This advent, prepare your heart (and adjust your vision)
For many people, December is about preparing for Christmas: buying gifts, decorating trees and celebrating with family and friends. But the readings that begin Advent give us a different and more challenging starting place, reminding us that we must prepare not only our homes but our hearts for the arrival of Jesus Christ.
‘Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.’ (Mt 24:42)
Am I looking for Christ in all people?
Am I preparing my heart to receive Christ throughout the year?
What can I do to help people in need?
The first reading from the prophet Isaiah draws attention to the Lord’s mountain in Jerusalem, Mount Zion. In Israel’s history, mountains are often places of divine encounter and instruction; most notably Moses receives the law on Mount Sinai. While reflecting on Mount Zion, Isaiah describes it as an elevated focal point that guides people to “walk in the light of the Lord” (Is 2:5). Centuries later Paul writes to a community in Rome, “Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom 13:12). Seeking to convince his audience to live lives inspired by Christ, Paul, like Isaiah, uses light as a metaphor for living justly. These texts remind us to orient our lives toward the Lord.
The Gospel reading from Matthew then talks about the necessity of preparation in order to orient our lives toward God. This kind of preparation stands in contrast to the comforting rituals of getting ready for the holiday season. Instead, Matthew depicts Jesus recalling a period filled with so much corruption and sin that the Lord destroyed the earth by flood (Gen 6:1-7; 7:11-24). Modern readers, like Matthew’s ancient audience, are probably unnerved by hearing about tales of destruction past. Why does Advent have such an ominous start?
Even though Advent is leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ birth, today’s Gospel reading comes from the end of Matthew. Jesus tells the disciples to be vigilant for the parousia at the end of days, the second coming of Christ connected to a period of final judgment. Jesus declares that the disciples do not know when Christ will return, so they need to stay ready. In the liturgical context of Advent, this language reminds us to prepare for Christ’s arrival not only at Christmas but at all times in our lives. The following chapter of Matthew gives guidance on how to prepare for the Lord.
In the famous scene of judgment in Matthew 25, Jesus tells his disciples that they have encountered him in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the prisoner and all those in need: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40).
To prepare for the Lord, we must realize that the Lord is already with us. We need not wait until Christmas or the end of days to encounter Christ. We should see Christ in all people, especially those who are most vulnerable and in need of mercy and love.
So, deck the halls, feast and be merry, but let us not forget that to truly prepare during this Advent season, we must be guided by the light of Christ and see Christ in the people we encounter in our daily lives.