1st SUNDAY IN ADVENT (Cycle B)

Readings:
Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7
Psalm 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:33-37

Abbreviations: NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for humanity, and that is why we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095). 

Today is the first Sunday in Advent.  Advent is the first of the four seasons of the Liturgical year.  The other seasons are Christmas, Lent, and Easter.  Ordinary time marks the time between the seasons of the Liturgical year.  The season of Advent begins the eve of the fourth Sunday before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve.  The Christmas Season then begins with the vigil of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord.  The season of Advent is like awaiting the birth of a child.  It is an odd mixture of happiness and contentment accompanied by nervousness and even anxiety of that for which we are waiting.  In fact, Advent is a season of waiting.  And for what are we waiting?  The entire community of the Church is waiting for what the prophet Isaiah wrote about in the 25th chapter of the Book of Isaiah.  We are waiting for the day when God will remove the veil that separates people and nations from one another and from Him (Is. 25:7).  When that day comes, God will "wipe away the tears from every cheek," and we shall see things as they are (Is 25:8; Rev 7:17; 21:4).  At this season of the Liturgical year, we not only prepare to look back in time to Jesus' First Advent when He came to earth as God enfleshed, but we are also looking forward in time to His promised Second Advent.  At the end of time as we know it, Jesus will return as King and divine Judge to gather all the people of His Church. 

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: Remain Vigilant!
As Christians, we believe that Jesus "will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead" (Profession of Faith).  Every generation of Christians anticipates that day.  In the meantime, Jesus unites us to God the Father in the sacred union of the New Covenant.  We are His partners in making this world a better place while we wait for the return of Christ the King in glory when He will appear suddenly and take up the mission as humanity's divine Judge (Mt 25:31-46).  We, therefore, begin each new Church year with a plea for Christ's return, as the prophet Isaiah cries in the First Reading: Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down.  This Sunday's readings remind us that we must be watchful and alert so we are prepared for Christ's return.  Each of our readings takes up the theme of being vigilant as we await the return of our Lord, so Jesus will find His people remaining faithful in doing good and not evil upon His return.

The First Reading, from the book of the prophet Isaiah.  Our passage is a prayer of repentance offered by the covenant people of Israel/Judah in a time of great distress.  They called God to return to them as proof that His divine Presence was still with His people in the same visual expression of His awesome glory that their ancestors witnessed at Mt. Sinai (Ex 19:16-20).

The Responsorial Psalm takes up this same theme as the psalmist yearns for "our Father" and "the Redeemer" who is the "Shepherd" of His chosen "vine," Israel, and "whose face we long to see."  In the Second Reading, St. Paul reminds us that God is faithful throughout the generations of His people.  He calls us to fellowship with Him through God the Son and has given us every spiritual gift to sustain us while we wait for Christ's return. 

In the Gospel Reading, Jesus tells another parable about the necessity of His disciples remaining vigilant in waiting for His promised return.  He warns His disciples to be watchful and alert because they do not know when the "Master of the house" (Jesus the Master of His kingdom the Church) will return to judge the actions of His servants.  His message was for the disciples of His generation and every generation until He returns in glory. We must not fail in putting our love for Him and our fellowship with Him above everything else.  We must be alert so that when Christ returns He will find His servants doing what is right.  We do not want to be like the Christians of Ephesus where the members of the community began to fail in their vigilance and to whom Jesus sent the message: Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first.  Realize how far you have fallen.  Repent, and do the works you did at first.  Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand for its place, unless you repent (Rev 2:4-5).  Our prayer as a covenant people should be: "O Lord, help us to keep the vigilance of good servants ready for Your return!  May we not be found wanting in acts of charity or guilty of spiritual sloth.  Help us to keep the fire of the Holy Spirit burning brightly in our consecrated souls!"

As a spiritual preparation for Christmas, we recommend the six lesson " Advent of the Messiah" Bible study.

The First Reading Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7 ~ God Our Redeemer
16b You, LORD, are our father, our redeemer you are named forever.  17 Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?  Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage.  [...] 19b Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you. [...] 64:2 While you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, 3 such as they had not heard from of old.  No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him.  4 Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways!  Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean men, 5 all our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.  6 There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt.  7 Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you are the potter: we are all the work of your hands.

