First Sunday in Advent 2021

What does it take to believe in a promise? In a way, Advent is about believing in a promise, a promise that God has made to us. In today’s readings, Jeremiah speaks of this promise in terms of both security and justice. In his own day, Jeremiah was deeply affected by political events. The leadership of Israel had been sent into exile when the kingdom of Babylonia defeated the Assyrians. Jeremiah hearkens back to the “good old days” of a Davidic king and looks forward to new days when a “shoot” from the Davidic line will rule again. That was his hope for the fulfillment of God’s promise of justice. He believed in the promise and articulated it to God’s people.

Promises are an essential aspect of our everyday lives. We promise to love our spouses “for better and for worse” and to seek their good every day, even as we trust our spouse loves us and is doing the same for us. We promise to pray for loved ones and their intentions, and to be faithful in it. And we believe in the prayers of others who are near and dear to us in our hearts even if they are not always nearby.

We also make implicit promises of our fidelity, as when a mother or father has children and the children know they are always “held” in familial love and can return to it at any time. At our workplaces, we implicitly promise to treat others with respect. We can even see our larger work or church communities as a kind of extended family where there’s a mutual promise of care and serving of one another. Teaching students, for example, happens in the context of a university where we live in a community that promises to cultivate learning and where we all continue to be formed as well as informed.

The world, though, often poses obstacles to this rosy picture of community held together by belief in a promise. Consider the lack of mutual respect between people of different political perspectives when they lose faith that others are as well intentioned as they believe themselves to be. In churches, workplaces, and personal relationships, people can fail to love, and so trust becomes damaged. Even if we don’t live with the direct threat of a political Babylon, we can and should be aware of the genuine injustice that many people face. This Advent, we know the world still doesn’t fully live in a way that expresses care for the dignity of all people and all life. Just read the newspaper.

In that reality, what does believing in God’s promise to come and be with us mean? What does it look like to believe that God saves?

The other readings from today give us clues. The Psalm, Psalm 25, suggests it begins with an interior experience. Whatever Advent is for us, at its heart is an interior preparation. The Psalmist lifts up his soul to the Lord. What does he receive in return? An experience of kindness, guidance, constancy, and friendship. The Psalmist’s advice is simple and uncomplicated: first, we begin by lifting up not only our intentions, but also also our very selves to the Lord. We can begin Advent by offering up ourselves to God and trusting that God will come to fulfill us in the many and diverse ways that God can come to be present to us in prayer—whether in more active ways or in silence itself.

We also see on Jesus a model of what a life of kindness, faithfulness, truthfulness, and justice looks like. Jesus lived in a broken world, and in a world where people (like his own Jewish people) were oppressed. Rome asserted its power repeatedly over the peoples it governed and Herod was exceptionally brutal, killing off those whom he saw as threatening, those who were supposed to be under his care, and even his own children. The model Jesus gives us, one we will see more of in the readings from Luke in the weeks ahead, is one of kindness, courage, and faithful accompaniment of others.

The Gospel reading from Luke 21 counsels vigilance and wakefulness. Wakefulness requires our own activity: being attentive. What is called for in my world, here and now? How am I awake to what a world with hunger, poverty, sadness, or injustice needs right now? How am I open and attentive to how God wants to come to me right now? Do I trust in the goodness of Love and the faithfulness of Promise? If not, can I recollect past experiences of God’s love and kindness to increase my faith and hope?

Vigilance, though, means trusting that God will act, that we don’t do it all ourselves but know God will come in God’s own way to fulfill the promise. God acts in creative and surprising ways—-for example, sending a messenger to a poor, unknown young woman in Galilee. The biggest promise we have is God’s promise of love to us. That love never fades and never ceases to blossom. Let’s enter into Advent with a spirit of kindness, humility, and faithfulness to our own end of promises, trusting that God will act to fulfill our deepest needs.

Love one another as I have loved you

“Jesus said to his disciples:
“As the Father loves me, so I also love you.
Remain in my love.” (Jn 15:9)

Jesus asks us to love one another in the same way that Jesus loves us. All the readings today are about love; the language is repeated as if to bring us back to what matters: in the end, our lives are about Love.

We can also look to Jesus as a model for love. Here are some things I notice about how Jesus loves:

1. All love is grounded in being loved by God. Jesus says that his own love is grounded in being loved by the Father. Our capacity to love others is also grounded in our knowing that we are loved unconditionally. If we remain in the love of Jesus, that love flows out from us toward others, a love working in and through us.

2. “Love is patient and kind,” as St Paul says. Love responds to difficulties and stumbling blocks with patience and kindness. Consider Jesus with the Samaritan woman, the woman caught in adultery, or the thieves on the cross. His love is responsive and embracing, not recriminatory.

3. Love is communicative and speaks the truth. Jesus tells Peter “get behind me, Satan” when Peter refuses to acknowledge that Jesus will suffer. Peter resists entering into Jesus’s suffering and so refuses an aspect of friendship with Jesus. So Jesus openly tells Peter that he is acting in an adversarial way. Love doesn’t mean avoiding all conflict but communicates.

4. Love seeks out those in the margins of society. Jesus constantly goes to those who are marginalized and even despised in his society and works to heal them and to restore them to community: tax collectors, adulterers, Samaritans, roadside beggars, a Roman soldier identified with the oppressor, lepers.

5. Love is always reconciling. Jesus refuses reconciliation with no one, and we are to do the same with one another.

6. Love is willing to sacrifice for the sake of the good of another. Today is Mother’s Day and for me there is no better model of sacrificial love than that of a mother (my mom is a very loving mom). I recall holding my firstborn when she was a newborn infant and realizing I truly loved someone else more than myself. There was no question in my mind that I’d sacrifice even my own life in order to protect the life of that child–and nearly every mom would say the same.

7. Love can be shown in the smallest actions. I love St Therese of Lisieux, who demonstrated great love even while living isolated in a convent. While she could not live an active life in her society or live out the life of a missionary (though she supported missionary priests in prayer and with letters), she sought to love in every action of her day. She wrote, “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”

8. Love passes on gifts received to others. We receive many gifts in our lives: perhaps it’s a good education or a particular skill someone taught us; being received and cared for in a time of crisis; or material goods. Love shares what we have by passing on what has been received to others in the wider community. Like trees that produce seeds to grow new seedlings, when we pass on the gifts that we receive, our love becomes generative.

Of course, we often fail to love well. In the reading from Acts, Peter makes Cornelius get up and says, I’m only human, as you are. Often we stumble and fall in our efforts to love, but then we try again, and help each other to get back onto our feet once more.