1st Sunday of Advent: 12 things to know and share

The 1st Sunday of Advent is upon us. Here are 12 things to know and share . . .
The 1st Sunday of Advent is upon us. Here are 12 things to know and share . . . (photo: Register Files)

Advent not only prepares us for the birth of Jesus Christ (his first advent), it also prepares us for his return (his second advent).

Both of these themes are present in the readings for this Sunday.

Here are 12 things to know and share . . .


1) What does the first reading this Sunday say?

The first reading is Isaiah 2:1-5 (you can read it here).

This reading contains a prophecy that, one day in Isaiah’s future, the mountain where the house of the Lord is shall become the highest mountain in the world.

When that happens, all the nations will stream to it, and they will say to each other,

Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.

The prophet adds:

For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

He says that the Lord will judge between the nations, and then follows the famous statement:

and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more


2) What does this mean in its original context?

The house of the Lord is the temple in Jerusalem, and the mount where it is located is identified in the Old Testament as Mt. Zion.

The statement that Mt. Zion will become the highest mountain in the world is not a prophecy of a literal geological shift that would make it higher than Mount Everest.

Instead, it is a symbol of the fact that Mt. Zion will become the most important mount in the world (based on the metaphor “bigger/taller = more important”).

The passage then begins to explain why Mt. Zion will come to be the most important mount in the world: The nations will stream to it, to visit the temple and worship God and learn his ways.

This is quite a striking statement for the time! While there were always some non-Jews who went to worship at the temple, it was overwhelmingly a Jewish institution.

For Jews of the day, the nations were their enemies—often their persecutors—who worshipped false idols.

The idea that their enemies and persecutors would come to worship the true God and go on pilgrimage to worship him at his temple was a startling thought!

The word of the Lord will also permeate the nations and not be the exclusive property of the Jewish people.

God himself will provide justice among the peoples, preventing conflicts between them and making war unnecessary.

They are thus depicted as taking their weapons (swords, spears) and turning them into agricultural tools (plowshares, pruning hooks).

The statement that they will not “learn war” any more means that they will not train for war any more. Armies will be unnecessary.


3) How is this prophecy fulfilled?

It’s fulfilled in more than one way, like many biblical prophecies.

On one level, it is fulfilled in the present Messianic Age, which began when Jesus was born.

The first advent of the Messiah led to a massive conversion of the gentiles to faith in the God of Israel. They now worship him, and knowledge of his word fills the nations of the world.

Though the world is far from perfect, the Christian faith has had a leavening effect o the nations where it has spread, and that has brought a new era of justice and peace.

The world is now more just and far less violent than it was in the prophet Isaiah’s day.

On another level, this prophecy will be more completely fulfilled in the coming Messianic Age, which will begin when Jesus returns.

In that day, the nations’ fidelity, worship, and knowledge of God will be made complete, and absolutely perfect justice and peace will become a reality.


4) What does the responsorial Psalm for this Sunday say?

The responsorial psalm for this Sunday is Psalm 122:1-9 (you can read it here).

This is a “psalm of ascents” that is credited to King David.

A psalm of ascents is a psalm that was sung on the way up to Jerusalem, as pilgrims marched up the mountainous terrain on pilgrimages for three of the annual feasts (Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles).

As a result, this psalm has the theme of gladly going to the Lord’s temple.

In the first reading, it was the nations—the gentiles—that did this. Here, it is the children of Israel who do so on their way to keep a festival.

Specifically, the psalm refers to “the tribes of the Lord” going up “as was decreed for Israel.”

It also refers to the thrones of the House of David being set in Jerusalem, and, as in the previous reading, it stresses the theme of peace and urges prayer for the peace of Jerusalem and a blessing on those who love her.


5) What does this mean for us?

This psalm echoes many of the same themes as the first reading, but it places them in a distinctly Jewish context and does not present them as a overt prophecy.

Instead, it presents them in the form of an act of worship (a pilgrim song) in a specific time period: The reign of David.

Read together, the first reading and the responsorial psalm convey an image of both Jews and gentiles gathering together to worship God in peace.

This coming together took place in a special way with the beginning of the Christian age, and it will take place in a definitive way when Christ returns.

The reference to the thrones of the House of David may be understood as a reference to God’s promise of an unending dynasty to King David—a promise that is fulfilled in the reign of Jesus Christ.


6) What does the second reading say?

The second reading is Romans 13:11-14 (you can read it here).