This heart-rending lament of the covenant people of Israel calls for the visible return of God in the same way that He appeared to them in the Theophany at Mt. Sinai (Ex 19:16-19).  The people are looking for proof that God has not abandoned them.  They acknowledge that their sins have caused a breach in their relationship with Him, but they remind God that He is still their divine Father and they are the children He created, as individuals and as the covenant nation God created at Mt. Sinai (Ex 24:1-11).

Christian tradition interprets these verses as a petition of the covenant people fulfilled in the first Advent of Jesus the Messiah.  St. Paul quotes from this same passage in Isaiah 64:3 when writing about the wisdom of God, His faithful covenant love for those who love Him, and the great gifts He plans for His people: But as it is written: "What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him," this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.  For the Spirit scrutinized everything, even the depth of God (1 Cor 2:9-10).  Since we will not receive these extraordinary gifts fully until the next life, this verse is often quoted as referring to the blessing enjoyed by the fully redeemed in the heavenly beatitude.

Responsorial Psalm 80:2a, 2c, 3b, 15-16, 18-19 ~ Come O LORD to Save Us
The response is: "Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved."

2a  O Shepherd of Israel, hearken, 2c from your throne upon the cherubim, shine forth.  3b Rouse your power, and come to save us.
Response:
15 Once again, O LORD of hosts, look down from heaven, and see; take care of this vine, 16 and protect what your right hand has planted, the son of man [the shoot] whom yourself made strong.
Response:
18 May your help be with the man of your right hand, with the son of man whom your yourself made strong.  19 Then we will no more withdraw from you; give us new life, and we will call upon your name.
Response:

Our psalm repeats the petition in the First Reading for a visible sign of God's presence among His people.  It is a plea to Yahweh, the divine "Shepherd" of Israel who dwells invisibly in the midst of His people, enthroned between the cherubim on the Mercy-seat of the Ark of the Covenant in the Jerusalem Temple's Holy of Holies (Ex 25:10-11, 18-22).  The petition is for God to come in visible form as He did at Mt. Sinai and for Him to restore His desolate people.  They call for God to revive His vineyard that is Israel, His chosen "vine" of the "son of man" (literally the shoot = human beings) that He called out of Egypt and "planted" in the Promised Land (see Hos 11:1).  In verses 15-19, the people ask God to remember "the vine"/Israel's special status as God's "firstborn son" among the nations of the earth (Ex 4:22-23). 

The images in this psalm of God the "Shepherd" and the covenant people as the cherished "vine" of God's "vineyard" are found in the New Testament to describe God's New Covenant relationship with mankind through Jesus the Son.  Jesus describes Himself as the "Good Shepherd" who guides His flock the Church and whose love is so great for them that He is willing to lay down His life for their sake (Jn 10:14-18).  Jesus also uses the image of the vineyard and the vine.  He identifies Himself as the "True Vine" from which life flows to the branches that are those who are the New Covenant people of God who will inherit the "Promised Land" of Heaven (Jn 15:1-8). 

Instead of using the Hebrew text, our translation uses the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament and the New Vulgate that translates verses 16 and 18 with the words "son of man," referring to the chosen people of Israel and the instrument by which God manifests His power.  The words "son of man" refer to the sons of Adam or human beings, and it is also Jesus' favorite title for Himself in the Gospels.  It is Jesus, the "Son of Man" who is both human and divine (see Daniel's reference to a divine "son of man" in Dan 7:13), and through whom God will visibly manifest Himself to call old Israel to spiritual restoration as the "new Israel" of a new covenant in the Age of the Messiah (Jer 31:31-34).  Jesus' disciples and Apostles of the Old Israel became His New Covenant emissaries to carry the Gospel message of salvation to all the "sons (and daughters) of mankind." They were the first ministers of His universal Church.  When the Holy Spirit came on the annual Jewish feast of Pentecost to fill and indwell the 120 Jewish disciples praying in the Upper Room, He spiritually restored the Jews of the "new Israel" (Acts 1:15; 2:1-4; CCC 877).

The Second Reading 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 ~ Fellowship with Christ While Waiting for His Return
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  4 I gave thanks to my God always on your account for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in him your were enriched in every way, with all discourse and all knowledge, 6 as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you, 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 We will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  9 God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Verse 3 is the greeting in St. Paul's letter to the church at Corinth.  St. Augustine wrote that the peace Paul writes about is the peace of the soul that originates in friendship with God which grace brings with it and which is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Augustine, De verb. Dom. Serm., 58; also see Gal 5:22-23).  Paul's prayer for a blessing of "peace" isn't an earthly concept of peace; it is a true, divine peace that is a gift of God.

