It would hardly be wide of the mark to point out that the “holiday season” is definitely upon us. It has been here for weeks in fact, at least in the big-box stores and the gorgeous decorations in Macy’s windows. It started this year weeks before Halloween, and what could be more seasonal than celebrating Veteran’s Day with a “Black Friday” sale on mattresses and giant flat-screen TVs?
Advent is nevertheless nearing – and oldsters can tell from the shift in the tone of the Sunday readings toward the anticipation of the End Times. It’s a also way of foreshadowing the end of one liturgical year and the beginning of another. And then comes Advent, which I am tempted to call “formerly a period of subdued but joyful anticipation of the Christmas season,” which actually begins on Christmas!
That Advent hardly exists any more other than as a fond memory of a time when school kids gave up sweets and donated their pennies to save pagan babies in faraway places with strange-sounding names. The colored lights and decorations are already up. The parades have begun. Dozens of Santas crowd street corners and shop fronts. “Advent calendars,” once a way of marking the weeks and days before Christmas by opening little doors to reveal Christmas themes and symbols, now reveal merchandise. Especially electronic gadgetry. Maybe a Tesla or a BMW. Perhaps Thanksgiving will provide a welcome break from the Christmas glee, if not (heaven knows) from shopping sprees, even on Thanksgiving Day itself. The commercial world remains very much with us. (Yes, on Christmas Day, too.)
Once upon a time, the Sundays after Thanksgiving that led up to and inaugurated Advent scared hell out of us kids (or so it was hoped), featuring accounts of what many still think of as the end of the world, with descriptions made frighteningly memorable by the eloquent Jesuits at our parish church. In these troubled times, of course, many people have also had the hell scared out of them by the prospect of the environmental cataclysm threatening to befall the world in a distressingly few years. Or the prospect of another war or the loss of their pensions. Or the political circuses in Washington, London, and elsewhere.
Perhaps we should be jittery, considering the mess humans have made of the world over the last fifty years or more. But that’s really not what Jesus is talking about in today’s
gospel, or that passage from the book of Malachi, which — not coincidentally — is the last book of the Old Testament. The message of both, and St. Paul, too, is not one of doom and gloom, but of hope. And at the risk of anticipating Advent again, hope is the great theme of that season, too.Both Paul and Jesus himself actually warned us against getting too worked up about rumors of the End Times. In today’s gospel reading, for instance, Jesus says, “Take heed that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified; for this must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” (Luke 21: 8-9.) That theme resounds throughout the gospels: do not be afraid!
None of this was simply talk about history, about space and time and the stock market or even the stones of the Temple. (The Wailing Wall is still standing, by the way, so don’t get panicky about Armageddon.) What Malachi, Paul, and Jesus were all saying is that this world, with all its governments, social systems, wealth, poverty, wars, misery, and suffering is not ultimate, not finally decisive. Money, power, and success are not what life is all about, despite what lurks behind those little doors on your Advent calendar.
The message we hear in today’s readings and will echo in the weeks to come is that we are not to place either our hopes or our fears in the powers and structures of this present world, which are not only fallible, but will inevitably fail us. Still, as St. Paul insists, we may not resign our commission as members of our communities and hang around waiting for the Parousia. Rather, we must attend to the very real needs of those around us and the living planet as a whole, more now than ever. Or we won’t be ready when the Son of Man does appear!
In fact, we are called to build a truly humane city, a commonwealth of love and justice, a world where peace, truth. and freedom can flourish. We are called to look to our neighbor in order to assist and protect, especially the poor, the oppressed, and defenseless, not least the political refugee. (Yes, Virginia, it’s in the bible – from beginning to end!) For all that, Jesus warns us, we should not count on being rewarded, honored, or even thanked. Expect, rather, to be misunderstood, opposed, and even persecuted.
Even so, we should lift up our hearts. For, as Malachi had it, “…for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall” [Malachi 4:2 in the RSV]. The former world is inevitably coming to an end, with all its injustice and suffering and destruction. It has been ending all along in fact, ever since Christ rose from the dead. A new world is coming, just as surely, but it will get here in God’s good time. In the meantime, we have some important work to do. The bumper sticker had it right: “Jesus is coming soon—look busy.”