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DECEMBER 3, 2006: FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Readings: 

Jeremiah 33:14-16
I Thessalonians 3:12-4:2
Luke 21:25-28, 34-36

One of the things which makes the study of Scripture an exciting endeavor is the discovery that what biblical people are anticipating is often replaced by something better. This is what takes place in today's three readings.

The liturgical celebration of Advent is problematic for Scripture scholars. Unlike Lent, it's an artificial creation, put together to help us prepare for an event early Christians rarely commemorated: Jesus' birth. When, during the fourth century, the bishop of Rome designated December 25th as Christmas, the church had to choose Scripture to help the faithful prepare for the new feast. At that time they knew nothing of the problem Fr. Raymond Brown related during one of our mid-70s diocesan clergy conferences. "There are no predictions of Jesus, as we know him," the Sulpician scholar stated, "anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures."

That means we must be careful how we hear and preach our first readings for the next month. Their authors didn't compose them to be used in the context in which we've placed them. They were never intended to help us recognize that Jesus of Nazareth is either the Messiah or God.

In the case of today's Jeremiah pericope, for instance, the author seems to have added these verses to the prophet's original oracles sometime after the Babylonian Exile, perhaps more than 100 years after the prophet's death. He's motivated by a desire to have David's descendants restored to the Jewish throne - something which never happened. "In those days," Yahweh proclaims, "I will raise up for David a just shoot; he shall do what is right and just in the land."

For our purposes, it might be good to reflect on the new name given to Jerusalem: "Yahweh our justice." In this context justice refers to the relationship Yahweh has formed with the Israelites, and they with Yahweh. Their God isn't someone they just pray to, worship or placate. Yahweh wants "relational," not subservient followers.

This concept of relationships is one way we can make our last two readings apply to our everyday lives. One of early Christianity's three fundamental changes came from Jesus' delayed Parousia. He didn't return as quickly as his followers anticipated. What began as a short term religious experience in the 30s developed into a long term endeavor by the early 80s.

Since I Thessalonians is the oldest Christian writing we possess, we expect to hear Paul encourage his readers to "hang in there" a little longer. "May God strengthen your hearts," he writes, "to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones."

By the time Luke writes his gospel 40 years later, many Christians were convinced they'd live their natural lives, die, and Jesus still would not have returned. The concept of a Parousia was becoming more and more distant. Luke warns that one day "the powers of heaven will be shaken and . . . they shall see the Son of Man coming . . . ," but he then zeroes in on what they should be doing in the meantime. Because of the delay, they're "not to become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life."

The key to understanding both Paul and Luke's flexibility in the midst of a delayed Parousia is that, even before mentioning Jesus' second coming, they taught their people justice. They instructed them to develop a relationship with the risen Jesus - a relationship which helped them shift from short term to long term faith when they had to.

No wonder Paul often uses marriage imagery when he speaks about Jesus and the community. Two people take vows for a reason. They're committing themselves to continue building their relationship even if the future doesn't turn out exactly as they had planned. Sound familiar?