In verses 4-9, Paul gives thanks for the community.  Then he reminds the community that they owe their election among the blessed to God who chose them through a divine calling.  They, like all Christians, received God's grace in Christ Jesus that has enriched them in every way.  This special gift of grace through Christ Jesus gives them a share in God's divine nature (see 2 Pt 1:4) and raises them to a new level of privileged existence only shared by those redeemed in the blood of Jesus.  This transfigured nature, through a spiritual re-birth in Christian baptism (Jn 3:3-5), enables Christians to share in the perfection of God's inner life.  Our new life in Christian Baptism is the introduction to a privileged state that will be fulfilled at the end of life on earth when the lives of those who die in a state of grace become joined to the life of the Most Holy Trinity in the heavenly paradise. 

8 We will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  9 God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the meantime, until the time of Christ's return, Paul assures the Corinthian community that he and the others Jesus chose to shepherd His Church will continue to guide the faithful.  Their mission is to call believers to fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ who sustains His people in holiness with His very life in the Eucharist and the other Sacraments on the journey to salvation.  At the end of the journey to salvlation, whether our journey ends in the Second Advent of Christ or whether our life on earth ends and we face Christ at our individual judgment, God gives us everything we need to be watchful and ready for that meeting that will signal the climax of our lives.

The Gospel of Mark 13:33-37 ~ Be Alert and Watch for the Coming of the Master!
Jesus told His disciples: 33 "Be watchful!  Be alert!  You do not know when the time will come.  34 It is like a man traveling abroad.  He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.  35 Watch, therefore; you do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning.  36 May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.  37 What I say to you, I say to all: 'Watch'!"

In this passage, Jesus appears to refer to His return in glory, but He may also be referring to the violent end of the Old Sinai Covenant and the judgment on Jerusalem for the rejection of the "visitation" of the divine Messiah.  Referring to the judgment on Jerusalem and the Old Covenant hierarchy, Jesus said: "For the days are coming upon you when your enemies will raise a palisade against you; they will encircle you and hem you in on all sides.  They will smash you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another within you because you did not recognize the time of your visitation" (Lk 19:43-44). 

Jesus tells His disciples a short parable in which He is the man who leaves on a journey (His Ascension into Heaven) and places His servants (the Apostles and disciples and those of future generations) in charge of His "house" (the Church).  The "gatekeeper" on the watch refers to the chief steward of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, St. Peter and his successors.  The periods of time Jesus mentions are the names of the four night watches observed during the period of the Roman occupation: 35 Watch, therefore; you do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning.

The Four Night Watches in the first century AD:
#1: Evening Watch from sundown (c. 6 PM) to 9 PM
#2: Midnight Watch from 9 PM to midnight
#3: Cockcrow Watch from midnight to 3 AM (the trumpet that signaled the end of the watch at 3 AM was called the "cockcrow")
#4: Dawn Watch from 3 AM to dawn (c. 6 AM)

A trumpet blast named for each watch announced the changing from one watch to the next.  The night watchmen who blew trumpets at the end of each watch were in the Jewish Levitical guard in the Temple and also the Roman Watch in the Antonia Fortress.  You may remember that Jesus warned Peter at "cockcrow" he would deny Him, and after Peter denied Jesus, he heard "cockcrow," the 3 AM trumpet (in the literal translation it is "cockcrow" not "a cock crow"; see Mt 26:34; 26:69-75.  St. Mark mentions two cockcrow signals in Mk 14:29-30; 71-72).  

The same movement in time from the coming events in the destruction of the Temple and the end of the Sinai Covenant to the return of Jesus in the Second Coming of Christ occur in Matthew and Luke's Gospels.  But the point may be that the end of the Old Covenant, finalized in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD, signals the beginning of a new and final age and the rule of Christ's Kingdom of the Church.  It is a new age that will last until the Second Coming of Christ and the judgment of the nations.  The keywords for all generations in this passage are the commands to "Be watchful! Be alert" (verse 33) so we are ready for His coming, and He finds us diligent in doing the good works of faithful servants who belong to His "House" that is the Church.

Catechism References:
1 Corinthians 1:6 (CCC 401)
Mark 13:33-37 (CCC 672, 2849)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014; revised 2017