I remember the old house I grew up in. It had green shag carpet, brown plaid couches, a three bedrooms and big back yard. I remember the plastic shelves filled with toys in my bedroom, which I shared with my brother. The bedroom—not always the toys. I remember the wooden clock on the wall in the living room, the kind with a pendulum and roman numerals on the face. Once I figured out how time works, I learned to read that clock. I learned what time lunch was, what time Sesame Street came on, what time mama wanted to watch “her stories,” and what time daddy came home. We lived three blocks from the entrance to the Air Force base, and so every time the clock struck five, I remember the anticipation and excitement I felt that dad was going to walk in the door any second. Though I never knew the precise moment when he would walk thru the door, I knew that when dad was home, everything was right with the world.
Just four years ago, on an evening in March, I found myself in St. Peter’s square, beside my seminary classmates. We stood under umbrellas, and for some strange reason we were staring at a chimney. We knew that something was going to happen. Something joyful. We knew that we were about to have a new pope.
When I think about joyful anticipation, I think of those moments. For a little while, everything else in the world mattered little, and the troubles of daily life paled in comparison to the one I was waiting for. My whole being yearned for dad to walk thru the door, or the pope to step out on the loggia.
In our first reading from the prophet Isaiah, we also get a sense of anticipation. The prophet is crying out to heaven, wishing that the Lord would tear open the heavens and come down. But Isaiah’s anticipation is tinged with grief. His cry is a cry for justice and peace to be established on earth, which has become a place of tribulation and suffering. The prophet Isaiah’s words could just as easily have been written today, a time when our political leaders, journalists, and movie stars are being exposed for all sorts of injustices and immoral behavior.
We can sympathize with Isaiah, and imagine him lifting his eyes up to the sky, wondering when God will finally come and set things right. He raises his voice to the heavens, and utters this prayer that we just heard proclaimed. When will the Lord finally come?
Isaiah’s prayer perfectly sums up the feeling we should have during this season of Advent. We experience the bad of this world along with the good, and we desire a society of peace and justice. What Isaiah never fully understood was the miraculous way that God would answer his prayer. For God actually did rend the heavens and come down. He came, not with trumpets and fireworks, but in meekness and humility, being born of a meek and humble virgin. And so, despite the prophet’s warning, the world was not prepared for the miracle of the Incarnation.
With the season of Advent, we are invited to enter into at time of preparation for his coming. Now, most people think that Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas, the time when we remember the birth of Jesus. In a sense, it is. We will prepare our homes, hanging lights on our houses and setting up trees in our living rooms. We will deck the halls, bake goodies, and prepare for the coming of guests. We will prepare to give gifts, shopping and wrapping and mailing. We will prepare for Christmas, and we will be busy. Yet amid this busyness, we are reminded to prepare our souls as well. But prepare them for what?
It doesn’t take much effort to prepare to remember a past event. We do that all the time: Pearl Harbor Day, Thanksgiving Day, Independence Day. Instead of simply commemorating a past event, Advent is a time to prepare for a future event: The second coming of Jesus at the end of time.
In the gospel today, we are instructed to stay alert and watch. In this passage, we are reminded that we do not know the time when the Lord will come. We don’t know the day or the hour.
This warning especially calls to mind the readings we heard just last week, the account of the Last Judgement. It is a day that we Christians long for, because we wish to see our Lord again in his body, coming on the clouds in glory. We desire his kingdom, where there will be no more suffering and death, and no more pain. Yet, it will be a day of reckoning for all mankind, and many will be caught off guard.
I mentioned last week Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine chapel. We don’t want to be like the ones with the shocked look on their faces at the second coming of the Lord.
Rather, we want to be ready when he comes. We want to have a sense of joyful anticipation, the same anticipation I felt right before dad came home, or the pope was announced. We want to stand up straight with our eyes open in wonder and awe. Just as we rejoice every year on Christmas Day, we want to rejoice on the Last Day, confident that our Lord has come to take us home.
And what would it take to have such confidence on the last day? What fears still cling to us? What do we need to change in our lives in order that we can stand blameless before him? What is still eating at our consciences that we need to bring to confession this Advent?
Yes, we believe that the Lord will come again. And he is coming sooner than we might think. The Eucharist that we celebrate today, is, in fact, another coming of Christ. We are expected to be alert and watch each and every time we come to Mass. Otherwise, we could miss out on what Jesus wants to place on our hearts. We come to Mass to offer Jesus our hearts. When the bread is lifted up and placed on the altar, we place our hearts on the altar too. When we place the money basket before the altar, we place our acts of charity at the feet of Jesus. When the chalice is lifted up, full of the juice of crushed grapes, we offer up our sufferings, the times when we feel crushed by sorrow. It is part of being alert and vigilant, ready to sing the song of the angels at the coming of the Lord: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the Highest!
We then echo our longing for the coming of the Lord when we sing, “When we eat this Bread and drink this Cup, we proclaim your death, O Lord, until you come again.” Every time we sing these words, “until you come again,” we remember that we are waiting for the last day, and we declare that we will be ready.
Yes, in the beautiful mystery that is the Mass, the Lord in fact does rend the heavens and come down. He comes down on this very altar, in the appearance of humble bread and wine. When we approach the altar to receive him in Holy Communion, we should be ready—we should be free from grave sin and united in belief with the Catholic Church. We should not be in the midst of a quarrel with our family or our neighbors. We should dress as if we were going to meet the king. We should stand tall and confident, knowing who it is that we receive. And most of all, we should give thanks. After all, that is the very meaning of the word “Eucharist.”
The season of Advent will pass quickly, and then it will be Christmas. While the world tells us that we must celebrate now, because it will all be over on December 26th, we instead hold on to a feeling of joyful anticipation. Our church hymns speak of staying awake, watching and preparing, begging for the Lord to come. They are some of my favorite hymns of the whole year.
The joy of Christmas will come, but for now, we wait. We prepare our homes and our hearts, and we wait in joyful anticipation for the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ.