Happy New Year, everyone! No, I am not bewildered and confused. The Church year does not begin on Jan. 1. Today is the 1st Sunday of Advent and the beginning of a new liturgical year.
As we journey through Advent, it is important to recall that the season of Advent has 2 distinct parts, each with its own specific purpose. The 1st part of Advent begins today, on the 1st Sunday of Advent and ends on December 16. This period has nothing to do with preparing to celebrate Christmas. That’s the purpose of the 2nd part of Advent which takes place from December 17 to December 24.
Rather than focusing on the First Coming of Jesus in Bethlehem, the purpose of the 1st part of Advent is to prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus, which will occur at the end of time, at the end of the world. Between now and Dec. 16, for the next 19 days, our focus ought to be on preparing for the end of the world and of our own individual lives.
It may seem strange to start the beginning of the Church year by speaking about the end of time. However, it’s important to remember that our life in this world is a journey or pilgrimage. As with any journey, we should know where we are going and what our destination is. Why is that?
Baseball legend Yogi Berra was fond of saying: “You got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” For example, if I want to be a doctor, I have to take the necessary steps to gain admittance to a School of Medicine. Once enrolled, I have to make certain decisions that will guarantee my graduation and, therefore, my ability to set up a practice.
Likewise, in the spiritual realm. We have to decide where we are headed. If our final destination is standing in front of Christ when he returns, that destination ought to influence our choices and our actions.
What’s the best way to get ready to meet and greet Christ when he comes? The short answer to this question is provided by today’s Readings: learn to reject what matters least and learn to choose what matters most.
Jesus speaks about rejecting what matters least when he says: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” To have our hearts “weighed down with dissipation” means that our hearts become so distracted, obsessed and preoccupied with worldly attachments to the point of harming ourselves.
The Church has traditionally taught that there are 4 categories of attachments that require us to be “on guard”:
1. wealth (money, excessive materialism, consumerism),
2. power (lording it over others or abusing our authority for our selfish and self-serving gains),
3. honor (an unhealthy preoccupation with success, social status, or what others think of me) and
4. pleasure (an obsession with having fun or indulging in alcohol, gambling, drugs, sex, pornography, or other addictive behaviors).
Jesus is urging us to be aware, to be watchful, to be vigilant about the role these 4 attachments splay in our lives. It’s not that these 4 things are bad in themselves. For example, money is necessary to live. Our families would not survive without money. We should enjoy all the things life has to offer. Alcohol is a fruit of the earth; therefore, it is a gift from God. Think of the Mass: wine is essential for the celebration of the Eucharist.
However, the danger occurs when these things possess our hearts to the extent that they cloud our minds and siphon our energy away from the essentials of the Gospel. What Jesus is saying is that, regardless of how appealing wealth, power, honor or pleasure may seem, not to place our trust in them.
Pope Francis made these remarks during his Angelus Reflection on November 14: “Let us ask ourselves: on what are we investing our lives? On things that pass such as money, success, appearance, physical well-being? We will take away none of these things. Are we attached to earthly things as if we were to live here forever?”
Wealth, power, honor and pleasure are all temporary and fleeting; they are all destined to end. Therefore, they ought never to become the priorities of our daily lives. That’s the reason they matter least.
How do we learn to choose what matters most? The opening sentence of the 2nd Reading answers this question: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all…”
In 1 of his books, Fr. Henri Nouwen wrote: “The whole message of the Gospel is to become like Jesus”. Jesus only thinks love, only speaks love and only does love. We are called to think, speak and act like Jesus thinks, speaks and acts. If we do not live a life abounding in love, as St. Paul says, we have no connection with Jesus Christ. Therefore, the invitation for us this morning is to choose to love and serve others as Christ loved and served others.
Whenever we uphold the dignity of others and work for justice and peace, we are showing that we are thinking and acting like Jesus. Whenever we are committed to hospitality, inclusion and community building, our minds and hearts are the same as Jesus’ mind and heart. When we reach out to the least, the lost and the last, we are showing Christ-like love and service.
Here is another quotation from Fr. Henri Nouwen: “This brief lifetime is my opportunity to receive love, deepen love, grow in love and give love”. Unlike those whose life is centered on wealth, power, honor and pleasure, those who “abound in love” are not dealing with a fleeting and temporary reality.
Let’s listen to St. Paul again: “And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”
Let’s return to the Pope’s question: “In what are we investing our lives?” St. Paul makes it clear that those who “abound in love” – those who are extravagant in their loving, those who are excessive in their loving – are investing in eternity. That’s the reason love and service matter most.
The last sentence of the Gospel is key. Jesus says, “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength… to stand before the Son of Man”. A genuine prayer life is the pre-requisite for the gift of being able to discern what our chief concerns ought to be as we journey towards our destination.
So, let’s do that. As our Eucharist continues, let us pray to Jesus. Let us ask him to give us the grace and strength to get ready for the end of the world and the end of our lives by rejecting what matters least and by choosing what matters most. Because, when all is said and done, we become what we choose.
Deacon Roland Muzzatti
November 27-28, 2021