FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Is 63:16-17, 19; 64:2-7
You have hidden your face from us
Ps 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19
Let us see your face and be saved
1 Cor 1:3-9
In him you were enriched in every way
You do not know when the time will come
With the arrival of Advent, we begin another church year. And with that we turn to Cycle B in the lectionary, with Mark’s as the featured Gospel. Since, unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not have an infancy narrative, do not expect to see much of this Gospel in the coming weeks. Along with the Christmas stories of Luke and Matthew, we will be hearing from the beginning of John’s Gospel. But after this week and next, in which Mark is still with us, speaking of the end times and of John the Baptist, we will say farewell to his Gospel until after New Year’s Day.
Today’s first reading, announcing the arrival of Advent, is a classic lament. This passage stands in contrast to that of last year, Isaiah 2:2-5, a vision of peace so famous that it is inscribed on a plaque across from the UN Building in New York. But this year, instead of a dream of swords fashioned into plowshares, we have a call to repentance.
The long lament from Isaiah 63-64 belongs to the psalm category of communal lament. Other examples would include Psalms 44, 60, 74, 79, to name a few. Psalms typically were liturgical hymns and songs. The Psalter is sometimes called the Hymn Book of the Second Temple. The Temple of Solomon was destroyed at the beginning of the Babylonian exile (587-539 B.C.). It was rebuilt in 520-515 B.C., now known as the “Second Temple.”
Some biblical laments mourn the loss of Solomon’s temple, which was, after all, where the sacrificial liturgy took place. Today’s example from Isaiah is one of these. It is considered a poetic creation in the style of a liturgical psalm. In its fuller form, it mentions the destruction (Isa 64:10). Scholars would place its composition in Judea after the return from Babylonian exile, but before the destroyed temple was rebuilt—between 539 and 520 B.C.
As with other biblical texts, the writing transcends the occasion that brought it into being. As part of the book of Isaiah, this lament became part of the Scripture and was found to provide suitable expression for other occasions. So it is that we have it here, as our entry into Advent.
Our Advent selection omits the mention of the temple as well as the references to the history of God’s salvation and Israel’s disloyalty. It focuses instead on the sense of loss:
“There is none who calls upon your name,
who rouses himself to cling to you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have delivered us up to our guilt”
We enter Advent with a sense of need.
The Gospel of Mark, however, is still with us, for the time being. The text for today reflects the seasonal theme of end-times vigilance. The passage is the last words of Jesus before the Passion account, as Mark tells the story. The main message is that the time is not known, not even by the Son of Man (Mark 13:32). So the best procedure is constant vigilance. Or, to put it in more practical terms—live each day like it is the date of the Second Coming.
Notice, by the way, how the language and imagery of the passage hints of the coming events of Holy Thursday. The admonition to “Watch!” anticipates Jesus’ words to his disciples in Gethsemane, as they nod off. And these words cannot keep from reminding us of Peter’s chagrin at the crowing of the cock—
“you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming,
whether in the evening, or at midnight,
or at cockcrow, or in the morning.”
For reflection: How do we keep vigil today?
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.