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First Sunday of Advent: It’s not about Christmas

Today’s readings: Isaiah 63,16-17; 64, 1.3-8; 1 Corinthians 1, 3-9; Mark 13, 33-37.

This time every year carries with it a mixture of feelings: a strong desire and sentiment of peace and harmony is weighed down with the feeling of a historical impotence to bring real change in a profoundly wounded world.

In today’s first reading the prophet Isaiah is spot on in this regard. He is addressing Israel returning from its captivity in Babylon. The people had reason to hope and stand firm in their belief that the God they believed in would intervene and make His saving presence felt. But they also had reason to despair that someday those promises would come true.

It is always the same old story on and on. What we experience and go through weighs down on our faith and robs our religion of the force to bring about change. “Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down!”, writes Isaiah, giving expression to this strong feeling in the people. We want God to intervene, to come down.

There is so much around us that contradicts what we will be celebrating on the Holy Night this Christmas, just as it was with every other Christmas. Advent is about God’s irruption in the history of humankind, an irruption that changed the course of history. Change is needed and desired – change in our perspective of life, and change as healing, especially where suffering is still rampant and where so many people are still denied their dignity as humans.

If our passion for God is not marked with a passion for humanity, then we are getting the Christmas message all wrong. The God we celebrate these days has assumed a human face and it is no use pretending to adore Him in our churches and liturgies and not acknowledging Him in the streets of our cities and crossing borders in search of dignity and decency.

The God who is so passionate about humanity and the world He created is deserting our supposedly sacred spaces. As the prophet Isaiah today remarks in the first reading, all that integrity of ours risks becoming “filthy clothing”. How harsh, yet how painfully true can those words sound. Comparing our integrity to filthy clothing warns about a parody of integrity that fails to bring justice where justice is needed.

Christianity is about the hope of redemption. It is about change. We all remember the campaigns to put Christ back in Christmas. The reason behind those campaigns was that society was becoming too secularist and consumerist, and we thought that needed to be corrected. But is that really the problem? We are still big consumers and boast of being so generous. We are a highly secularised society and remain relatively so religious in our practices.

One major challenge we face today is to offer hope rather than despair. Going back to the Old Testament, the only thing the people could do to renew their hope when they returned from their captivity in Babylon was to remember what God had actually done for them in the past. When there are no immediate signs of hope, memory has a crucial role. It gives reason to hope and reason to struggle on.

Memory is also precious in other situations. Because memory is identity. If memory is lacking, we do not even know who we are, let alone what we stand for. And perhaps at this point in time this our major problem as a society in transition. We’re fast forgetting our past. And when there is nothing to remember, then the feeling of being lost dominates. Like the generations returning from exile at the time of Isaiah, we are losing connection with a tradition received and we are becoming more and more like an uprooted tree.

The gospel speaks of staying awake, of being on guard, of things that will happen unexpectedly and that will take us by surprise. It is pointing to the big surprises we’ll go through as individuals and as society if there remain no values that we stand up for and if we let all that was once solid melt away.

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