First Sunday in Advent

November 27, 2022

Sister Mary Glenn, OSB reflects on the scripture readings: Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44

Today’s gospel is one that needs to be heard in the larger context of Matthew’s description of the “last days” in Chapter 24. The disciples want to know when all this will happen and what will be the signs; and Jesus obliges with details about false messiahs, wars among nations, and heavenly disruptions. And then he concludes with:

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

These are the words that immediately precede today’s passage about the days of Noah, and which continue to emphasize “not knowing:” “They did not know until the flood came.” Then the images of one person being taken and another spared and that “you do not know on which day;” and again, about the thief in the night, “you do not know the hour.”

Matthew’s emphasis on “not knowing” reflects the pre-occupation of the first Christians with the expectation that the coming of Christ would be soon.

But when the first followers began to die and not all Jews were converted and finally, when the Temple was destroyed, Christians had to re-adjust their thinking and so we have Jesus’ words: No one knows the day or the hour, only the Father knows.

What we “don’t know” is very specific: the coming of the Son of Man, which is mentioned 4 times in the passage. Why this emphasis on not knowing what is to come? And why does the warning about one person taken and another left feel arbitrary and slightly sinister?  After all, the Coming is compared to a thief in the night. This must be how the writer and many of the first Christians experienced what was happening around them, so they used these images.

Another approach to our not knowing what is to come is found in today’s reading from Isaiah: “In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain….All nations shall stream toward it … there will be no more war…. Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”

We are painfully aware that none of this has happened, yet we love the promises and beautiful images that we hear during Advent. And we continue to hope that someday the world will be transformed, and we will walk in the light of love and peace.

For some reason my meditating on this not knowing when Christ is coming reminded me of a song from my childhood with the mysterious image of someone showing up at the front door and the woman exclaiming: “Well, well, well. Look who’s here! I haven’t seen you in many a year.” Then she bursts into a song, “If I knew you were comin’ I’d have baked a cake, baked a cake, baked a cake.”

This song was immediately popular in 1950 in an America still recovering from the memories of World War II and determined to put on a happy face. And one way to be happy is to be hospitable and welcoming to whoever knocks at the door.

Maybe the coming of Christ to our door when we least expect it should excite us to bake a cake or hire a band and spread the welcome mat. Another line in the song says “I don’t know where you came from ‘cause I don’t know where you’ve been. But it really doesn’t matter. Grab a chair and fill your platter and dig, dig, dig right in.”

Radical hospitality doesn’t need to know everything about what is coming. Since we have been doing Advent all our lives, we know what is coming: the promise of New Life in the birth of a child.

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