I had the curious privilege this weekend of proclaiming the liturgical reading for the last Mass of the year on Saturday, as well as the readings for the first Mass of the new liturgical year today. I’m sure that’s not particularly unusual, but given as I only read about three days a month, it was a bit curious to draw these exact two assignments.
In reflecting on them both, it struck me how similar they are – in that even the triumphant scene from Revelation of the vision of the tree of life in the Saturday reading is imbued with such a strong sense of expectant waiting: “Behold, I am coming soon” (Rev 22:7). The confidence of this vision, as well as that of the opening of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that serves as today’s second reading, put us on guard against an overly fatalistic reading of the Isaiah passage from this morning’s liturgy:
1st Sunday in Advent, Year B
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. 16b Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, 2 While you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, 3 such as they had not heard of 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; 5 all of us have become like unclean men, 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 the potter: we are all the work of your hands.
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I give thanks to my God always on your account for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in him you 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 He 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.
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!’ “
Yet, for all the confident hope expressed by the end-of-year readings – as well as in paul’s greeting to the Corinthians – both the Isaiah reading and today’s Gospel commend a certain sobriety. “Watch!” Jesus implores us; don’t be lulled into complacency by the times and seasons.
The reason to be on guard against such complacency is made clear by Isaiah. Things had gone badly – very badly – for Isaiah’s people, and he ached for God to “rend the heavens and come down” to rescue His people, as He had done through Moses in ages past. But Isaiah also knew that only a people truly open to God could receive His “awesome deeds,” and he knew that a contrite and penitent spirit alone could be open to God.
The thought that really jumps out at me is “There is no one who calls upon your name.” As I embark upon another Advent, I simultaneously and necessarily also embark upon another one of what used to be called the “Christmas Season,” but is now, mercifully – and more accurately – called the Holiday Season.
Like many Christians, I’ve struggled for years to reconcile the public practice of “Christmas” with my faith. That the American cultural “Holiday” stands in stark contrast to its ostensible origins in the Christian Nativity story and celebration really needs no proof. The commandeering of “Christmas” for the purpose of a societal bacchanalia of materialism is plainly contrary to the humble character of Our Lord’s first coming.
Somewhere along the way, Jesus Christ morphed into Santa Claus – himself a caricature of the ancient Catholic Bishop of Myra, Saint Nicholas, a man renowned for his love for and generosity toward poor women, whom he would anonymously provide dowries for in order to save them from lives of prostitution. Yet, in the transformation, the “bringer of gifts” became one who indulged the rich while overlooking the poor, despite the celebratory thanksgiving song sung by His mother – prayed in unison every evening by the Church in her liturgy for her thousands of years:
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty (Luke 1:52-53).
There was a time, I will admit – coincidental to a time when I was poor myself – that I was pretty well convinced that the “Santa Claus” entity was no less than an expression of the anti-Christ. I had many reasons, at the time, for my opinion, having identified a host of ways that “Santa Claus” or “the Spirit of Christmas” not only failed to adequately express the truths revealed in the Incarnation, but operated from fundamentally opposing and contrary notions of the good, and contributed to the growing problem of unbelief by distorting children’s openness to supernatural, revelatory truth. I have no interest in rehashing those arguments here, but merely want to suggest that many things can become clear to a man about the purpose and nature of institutions when he is too poor to get in the door. Christ truly came to blow such doors asunder.
And as “the Season” kicks off again, amidst reports of store clerks being stampeded to death by astonishingly graceless “holiday” bargain hunters, the ancient words of Isaiah haunt me:
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. Isaiah 64:7 (NAB)
As a society that once had at least some sort of claim on God’s heritage, it strikes me that we are every bit in exile as were the Babylonian captives Isaiah ached to see restored to their place as the tribes of God’s heritage. What would seem more impolite than to actually call upon His Name? Rend the heavens, indeed, Lord. Maranatha! Lord, come quickly!