In this reading, St. Paul urges us to live in a way that corresponds to our Christian calling.

He uses a number of images connected with the day/night, wakefulness/sleep metaphors. He tells us to wake up from sleep, to avoid the works of darkness, to put on the armor of light, and to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

He also names some of the works of darkness: reveling and drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling, and jealousy.

The image is of a person who has misbehaved and sinned at night now waking up to a new day, in which he can dress himself appropriately and make a new start, turning away from the sins he formerly committed.

Paul also specifies why, saying: “you know what hour it is,” “for salvation is nearer to us than when we first believed,” “the night is far gone, the day is at hand.”


7) What does this mean for us?

Paul was writing at the dawning of the Christian age, and he urged the new converts to Christ to make a clean break with their former lives and live in holiness, in preparation for the new day that would dawn when Jesus returned.

It was not clear at this time when that would be, and there was a tendency to assume that it would be sooner than it was.

By the time of the book of Revelation, God would make it clear that this might be a very long time, indeed, which is why the symbol of the millennium is found in chapter 20 of that book.

However, this had not been revealed when St. Paul wrote Romans around A.D. 55.

St. Paul’s point, however, holds valid both for Christians of his day and ours: We must live in a way that prepares us for our definitive encounter with Christ, whether that takes place at our deaths or at the Second Coming.

And we don’t know when this encounter will take place—a point stressed in the Gospel reading . . .


8) What does the Gospel reading say?

The Gospel reading is Matthew 24:37-44 (you can read it here).

In this reading, Jesus speaks of “the coming of the Son of Man” and compares it to the days of Noah.

He notes that in the days of Noah, people were going about the affairs of ordinary life—“eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage”—not realizing that the flood would soon be upon them and sweep them all away.

This is the way his own coming will be.

He then illustrates how people will be going about their daily business, saying that there will be two men working in a field or two women grinding flour—but one will be taken and the other left.

He therefore draws the conclusion of the passage:

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

He also adds another parable, stating that if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.

From this he draws the conclusion:

Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.


9) What does this mean in its original context?

These sayings are found in a part of Matthew known as the “Olivet Discourse” (because it was given on the Mount of Olives, across from the Temple Mount).

The occasion of the discourse was when Jesus predicted that the temple would be torn down so that one stone would not be left upon another and the apostles asked when and what would be the sign that this would happen (Matt. 24:1-3).

Given this, we should seek first to relate what Jesus has to say to the destruction of the temple, which happened in A.D. 70, at the end of the first Jewish War.

The Olivet Discourse also contains material relative to the end of the world (most notably in Matthew 25), but we should not assume the earlier material (in Matthew 24) is primarily about the end of the world. Our first recourse should be to relate it to the question that Jesus was asked, which was about the destruction of the temple.

Viewed in that light, the Gospel reading for this Sunday likely refers, in its original context, to the first Jewish War and the destruction of the temple: People were going about the ordinary affairs of life (working in fields, grinding flour) when—unexpectedly—the Son of Man “came” in judgment. The war broke out, and Jerusalem was destroyed, including its temple.

This rests on the frequent image in Scripture of God coming in judgment on his people, without indicating the final coming that will happen at the end of time.


10) Does this passage refer to “the Rapture”?

No. All believers will be gathered together to be with Christ at the end of the world (1 Thess. 4:15-17), but that is not what is being referred to here.

Note the parallel with the days of Noah: Before the flood, people were going about their daily business and then the flood came and carried the wicked way to their deaths.

When Jesus says that, at his “coming,” “one will be taken and the other left” suggests that it will be the wicked, not the righteous, who will be carried away to their deaths by the events of the war.

Either that or he may simply mean that some people (not the righteous or the wicked in particular) will be randomly carried to their deaths by the war.

In either event, he does not speak of a rapture of the righteous to go to heaven for a period of time.


11) Can this reading also refer to the time before the Second Coming?

Yes! Biblical prophecies often have more than one fulfillment, and even though this passage likely referred to the time of the first Jewish War (A.D. 66-73), it may well have an additional reference to the time just before the end of the world.


12) What does this reading mean for us?

Although it is likely that, in its original context, the Gospel reading refers to the events leading up to the destruction of the temple, the spiritual points that is made remains true for us:

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

We do not know when our definitive encounter with Jesus will be. It may be at the end of our lives. It may be at the Second Coming, should that occur soon.

Therefore, we must always be ready.


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