Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass, Advent 1 2016

Isaiah 2:1-5
Romans 13:1-end
Matthew 24:36-44

We begin today a new year, and a new cycle in our Sunday readings. Which means that we start reading Matthew’s Gospel, which we shall follow at Sunday Mass during the course of the coming year.
We begin our reading, however, not at the beginning, but near the end. In Chapter 24 of Matthew we are in Holy Week, Jesus has entered Jerusalem in triumph, but in two days it will be the Passover and Jesus will be betrayed and crucified. In this scene he is on the Mount of Olives, teaching his disciples privately about “the end”.
The end of what? Well, as with the parallel passage from Luke that we read two weeks ago, we need to read this on more than one level. Jesus speaks of coming catastrophe, and cosmic signs.
There is the catastrophe that is almost upon them, Jesus’s betrayal and death, which he has foretold, but the disciples have not understood. Then, further off, there is the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in great violence, which Jesus has also foreseen. Indeed, he has lamented the fate of Jerusalem, “if only they had known the way of peace”. Jesus has tried to teach them to renounce violence. He is in person the Word of the Lord, speaking from Jerusalem, calling on his people to “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks”.
But woven through these two themes Jesus also teaches the disciples about cosmic catastrophe and consummation, the end of the universe as we know it, the final judgement and the coming of the Kingdom of God.
For all these things, says Jesus, you must be watchful and ready, staying awake, because you do not know when they are going to happen.
It will be like the days of Noah. The image Jesus uses is of the sudden flood that swept away those who were unprepared and unaware, leaving only Noah and his family. Just so, two people can be going about their ordinary business, working in the fields or grinding meal, and the disaster will snatch away one and leave the other. Jesus uses the image of the flood about the coming catastrophes to describe the sudden tide of violence that will sweep away those who are not prepared.
In a police state, such as first Century Palestine was, that had a real and sinister meaning. The authorities could come for you at any time. Which is exactly what happened. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the temple police came in the middle of the night, Jesus was taken, and the disciples left behind – the first and most immediate fulfillment of the image that Jesus uses.
But the Greek for “left behind” used in these passages can also mean “forgiven”, which brings out another layer of meaning. Jesus is taken and killed, voluntarily subjecting himself to the catastrophe of human violence. But through his self-giving death the disciples are forgiven.
Today we might think that the death of Jesus, and the destruction of Jerusalem, are in the past, and the end of the universe may be uncounted billions of years in the future. Does that mean that catastrophe is distant from us, that we can relax? No, says Jesus. Be ready, stay awake. And the gospel writers made sure to transmit his urgent message to future generations.
Out of catastrophe, God brings new life and new creation. Through the resurrection, Jesus entered God’s eternity, which does not make him distant from us, but more immediately present.
The end gives the present moment its meaning and its urgency, for Christ the risen Lord has ascended to fill all things. In him, past and future are not distant, for he is the beginning and the end, the first and the last, Alpha and Omega. He is our end as much as our beginning. But, are we aware, are we awake? Do we know him as he stands before us in the present moment?
He comes to us in the Eucharist, the sacrament of his body and blood, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6.56). He is the head and the true life of the Church, “which is his body, the fullness of him who himself fills all things” (Ephesians 1.23). And he fills the universe, for “all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1.16-17)
Christ the first and the last comes to us in the present moment, in his sacraments, in his Church, in the creation; how we respond to him gives meaning to our present and shapes what our end will be.
Christ is the immediate and transforming reality of the Now. He is the Way, showing us the Father, dethroning the idols of our hearts, unmasking the false gods of power and wealth and violence. He is the Truth, judging our falsehood, standing before us in the poor, the marginalized and the victims of the world. And he is the Life, the eternal life of God rupturing this age of death, breaking it open so that the Kingdom may come in.
This season of Advent calls us to watchfulness, a renewed attention to Christ and the coming of his kingdom, not at some distant horizon but in the present moment. The end gives meaning to our present, and how we respond to Christ in the present shapes what our end will be.
Advent is then a good time to develop the habit of attention to Christ in repentance, renewal in prayer, and deeper study of the scriptures. We do this so that the habit deliberately formed in prayer can pervade our daily lives, every present moment, and all that we do.
Doing a bit less shopping and partying in this season than we normally do may be counter-cultural. But the stillness and pregnant waiting of Advent demand our attention. These pale crisp mornings and long dark nights invite us to contemplation. We are to enter the present moment, where Christ is, and not avoid it with the hundred-and-one displacement activities that suggest themselves so readily.

Now is the time to awake out of sleep, says St Paul, now is the moment to lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light. Now is the rupture of the normal; now the Kingdom of God is at hand.

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