Reflection on the First Sunday of Advent
Once again, we have arrived at the First Sunday of Advent and the beginning of a new liturgical year. We’ve been here many times before, and it’s a good time to consider where we are and where we need to go from here. In one of his poems, T.S. Eliot wrote, “We must never cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and know it for the first time.” One commentary suggests that he was describing productive struggle with baffling questions. We are definitely struggling with many baffling questions today and, in spite of the fact that we have more information than we’ve ever had before, we seem to be farther and farther from workable answers. And yet, even as the questions get more baffling, the answer seems to get more and more simple. As a friend of mine in the rooms of AA was fond of saying, “Love is the answer; what’s the question?”
In our first reading from Isaiah, the Jewish people also found themselves in a painful and confusing place as they faced the reality of the Babylonian captivity. This remarkable passage traces the transformation of their conscious awareness of God from one who is aloof and angry to one who is intimate and present. Initially, God is perceived as irresponsible, angry and the cause of their problems. The diatribe undergoes a remarkable shift at the end with the acknowledgment that God is Father: “You are the potter and we are the clay. We are the work of your hands.” When I have watched a potter at work with clay I have been impressed with the depth and intensity of the involvement of the potter with the clay. There is pressure, interaction and modification. In like manner, this passage which began with a productive struggle with their reality ended with a deeper understanding of God and all that had happened to them as a people.
Studying this passage reminded me of the exciting discussions we had when Marshall McLuhan published his book “The Medium is the Message” back in the ’60s. He made the case that we are who we are today because we have been shaped by the message we have heard. Communication speeded up with the printing press, accelerated even more with telecommunication and became lightning fast with electronic and social messaging right down to the latest tweet. There is no going back. The whole planet is now a village, and it is once again possible for one person to speak to every person who is alive in this moment. This reality has vast potential for both good and evil. We are clearly in need of hearing a new message which will call us back from the place of fragmentation and separation which Simon and Garfunkel immortalized in their song “The Sound of Silence.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks that message we need to hear: “Wake up, be watchful, be alert. Watch for the return of the master of the house.” This Gospel reminds me of a scene from my childhood. My mother always left the house early every morning to take care of some necessary business for about an hour, and before she left she would say loudly and clearly, “When I get back you’d better be up, dressed, and have this place cleaned up!” We took turns being the sentinel so all but that one could snooze a little longer. As soon as we heard the words “Here she comes!” there was an immediate and electrifying response. In the five or six minutes it took her to arrive, we would accomplish monumental tasks which would normally have taken a much longer time. It is hoped that if we all work together, we can become a global version of my mother.
In the publication of his latest encyclical, “Frutelli Tutti,” Pope Francis takes his place beside Jesus to repeat the message and spell it out with clarity and simplicity. The time is now. We are on the brink of disaster, and we are fast approaching the point of no return. Fraternity and social friendship are the only effective ways to build a more just and peaceful world. All people and institutions must contribute to this effort. War is a no-no, and globalized indifference must be confronted at every level. Wake up and get busy before it’s too late.
So here at the beginning of Advent 2020 we have listened to Jesus and Pope Francis and we know it is time to act. What can we do? It is obvious that progress is being made as we listen to the voices that are calling for change, facilitating change and celebrating change. Our readings today remind that we also would do well to remember that God is the potter, and we are the clay. Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra emphasize that belief as well with their invitation to the whole world to make a serious effort to practice meditation. In their words, “Anger and judgment have become our “go-to” responses and left us disconnected from our innate core of love and understanding. We need to put aside ego and heal.” I need to remember that change begins with me, and I can become a part of that critical mass of love, peace and justice that Mary Pellegrino reminded us that we all need to strive to become. This is the day. Our future depends on it.