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Victor Cancino, S.J.November 29, 2023
Photo from Unsplash.

Advent is a time to awaken the soul in anticipation. It is a time when we pay attention and focus ourselves as we move slowly towards the mystery of the incarnation. As we begin Year B in the lectionary cycle, the readings of the first Sunday of Advent speak of wandering and staying alert. This liturgical season challenges us to find a true path of discipleship, and this Sunday’s readings sound an alarm for anyone who might be drifting through life unaware of God’s ability to intervene. 

Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage. Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down. (Is 63:17-19)

Liturgical day
First Sunday of Advent
Readings
Is 63:16–64:7, Ps 80, 1 Cor 1:3-9, Mt 13:33-37
Prayer

Which desires in your heart might draw you more deeply into the spirit of Advent?

Where do you notice God’s intervening presence in your life right now?

How can your “wandering” help you begin a journey of the heart?

The Sunday readings of this new liturgical season begin with a passage near the end of the prophecy of Isaiah. In it, the prophet issues a firm invocation to repentance, which makes the reading sound like something more from Lent than from Advent. The prophet is in turmoil because he fears a growing distance between Israel and God. “Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways?” He then repeats the question from a different perspective, “Why do you harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” (Is 63:17). As the passage continues, it becomes harsher, “All our good deeds are like polluted rags… and our guilt carries us away like the wind” (Is 64:5).

The final chapters of the book of Isaiah, however, are about more than just repentance. These chapters foretell the definitive intervention of God into the human world. As the last lines in this Sunday’s first reading indicate, Advent is a persistent reminder of God’s initiative in our lives, “We are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands” (Is 64:7). It is good to remember that, by calling humanity “clay,” the prophet does not compare us to a passive substance. An experienced potter knows that even the most pliable lump of clay will resist the efforts of the potter’s hands to some degree. The potter must cooperate with the “ease” or “stubbornness” of the clay to mold it into something useful and beautiful. 

This liturgical season challenges us to find a true path of discipleship, and this Sunday’s readings sound an alarm for anyone who might be drifting through life unaware of God’s ability to intervene. 

The wandering that Isaiah describes can be tiring. Cooperating with the “potter’s hands” allows us to place our feet back on a path. Yet, the path is not ours, but God’s. This, too, is an Advent theme: we follow in trust, like Abraham, whom God told: “Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1). Advent places us on a path to something wonderful that is already happening in the world. Advent’s spiritual themes can inspire an anticipation of the mystery toward which we journey. This is a journey of the heart, a waking up to the truth that God is always breaking into our lives, whether they are neatly ordered or chaotic. Advent reminds us that God delights to intervene even in the messiness of human existence.

In this light, this Sunday’s Gospel reading makes sense for the beginning of Advent. It is about the second coming of Christ, the divine One who intervenes in history. It is also a reminder to sober up and approach this mystery with greater intentionality. “Watch!” says Jesus to his shocked disciples, “May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’” (Mk 13:36-37). The passage invites renewal and alertness to an unfolding mystery. Pursuit of this unfolding mystery is the path of Advent. Although we know the goal, we cannot see it clearly. Advent invites us to an encounter with God in an unknown place and time, and gives us few details. This requires the kind of trust we see in many characters from the Bible. This was the path of Abraham, Moses, the Israelites and Jesus. Even as they seemed to others to be “wandering,” they were journeying toward a divine intervention. Following this same path in trust is the theme that will begin next week’s reflection on the readings of the second Sunday of Advent.

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