Vigilance for the end

Mary M. McGlone

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We begin the season of Advent with readings that direct our gaze to the ultimate and the immediate realities of our lives. The first Sunday of Advent always looks to history's end. For Christians, that's not the stuff of scary movies but the anticipation of the second coming of Christ, which we believe will bring all of creation to its fulfillment.

CEL_Nov272016.jpgThe first Christians thought they were on the threshold of that day and made plans accordingly. That's one idea behind Paul's telling the Romans, "Our salvation is near."

First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:37-44

In today's Gospel Jesus says, "Stay awake! At an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come."

Watching day and night for the end worked for a few decades after Jesus' death and resurrection, but there comes a time when even the most faithful can't keep standing on tiptoe. Seeing signs of the end in every cul-de-sac does not usually lead to a peaceful and productive life.

The Christians of the second and third generation had to radically realign their expectations, realizing that if they had been right, their grandchildren (not to mention we) would have never existed! When we join them in carefully checking what Jesus had to say about the end, we discover that he was remarkably sparing when it came to details. His only unequivocal statement was: "You do not know on which day your Lord will come."

The conundrum of this reading makes me think of some of my Ecuadorian friends, people with disabilities who live at the base of one of the most active volcanoes in South America. Mount Tungurahua is either smoking or rumbling at least 50 percent of the time and the towns below are always on alert -- with the danger level moving unpredictably from yellow to orange to red and back.

They tell me that they have learned to live with it. They have their backpacks ready with water, medicines, flashlight and matches. They all know the routes to safety zones. They stay prepared and do their jobs.

Life goes on even as they remain vigilant, alert to what could change everything in a flash. Such living has taught them to be watchful without being nervous, an emotional balancing act that flowers into wonderful gratitude for each day and hour because they know how precious and precarious life is.

Today's readings invite us to focus on the end, not to emphasize our vulnerability but to remember where we're going. That's what Isaiah is trying to teach his people as he paints a picture of life as it is meant to be. Isaiah addressed a people who had lost faith because they'd lost their prosperity. Isaiah tried to teach them that prosperity based on injustice has nothing to do with God.

With words as majestic as any music Handel ever composed, Isaiah painted a vision of Jerusalem as God's capital city where all the nations would come to worship and learn to live in peace. And then, lest they sit by contentedly, Isaiah shouts, "O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!"

Paul echoed Isaiah's last idea with his wake-up call to the Romans. At a time when Christians were expecting the triumphant return of Christ at any moment, Paul tried to help them keep their balance between their daily life and what was to come. That's the essential tension of the Christian life: to appreciate the moment for all that it is worth in the light of the coming of the kingdom of God.

Advent calls us to remember what we so often repeat our eucharistic celebration, "Christ will come again." That means that creation is genuinely headed toward fulfillment. It means that Isaiah's vision of the peace of converting weapons into constructive tools and materials is not only possible, but that God is offering us a strategic plan for its accomplishment. Paul calls us to wake up to that reality. Jesus tells us to be attentive to the possibilities in every moment.

What we know for sure is that God's future will happen and will come about in unexpected ways. The folks who live at the base of the volcano can give us hints about trying to be prepared. They know that someday -- tomorrow or in 500 years -- Tungurahua will change everything around it because the volcano is alive.

We believe the same of the kingdom of God. The invitation of Advent is to remember our future so that it can transform our present.

[Mary M. McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet and a historical theologian currently writing the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph in the United States.]

A version of this story appeared in the Nov 18-Dec 1, 2016 print issue under the headline: Vigilance for the end.

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