O Come, O Come, Emmanuel...we sing during Advent, pleading for God to come to us, for “Emmanuel” means “God with us.” But today’s readings deliver a more joyful message: God is already here! “The Lord, your God, is in your midst,” we hear in the first reading, “a mighty savior” (Zephaniah 3:17). “Among you is the great and Holy One of Israel,” we sing in the responsorial psalm (Isaiah 12:6). “The Lord is near,” Paul testifies (Philippians 4:5). In the Gospel, John the Baptist attests that the one to follow is greater than he, for “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). As baptized Christians, we have already received the Holy Spirit. God is already with us. So we can already witness to God’s presence, and we do this through our actions. “What should we do?” John is asked three times in the Gospel. He tells inquirers to share with those in need, to treat others fairly, and to be content with what they have. Paul sums it up when he tells the Philippians to make their kindness known to all. Truly, we rejoice today. God is here, brought into our midst in our kindness to our brothers and sisters in need.
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We are given Advent each year as a time to prepare. But the readings today remind us that it is also a time of hope and promise. Listen to the first reading: “Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory” (Baruch 5:1). Between this sentence and the next, Baruch used “glory” and “splendor” five times. He imagines looking over Jerusalem and seeing mountains laid low, deserts populated with trees, and the faithful streaming in. The start of John the Baptist’s ministry echoes a similar trek: the Exodus from Egypt. John went into the desert where the word of God came to him. Leaving the desert, he crossed over the Jordan River. Crossing over from slavery to freedom in the Exodus was a sign of God’s providence. Crossing over from sin to forgiveness through repentance became a sign of John’s baptism. Advent is the time to prepare. Heed Isaiah’s words, John’s words: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths” (Luke 3:4). Let us answer this call, so that with God’s grace we can cross over from desolation to salvation.
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We tend to think of Advent as a time to prepare for Christ’s coming as a baby in a manger, the “just shoot” foretold by prophets like Jeremiah in the first reading. But today’s Gospel reminds us that it is also time to prepare for a different coming of the Lord: his return at the end of time. Jesus speaks of frightful events that will occur at that time, warning his disciples to be vigilant, not to let “the anxieties of daily life” distract them (Luke 21:34). How appropriately timed, for over the next few weeks we will face countless sources of anxiety as we prepare for Christmas. These anxieties can easily overwhelm us and make it difficult, if not impossible, to prepare for Christ’s coming in any way. Let us heed what Saint Paul wrote when exhorting the Thessalonians to prepare for Christ’s return: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all” (1 Thessalonians 3:12). If we increase in love for other, we prepare ourselves for Christ’s coming into the world, whether two thousand years ago, at the end of time, or right now, in our hearts.
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Normally when we hear this selection from John’s Gospel it’s on Good Friday in the lengthy account of the Passion of Our Lord. When just these few verses are excerpted—featuring Pilate’s initial questioning of Jesus—we really get a sense of how obsessed Pilate is with the possibility that Jesus is a king. It is a tendency among political leaders, no matter the size of their “kingdom,” to put their highest priority on retaining their power. Jesus was said to be a king and so Pilate saw him as a potential threat to his power. But Pilate misunderstood. As Jesus tells Pilate, he did not come to seize power. He came instead to testify to the truth. This is what distinguishes God’s kingdom from any kingdom of this world. It is not obsessed with power. It does not need to be. “His dominion is an everlasting dominion,” we hear in the first reading (Daniel 7:14). “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” the beginning and the end and everything in between (Revelation 1:8). Every kingdom of this world is temporary; God’s kingdom is eternal.
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The images that begin today’s Gospel are dramatic and frightening: “the sun will be darkened...the stars will be falling from the sky...the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24 -25). They echo what we hear from Daniel in the first reading, of “a time unsurpassed in distress” (Daniel 12:1). Many times we may have felt the same way about the world today. Wars, genocide, natural disasters, mass shooting, rising sea levels—sometimes it feels as though the end of the world is right around the corner. But in between the scary images in today’s readings and the warning that no one knows the day or the hour, there is a note of reassurance. The Son of Man will come in power and glory, overcoming the darkness, overcoming evil. Whatever horrible things may be happening in the world, Christ our Light is stronger. Jesus Christ, both priest and victim, “offered one sacrifice for sins,“ transcending space and time, conquering sins everywhere and anytime, past, present and future (Hebrews 10:12). We live with the assurance of God’s only Son coming again in glory, for the reign of God will have no end.
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The readings today provide us with two models of faith and generosity. The widow in the first reading is in dire straits. She and her son have no food but a handful of flour and a little oil. “When we have eaten it, we shall die,” she tells Elijah heartbreakingly (1 Kings 17:12). Yet she will share the last of what she has with this stranger who makes promises on behalf of his foreign god. Elijah has such strong faith in the Lord that he promises this pagan woman that God would make sure that she would not run out of food. The widow’s generosity, sharing the very last of what is keeping her alive, is rewarded. In the Gospel, Jesus lauds the same kind of generosity. Another unnamed widow takes center stage. She gives “all she had, her whole livelihood” to the temple, to the Lord (Mark 12:44). Her faith and generosity are lauded. But the ultimate model of faith and generosity is Jesus. He is faithful to his Father’s will. He gives his very life to save humankind. As we hear in the second reading, “Once for all he has...take(n) away sin by his sacrifice” (Hebrews 9:26).
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Today Mark invites us to put ourselves in the shoes of the scribe who asks Jesus, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” (Mark 12:28). As the commandments are instructions of how a faithful person should act, the scribe was basically asking Jesus what one principle above all should guide his actions. Unlike most religious authorities who came to Jesus with questions, he was not trying to trick him or test him or find something that could be used against him. One can tell from the way he responded to Jesus’ answer that he sincerely wanted to know which of the 613 precepts of the Jewish law was paramount. Jesus responds by quoting the passage from Deuteronomy that we hear in the first reading, “You shall love the Lord your God,” as well as Leviticus, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12;30, 31). It was not enough to state just the first. The scribe wanted just one, but he got two. A few days ago we celebrated the Solemnity of All Saints, recognizing those who put their faith into action, living lives that serve as models for us. Today we are the scribe, being told by Jesus the way to act, the way to live.
How do you put your love of God and neighbor into action?READ MORE