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In the readings for this Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, Year C, the Old Testament is filled with longing and the Gospel is filled with warning.
But they both share one thing in common: They see a Christ-shaped hole in the universe and ache for it to be filled.
Jeremiah sounds like Jesus and Jesus sounds like Jeremiah at Mass this Sunday.
Jeremiah is usually the Weeping Prophet who laments over the fate of his people and proclaims violence and destruction, and Jesus at this time of year is the newborn king making his gentle way into our hearts.
All of that is reversed this Sunday. Jeremiah proclaims that God “will raise up for David a just shoot,” a helpless new life who will grow into a kingdom. But Jesus warns about his Second Coming on the day of judgment when “the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
Jeremiah preaches that Christ will bring shelter from the storm: “Judah shall be safe and Jerusalem will dwell secure.” But Jesus says that when he comes he will bring the storm: “On earth nations will be in dismay” he says. “People will die of fright” as “that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth.”
As Cyril said: “His first appearance he made in our weakness and lowliness, the second he shall celebrate in all his own power.”
The fact is, both are expressions of the same lack we feel in the world: The lack of Jesus Christ.
We see the Christ-shaped hole in the universe first in the story of the prehistory of the world, the 12th chapter of Revelation. “And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth.”
That’s an image of Christmas and it causes the devil to lead a rebellion of angels giving their eternal “No!” to Christ, as St. Michael and others fight back.
Everything that happened after that in Salvation history is Christ-haunted. From the vision, the devil knew God planned to put human beings in a place of great honor. So he tricked Adam and Eve into thinking God was a tyrant and he was the one who could make them “like God.”
Adam and Eve fell, and human beings ever since have followed Satan’s many paths away from God. And at the same time, God set out to win his people back, to convince them to choose him after all.
Abraham heard a promise that would only be fulfilled in Christ, that his descendants would number as the stars. Moses initiated the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, a ritual would be fulfilled in Christ. King David was promised that a descendant of his would be the Messiah, whose kingdom would have no end.
The longing for this great one rose to a crescendo with Solomon and the Temple, was disappointed when the kingdom was divided and the people sent into exile, but a succession of prophets kept painting the pictures of the one who was to come:
Finally, Daniel described him as a divine figure called the son of Man who would come to power after successive empires failed.
But the Jewish people weren’t the only ones noticing the Christ-shaped hole in the universe. The whole world was expecting something big.
Remarkable advancements happened all over the world in the 500 years before Jesus came.
In China, Confucius (551-479 B.C.) and Lao Tzu (b. 571 B.C.) came along, teaching systems of order and harmony. Said Confucius “To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.” Lao Tzu was forever searching for the Tao, the Way that matched the order of the universe. He said, “The Tao is like a well: used but never used up. It is like the eternal void: filled with infinite possibilities,” he wrote. “It is hidden but always present. I don’t know who gave birth to it. It is older than God.”
If China was seeking after the Way, Greece was seeking after the Truth: Socrates (470-399 B.C.) taught Plato (348-428) and Plato taught Aristotle (384-322), and Aristotle was was the founder of science, poetics, philosophy. “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing,” said Plato. Aristotle said the greatest teacher would be a wise teller of parables. “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor,” he said. “it is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in the dissimilar.”
And then, immediately before Christ was born, Augustus Caesar (31 B.C.-A.D.14) became the first Roman emperor. He brought the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) through conquest and violence. He took on himself the title of the Son of God and proclaimed the Evangelium, the “Good News” to nations he conquered: Caesar was now ruler of their land.
Says Fulton Sheen: “Not only were the Jews expecting the birth of a Great King, a Wise Man and a Savior, but Plato also spoke of the Logos; Socrates, of the Universal Wise Man ‘yet to come’; Confucius, of ‘the Saint;’ the Sibyls, of a ‘Universal King’; the Greek Dramatist, of a Savior and Redeemer to unloose the ‘primal eldest curse.’”
They were longing for the Logos, the Word — the Way, the Truth and the Life. They were longing for the one who would reconfigure their hearts. They were longing for Christ.
We long for Christ too. But it’s different for us. They longed for him to come to them; we long to be able to come to him.
We are in a new age where Christ has come and his kingdom is spreading all over the world: His castles are churches, where the crucifix depicts the king triumphant and the tabernacle is his royal throne room. His Evangelium has replaced Caesar’s, and we are meant to announce to the world that it has been conquered and Jesus Christ is the new ruler of the realm.
We need to say it and they need to hear it, because his kingdom is “not of this world.” It is a kingdom that reigns in hearts. No one is automatically in it. Jesus Christ came and reversed the sin of Adam and Eve, but each of us has to choose to enter into his saving work.
As St. Paul puts it in Sunday’s Second Reading: “Conduct yourself to please God,” and “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love … to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.”
That’s what Advent is for: We fast to learn the self-control we will need to live Christ’s Way; we pray to reconfigure our hearts and minds to conform to Christ’s Truth; and we give alms to learn generosity in order to live in Christ’s love.
Advent is meant to conform us to the Way, the Truth and the Life that the world has been longing for so that the Lord Jesus will recognize us when he comes.
In the end, Jeremiah and Jesus agree on this.
Jesus says to “Beware” of carousing and drunkenness and “the anxieties of daily life” or that day will “catch you by surprise like a trap.” He says to “Be vigilant at all times, and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent.”
When he comes, says Jeremiah, the Messiah will be “the Lord, our Justice,” and “he will do what is right and just in the land.”
We await that day still, but now we can work with Christ to build his kingdom of justice. If we do, he says, we can “Stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.”