The important words for us to remember today to take away with us as we leave this celebration: “Be alert and watch, for you don’t know when the time will come. What I say to you, I say to all. Stay alert.” Now when Mark — or the community of Mark who recorded this Gospel — recorded those words, he and the other disciples, the community of Jesus, fully expected that at almost any time in the very near future would be the end, and Jesus would return in glory and bring all of creation into the fullness of God’s reign.
So, the same thing was true of St. Paul in writing to the church at Corinth. Paul was urging them to be faithful, continue to develop the gifts that you have received, because the Lord is going to return very soon. About 2,000 years later, it hasn’t happened as they expected — that it would come very quickly, the return of Jesus in glory.
So we are still waiting, and that’s what this Advent season is about. It’s staying vigilant, being alert to the coming of Jesus. And of course, we, like those disciples, what Jesus said about himself, we don’t know when that final coming will happen. But there are many other ways in which Jesus, God, comes into our life if we stay awake, if we stay alert.
First Sunday of Advent
And the first way is what we celebrate at the end of this season of waiting, the season of Advent, of course is Christmas, when God did as the people at the time of Isaiah prayed for so fervently: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down. The mountains would quake at your presence.” They were in desperate need of God’s help, God’s protection, God’s care, and they were praying that the heavens would break open and God would come into their midst.
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Well, in a very extraordinary way, that is what happened. But then, it was about 500 years later that God came in the person of Jesus. And that’s what we look back to now — that coming of Jesus — and we prepare ourselves to, and we do this each year, of course, to remember again how God came into our midst, the heavens were rendered open, and God came among us. Jesus, true God and truly one of us.
And as we prepare to celebrate that incredible act on the part of God — to enter into our human history, to become one like us in every way except sin — as we prepare to celebrate that, it seems to me that we must think about how Jesus came into the midst of the human family, into human history. And if we’re really going to be ready to welcome him, we have to begin to think about, and be alert for, developing the ways that we would imitate him, because he came to bring to us life, life that lasts forever. That happens when we begin to follow his way.
And I can’t help but think that perhaps if you, it has occurred to you also how this time of Advent, this time of waiting, has in our culture been characterized by a materialism. Jesus came among us as a poor person. Jesus understood that no one lives by bread alone, the things of this earth, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. When Jesus was tempted later in his life in the desert to change the stones into bread, that’s what he said to the devil: “No, see, I don’t accumulate all kinds of material things. I have enough.”
What was the frenzy to shop Thanksgiving eve, all day yesterday, or all day Friday, today? We seem to have given ourselves over to a culture of abundance, having not just enough, but more than enough. So if we’re going to be alert to the coming of Jesus, as we celebrate that coming as it happened 2,000 years ago, wouldn’t it be important to us to think about how we might simplify our lives?
Certainly we have a right to what we need. Every person on this earth has a right to what you need for full human life, but do we have a right to way more than we need when there are such a vast number of people on our planet who live in desperate poverty? Be alert; think about how Jesus came — born in a stable, a short time homeless, a refugee. He chose to identify himself with those who are poor, who are oppressed.
We must begin to think, if we really want to welcome Jesus into our midst in that special celebration of Christmas, that he comes among us as one who can show us the way to the fullness of life by living a life on this earth according to the pattern that he shows us. And so that’s the first way in which I think we must be alert to the coming of Jesus.
In the Book of Revelations, there’s a very beautiful passage where the prophet John, speaking on behalf of the Lord in his vision, says (and this would be Jesus), “Look, I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my call, open the door and I will come in to be with you, have supper with you, and you with me.” That’s the coming of Jesus. It’s an invitation to every one of us to welcome him into our lives, into our heart, into our spirit.
If we really prepare for this coming of Jesus, well then it seems to me it’s important for us to make sure that each day we spend some time in quiet. It doesn’t have to be hours on end; even just a few moments when we separate ourselves from all the distractions — all the distractions that keep us occupied, our minds occupied. We’re always connected to the devices that we have now: cell phones and iPads and computers, Facebook. We’re constantly being connected to other people, to the world around us.
But how much time do we spend trying to be connected with the God who lives in our heart? See, that takes quiet. And so during this season of Advent when we’re preparing for that coming of Jesus into my heart personally, I must find the time to separate myself, for at least a short time, from all the distractions around me and go into the quiet of my own heart and pray. But the prayer I’m talking about is not simply asking God for things, or even thanking God for the blessings we have.
It’s a prayer of listening, because when we open that door and Jesus comes into our heart, if we take some of his words from the Gospels, read them, try to listen to them, we’ll experience a whole new coming of Jesus into our lives. So that’s the second thing that I think we must do during this season of waiting, the season of Advent, looking for the coming of Jesus. And a final thing would be to remind ourselves of the Gospel from last Sunday — a very famous Gospel, one that we remember easily.
It’s from the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Remember the passage? “When I was hungry, you gave me [food] to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me drink. When I was naked, you clothed me. When I was in prison, you visited me. When I was sick, you came to see me.” “When?”, the people in the Gospel say, “When did we do that?” “Whenever you did it to the least of one of my brothers or sisters, you did it to me.” So if we’re waiting for Jesus to come into our lives, then we must go out to those where Jesus is most of all.
I find it fascinating that Pope Francis, over and over again now in the short time that he’s been the Bishop of Rome, speaks about people who are migrants fleeing danger — people who are refugees. Just a week or so ago, he spoke before the European Parliament, and once again he says, “There needs to be a united response to the question of migration. We can’t allow the Mediterranean Sea to be a vast cemetery. People fleeing from poverty, from violence, coming across the Mediterranean Sea to land, Italy or some other country in Europe, being pushed away, dying at sea.”
He said, “We can’t let that happen. The boats landing daily on the shores of Europe are filled with men and women who need acceptance and assistance. The absence of mutual support within the European union runs the risk of encouraging particularistic solutions to the problem, solutions which fail to take into account the human dignity of each person, each immigrant.
“Europe must make itself capable of adopting fair, courageous, and realistic policies which can assist the countries of origin in their own social and political development and in their efforts to resolve internal conflicts, the principal cause of this phenomenon.” But couldn’t Pope Francis be saying the same thing to us? The refugees that are at our borders and that we push away, spending $18 billion to keep our border secure, against whom?
These are poor, hungry, even children, starving people. “When I was a refugee, you gave me shelter.” That’s what Jesus said. “When you did it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” And that’s only one example of how we will be able to welcome Jesus into our midst, into our lives, into our hearts. We all know the people out there who are hungry in our own community, and we can find ways to provide meals for them at churches or community centers. We can assist in those efforts, and that’s when we will find Jesus, the Jesus we’re waiting for.
God has answered the prayer of those people at the time of Isaiah who pleaded so long ago: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down. The mountains will quake at your presence.” God has come down; we’re waiting to welcome God more fully into our lives. And if we listen carefully to these words of God, we will find when we open that door, Jesus will come in and be with us and bless us, and we will begin to share the fullness of the peace and joy and life that Jesus came to bring to all of us.
[Homily given at St. Philomena Parish, Detroit, Mich. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]