As it was in Noah’s day, so will it be when the Son of Man comes (Mt 24:37).
Each year on the first Sunday of Advent we hear an extract from the discourse Jesus gave, just before his Passion, about the end of time. Jesus tells us of the signs by which we can recognise that the end is very close. There will be earthquakes, wars, rumours of wars, famines, persecutions, false prophets, an increase of lawlessness, and love grown cold. You don’t need much special insight to see that all this is being fulfilled in our world at the moment. And 2017 will be the centenary not only of the Battle of Paschendaelle, and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, but also of the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima. I make no claim whatever to understand the significance of this. I merely note that Sr. Lucia, one of the Fatima seers, once gave a warning about repeating the example of the King of France. She referred to a request made by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, on 17th June 1689, that the French King publicly consecrate France to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The King was Louis XIV, and he did nothing. Exactly 100 years later, on 17th June 1789, the successor of Louis had all his power stripped away by the Revolutionary Assembly of France, and subsequently he lost his head in the bloody Terror that followed.
In today’s Gospel Jesus turns our attention away from the signs foretelling the end, to the end itself. When the Son of Man comes in glory, it’s important he not catch us spiritually asleep, comfortable in false security, complacent, forgetful of God and of our eternal destiny. His coming will be the moment of judgement, and then the time for conversion will be past.
We’ve begun the season of Advent, and this year it’s the longest it can possibly be. With Christmas day falling on a Sunday, we have 4 full weeks of preparation. And this is a gift of grace for us, because Advent is a lovely season. Advent teaches us to look forward to the coming of Jesus not with dread and foreboding, but with eager anticipation, with ardent desire, with hope and joy. In Advent we are encouraged not to wallow in the present gloom, but to rise above it; to look ahead, and to look up. Adveniat regnum tuum Domine! we cry, we pray, perhaps above all in Advent. And we strive for conversion of heart; for deep conversion: conversion from sin, conversion to Jesus.
With the return of a new beginning to the liturgical year, we find ourselves once again being offered something new, something fresh, and even with a sense of excitement about it. As one little sign of that, today we leave behind the Gospel of St. Luke, and we take up instead the Gospel of St. Matthew: so similar to Luke, and yet so very different. Today also we take up once again the Prophet Isaiah. Isaiah is long, and a lot of it is obscure, and quite hard to follow. Yet as we grow ever more familiar with this ancient Hebrew poetry, and prophecy, its images and ideas become ever more a part of us. As a matter of fact, the passage we have for today’s first reading is repeated exactly in the prophet Micah. We Christians read it as a prophecy of the gentiles coming to faith in Christ. Lifted up on the hill of Golgotha, he draws all peoples to himself. And his Kingdom involves war turned into peace; division turned into unity; mutual distrust transformed into mutual love.
The reading from the 13th Chapter of Romans we heard today quite closely echoes our passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel. Both tell us to stay awake, to keep watch, to be vigilant as we wait for the coming of Christ. For those whom this catches unawares, it will be the final disaster. But for those who belong to him, it will be the ultimate good news.
When we reflect on the state of our world, and of our own life, we tend to shake our heads, fearing that we are sinking into the darkness. Our day, we feel, is almost over, and the night is coming. You may know the fine poem by Dylan Thomas, written as a defiant protest against death:
Do not go gentle into that good night;
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
But what St. Paul says in Romans is precisely the opposite of that. Paul says: The time has come... night is almost over; the day is at hand. We are already living in the time of salvation; different from where we were before our baptism; different from where the unbaptised world now is. So what we already have is marvellous. As Paul says elsewhere, we are children of the day, children of light (Eph 5:8; I Thess 5:5); we belong to God’s Kingdom (Col 1:13); we are citizens of heaven (Phil 3:20). But what we look forward to is even more marvellous. Then we shall be with Jesus face to face; then we shall share fully in his resurrection, in his victory, in his human and divine love.
We prepare for that now by avoiding all sin, which we could define as the non-presence of Jesus in our lives, or as our excluding Jesus from our lives, or our preferring anything else whatever to him, even if that be only our own misery. St. Paul doesn’t hesitate to warn us here against really gross sins that are shameful even to mention. But he encourages us also to strive for high spiritual perfection: walking in continual remembrance of God, and of Jesus, which is living in a state of prayer without ceasing.
St. Bernard reflected on all this especially through the words of the Song of Songs. See where he stands, sings the Bride, behind our wall. He looks in at the window, he peers through the lattice (2:9). Yes, Jesus has already come very close to us. He came close in his Incarnation, and in his sharing of all our human experience apart from sin. Yet a lattice and a wall still separate us from him. The lattice is our fleshly condition, and our mortality; a fragile and temporary barrier through which a lot of light passes. The wall is our sins, our worldly attachments, our little habits of self indulgence. Yet even through this wall the Bridegroom calls to us: Come, my love, my lovely one, he sings. Show me your face, let me hear your voice - the voice of praise, of prayer, of love. For your voice to me is sweet, and your face is beautiful (2:14).