Advent Readings: Overview and First Sunday

The First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2007, marks the start of a new liturgical year, when we will again use the readings from Cycle A of the Lectionary for <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Mass. Most readers of America are certainly familiar with the basic structure of the three-year Sunday Lectionary, in which the Gospel readings are taken mostly from Matthew in Year A, from Mark in Year B, and from Luke in Year C. But many Christians, even regular church-goers, may not realize that the readings for the four Sundays of Advent also follow a regular pattern. For anyone preaching, selecting music, or helping plan liturgies, it is important to consider the structure of the Advent Season as a whole, rather than looking at the readings for each Sunday in isolation. What is this pattern of readings? On the First Sunday of Advent each year, we hear some of Jesus’ teachings about the "End Times" (Year A uses Matt 24:37-44; Year B has Mark 13:33-37; and Year C uses Luke 21:25-28, 34-36 – in each case, only very short passages from the long Apocalyptic Discourses in the Synoptic Gospels). The Second and Third Sundays of Advent focus on the preaching of John the Baptist (Matt 3:1-12 and Matt 11:2-11 in Year A; Mark 1:1-8 and John 1:6-8, 19-28 in Year B; Luke 3:1-6 and Luke 3:10-18 in Year C – together comprising most of what the Gospels say about the Baptist). Finally, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent the Gospel reading relates some of the events that immediately preceded Jesus’ birth, including Joseph’s dreams (Year A: Matt 1:18-24), the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel (Year B: Luke 1:26-38), and the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (Year C: Luke 1:39-45). The first readings throughout the Advent Season contain various passages from the prophetic books of the Old Testament (all from Isaiah in Year A) that Christians interpret as prophecies about the coming of the Messiah or the Messianic age. A pattern cannot be described as easily for the second readings (in Year A mostly from Paul’s Letter to the Romans), but prayerful reflection can help one detect some specific thematic connections between the three readings selected for each Sunday. [For greater detail, see http://www.catholic-resources.org/Lectionary/1998USL-Advent.htm.] Thus, in the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent this year, Jesus speaks of what will happen at "the coming of the Son of Man" (for fuller context, read all of Matt 24:26-46). He exhorts his disciples to "stay awake" (though not prescribing insomnia!) and to "be prepared" (the Boy Scout motto!), since the timing of his coming is unknown and will be unexpected. The first reading, from Isaiah 2:1-5, does directly mention the "Son of Man" or the "Messiah," but rather foresees the coming days when the Lord’s mountain and the Lord’s house will be raised up and established on Zion (Jerusalem), ushering in the age of justice and peace (including the well-known image of swords beaten into plowshares), when all peoples will "walk in the light of the Lord." Paul’s exhortations in the second reading (Rom 13:11-14) not only expand on this imagery of light and darkness, but also tell believers to wake up and conduct themselves properly, since the hour of salvation is near. Looking at the fuller literary context, one sees that this short passage is part of Paul’s extended exhortations about the ethical conduct expected of Christians (Rom 12:1--15:13). Although the details in this Sunday’s three readings are quite different, each one somehow focuses on the future, and how we should prepare for the coming Day of the Lord. Whether the "End Times" will come for all of us at once (cosmic catastrophe? nuclear holocaust?) or for each of us individually (young or old? accident or disease or peaceful?), we can be assured that God is already creating a whole new order that we can look forward to in hope and in trust. Felix Just, S.J.
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