Somehow you may have noticed that it’s that time of the year when we begin to anticipate the Coming of the Lord — Advent is not far off. There’s mention in scripture about judgment and the End of Days. A sure sign. When as a boy I attended Sunday mass with my parents, it used to scare hell out of me, so to speak. The Jesuits in our parish church were powerful preachers.
These days Advent kind of creeps up on us, although I had plenty of warning from Costco. A week before Halloween I noticed that Christmas decorations were already on display. Last night, Michigan Avenue was jammed by thousands of people gathered for the annual parade observing the lighting of the Magnificent Mile. I saw a bit of the parade and ceremony on the late evening news – Minnie and Mickey Mouse were there, Santa Claus, too, and lots of other symbols of the buying season. This, of course, is the beginning of the most important sales period of the year. Black Friday has been in full force for weeks.
Actually, the message is less about advent than its opposite. Commercially, there is really is no advent… there is only Halloween, Thanksgiving, then Christmas sales. The long period of anticipation that used to prolong the excitement of the holiday ahead has vanished just about everywhere.
But we’re not there yet. We have two weeks to go. Still, Advent has a way of casting its violet shadow ahead, and that is reflected in today’s readings and those of last week’s and next week’s daily liturgies. Liturgically the year is drawing to a close, and the theme of the readings is about the world drawing to a close. The new Church year will begin on the first Sunday of Advent, when the liturgical calendar changes, but no one will really pay much attention.
But Jesus himself said to look ahead – to be prepared. I don’t think the parable of the Fig tree is about stashing away guns and ammunition ahead of the Tribulation, however.
The first reading introduces us to the figure of St. Michael, the Archangel. That makes more sense if you recall that he was not only the protector of Israel but also the
angel of judgment, which is why he is usually pictured holding a set of scales. Here, in the Book of Daniel, he is the Great Prince — one of the seven great angels who stand in the presence of God. In later Judaism, Michael assumed considerable importance — first as the protector of Israel, and later, the protector of the Church. There used to be a special prayer at the end of mass that began “St Michael, the Archangel, defend us in the day of battle, be our protection against the malice and snares of the devil…”
The Epistle to the Hebrews, from which our second reading is taken, was written in part to deflect attention away from the cult of angels and to emphasize the mission of Jesus, the great king and high priest of the world to come. Christ has taken his place forever at the right hand of God… “When all sins have been forgiven, there can be no more sin offerings.” More importantly, what have we to fear? When Christ appears in glory, he will triumph over the forces of sin and evil. Such as our hope, and our hope to be counted among those at his right hand.
Which brings us to the Gospel. Here again, the imagery is taken largely from the Book of Daniel — a work written during the dark years of the Seleuccid oppression of the Jews in order to strengthen their faith. Down the ages, Christians have taken these passages to heart, especially at this time of year.
This sobering thought is from a second-century homily attributed to St. Clement of Rome. Once even considered part of the New Testament in some ancient churches, it is still put forward for reflection by the Church at this time of year, as things draws to a close – and the merchandizing season heats up (alongside the political temperature).
“No honest man becomes rich overnight, because he has to wait for the reward of his labors. If God gave virtue an immediate recompense, we should straightway find ourselves engaging in commerce, instead of perfecting ourselves in his service. Although our outward appearances might be irreproachable, we should not be seeking God, but our own advantage, and bringing down on our sinful souls the divine judgment that would soon make us feel the full weight of our chains” [2 Clement 20:3-4].
In the fifth century, when the world of classical antiquity was truly coming to an end. St. Augustine may have despaired of the human city, but he looked forward to the City of God, a city of truth, justice, love, and peace. “What should a Christian do?” He wondered. He or she ought to use the world, not become its slave. “What does this mean?” he asked. “It means having as though not having” –not becoming the world’s slave, victimized by market forces or politics or anything else. Ultimately, he turns to the 25th chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel.
“He will judge the world with equity and truth,” he wrote, citing Psalm 95. “What are equity and truth? He will gather together for the judgment his chosen ones with him, but the others he will set apart… What is more equitable, what is more true than that they should not themselves expect mercy from the judge, who themselves were unwilling to show mercy before the judge’s coming. Those however who were willing to show mercy will be judged with mercy. And he reckons to their account their works of mercy. “For I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink’” [Discourse on the Psalms].
Thanksgiving is just ahead. It’s a good time to reflect on mercy and to practice compassion. Then, amid the passing fancies of the world that is so much with us, we can anticipate the coming of a new world, where mercy flowers into true peace, justice, joy, and everlasting love.