First Sunday Of Advent
As the new year of grace begins, the Church turns once more to the last discourse or sermon of Jesus. Three forms of this discourse are available to us — the oldest in Mark about the year 70, the other two from Matthew and Luke. The latter are usually dated in the mid eighties of the first century. One goal of Matthew and Luke was to correct, extend and improve the Gospel of Mark. That goal applies also to their version of the last discourse of Jesus. This year our concern is with the Gospel of Luke. In the introduction to his gospel, Luke expresses his dissatisfaction with the “many (who) have attempted to compile a narrative of the things accomplished among us.”
He refers to the narrative or story of the life, ministry, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. Among those “many” with whose work Luke was not satisfied was the Gospel of Mark. Therefore, he writes, “It seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely . . ., to write a systematic account . . . .” Luke intends to be more accurate than the various writings about Jesus which he has studied before taking up his quill, ink and parchment. He writes in service to the Christian community and in honor of Theophilus, his sponsor in this major and expensive literary project.
The Gospel of Mark, rightly called “a gospel in a hurry,” warns that the return of Jesus is imminent, almost immediate. Almost comically to us today Mark uses the Greek word “immediately” 42 times in his gospel. Thus we imagine Jesus running from place to place in Mark’s gospel to complete the one year of ministry Mark allows for Jesus (versus three years in John’s gospel). Like the Letters of Paul before him. Mark was convinced the end was at hand. Nothing happened! Fifteen to 20 years later Luke has to deal with what seems a crisis of faith since Jesus did not show up as the Gospel of Mark had proclaimed. Luke’s corrections intervene to indicate that the end is not at hand.
From Mark and from the Old Testament Luke adopts the standard vocabulary associated with threats or promises of God’s intervention in the world — “signs in the sun, the moon, the stars, cataclysmic skyquakes, and fear on the earth.” All these are to precede Jesus’ final visit to the earth, when he arrives with power and glory. Now comes a major Lucan intervention in Mark’s version. Luke deletes Mark’s reference to sending out the angels “to gather the elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the sky.” Why this omission? Luke has concluded the end is not yet or that the end will be very different from Mark’s imaginative description.
Since Jesus had not shown up as expected up to that time, could Luke perhaps mean that the end will be far more individual than the grand spectacle of Mark? That Jesus will come in power and glory for judgment at the death of each individual? We don’t know. We do know that he interjects various phrases indicating the end is not at hand. For example, among Jesus’ first words in Mark we read, “The time is at hand.” In Luke’s version of the last discourse, the same Jesus, but now the Lucan Jesus, says, “Many will come in my name saying, “. . . the time is at hand!’ Don’t follow them!”
Therefore, instead of worrying about signs in the sky, etc., it seems better to follow the advice of Luke as he closes his version of Jesus’ final discourse, “Beware that your hearts not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness, the anxieties of daily life, and that day (the day of our death?) catch you by surprise like a trap.” Since all have to die, Luke adds, “That day will assault everyone who lives on the earth.” The last sentence fits well with the concept of individual judgment at our death, “Be vigilant at all times, and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Luke’s advice, to be watchful in prayer, is a good program for Christian life at all times, watchful in prayer. Nor do we exclude some grand and final “event” involving all humanity as is generally proclaimed by the New Testament and has always been part of Church teaching.
This reading was attracted to the gospel of the first Sunday of Advent because of these words, “The days are coming, when I will fulfill the promise, etc.” Although this oracle of Prophet Jeremiah was directed to a situation in Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C., today’s liturgy gives it a new meaning. In Jeremiah’s time the oracle promises the arrival of a just king descended from King David, to rule over Israel in Jeremiah’s time. In its new setting as part of the Advent liturgy, this sixth century B.C. oracle now proclaims the return to earth of Jesus, whose descent from King David all four gospels proclaim.
This first Letter of Paul, about the year 49 A.D., is our oldest Christian document. As noted above, Paul and Mark both proclaimed the imminent return of Jesus. Paul asks his readers “to be blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . .” Although Jesus did not return as Paul expected, his advice to be blameless is appropriate at all times.