God’s fidelity to God’s people through the centuries. Christians believe that the realization of this hope has been made possible especially through the first coming of Christ. We believe that God has indeed rent the heavens and come down. And we hope for even more. The best is yet to come.
The second reading is from the thanksgiving section in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Given the frustration that Paul experienced regarding the Corinthians because of all the difficulties they had gotten themselves into, Paul’s opening words to them are remarkably positive and irenic. He reminds them of all the spiritual gifts they have received from God. It was the Corinthians’ pride over these gifts, especially knowledge, that was the source of most of their problems. Paul not only insists that these spiritual gifts are from God (and not matters for personal pride or boasting) but also places them in the context of the full coming of God’s kingdom. He defines Christian life as waiting “for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” and prays that God will keep the Corinthians “firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Advent is most obviously a time of special preparation to celebrate properly an event of the past: the birth of Jesus Christ as one of us humans. But the Scripture readings for the First Sunday of Advent can help us to place our Advent and Christmas hopes in the context of the ultimate Christian hope: eternal life with Christ in the kingdom of God. They remind us that in the present, Christian life is a matter of watching in hope for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.