In the New Testament patience (hypomone in Greek) is not passivity. Rather, patience entails active waiting and hoping. As we begin a liturgical year in which most Sunday Gospel readings are from Luke, I want to focus on the Lukan Advent virtues of patience, hope, joy and fidelity.
We wait for buses and airplanes, friends and doctors. Those who are very time-conscious and impatient (like me) find even short waits almost intolerable. What keeps us waiting is the hope that something positive may yet happen, that our waiting will prove to have been worthwhile and that we can move forward with our lives.
The Scripture readings for the first Sunday of Advent concern the dynamic of waiting and hoping. The prophet Jeremiah was waiting and hoping for an ideal descendant of King David who might bring security and justice to God’s people. Jeremiah was active in the early 6th century B.C. He saw clearly that his people would be defeated by the Babylonians, and that the temple city of Jerusalem would be captured and destroyed. Nevertheless, in the midst of political chaos Jeremiah remained a person of hope. He was waiting for the Messiah of Israel and was convinced that his waiting would be rewarded. Christians believe that Jeremiah’s waiting and hoping were fulfilled in Jesus.
The reading from Luke 21 looks forward to what is called the second coming of Christ. It tells about the signs and portents that will accompany that event. It also urges constant watchfulness or vigilance in the face of those signs and portents. What is most distinctive and important about Luke’s version of Jesus’ final discourse is the assurance that all will turn out well for those who remain faithful: “But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads, because your redemption is at hand” (Luke 21:28). The second coming of Christ is not to be feared but rather to be eagerly awaited. There is hope that it will bring vindication and perfect happiness for the faithful people of God. It is worth waiting for.
Written in A.D. 51, Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is the earliest complete document in the New Testament. It is amazing to see in it how rapidly there developed a highly sophisticated theological vocabulary and conceptuality about Jesus. In today’s selection Paul gives instructions about how Christians should conduct themselves as they wait for “the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.” He too is clearly speaking about the second coming of Christ. He too looks forward in hope to that event and exhorts the Thessalonians to behave in such a way that they may be found blameless and holy before God when it happens.
Why is there so much focus on the second coming of Christ on the first Sunday of Advent? We need to look at the word “advent.” Beneath its acquired liturgical sense it means “coming, arriving, becoming present.” In Advent we tend to think primarily about the first coming of Christ at his birth. But there are other comings of Christ—as the risen Lord at Easter, in the sacraments (especially the Eucharist), in our everyday lives, at the moment of death and at the end of human history (the second coming).
Advent is a time of waiting and hoping, of renewing our trust in God’s merciful love and care and of reflecting on the several comings of Christ in our lives. The key New Testament word for Advent is “vigilance”—that is, conducting our lives in such a way that we may be found blameless and holy before God as we experience the various comings of Christ in our lives. This is another way of talking about waiting and hoping.
This Friday (Dec. 8) is the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to this dogma of the Catholic Church, Mary was conceived without original sin and so was prepared to be the mother of Jesus the Son of God. The reading from Genesis 3 explains why there is sin and death in the world—because of the original sin committed by Adam and Eve. The passage from Luke 1:26-38 describes Mary as the special object of divine favor (“full of grace”) and therefore as qualified to be the mother of the Messiah. The text from Eph 1:3-6 suggests that all the blessings predicated of those who have been redeemed in and through Christ’s death and resurrection can be predicated pre-eminently and proleptically (that is, by way of anticipation) of Mary. Thus Mary appears as an exemplar of the Advent theme of waiting and hoping and as a privileged figure in the fulfillment of the hopes of God’s people.