3rd December 2017
The first reading comes from a great cry of lament that has a typical pattern for prayer at the time, and which is still found sometimes in our prayers; first of all God is ‘reminded’ of all that He has done and continues, for the benefit of the petitioner – of the relationship that there is between Himself and us; but then it is a cry of desperation, of feeling let down by a God who doesn’t act as we expect – He is giving us grief; followed by a cry for God to come anew. We think of God as our father and redeemer, but can be too confident about this and reliant on God’s love and forgiveness with the consequence that we encounter difficulties, we actually become hardened in our attitude to religion and to God – God gives us a bad time so we shall be stripped of our complacency and realise our utter dependence on Him. To execute this process seems to have been a task given to Isaiah, called to “make the heart of this people heavy!” (Isaiah 6:10). In the reading we hear that God hardens the people’s heart so that they will lament their situation, realise their wickedness, call on God desperately to bring good times upon them, openly admitting their guilt and the weakness of themselves before God like clay in the hands of a potter. Two and a half thousand years ago when this was written people were not so self-willed and individualistic as we might be today, and they would not have had such a caring and gentle view of God, so they thought of Him as actually hardening their hearts – an image that is strange to us. But now and in Advent we have to change our ways and be ready to help and work for our God, who comes like a weak and helpless babe not bursting into our lives with power and might; our image of God is put on its head! It is not so much that He helps us, but mysteriously, we must help Him.
Paul opens this letter to the Corinthians with a paean of praise for the blessings given them by God in Jesus Christ. This is what we sometimes need to hear, because, not only are we generally wanting to please God, but also He is determined to bring to a successful conclusion to the work of creating and redeeming our world. Paul is a well educated and skilful spiritual leader, and this is a most tactful opening address to those whom he needs to correct in a number of ways throughout this letter. The words can apply to us, when he writes that we are not short of any needful spiritual gifts as we prepare for the advent of Christ. God will surely bring a happy fulfilment to His work with us; but we might think, if Paul was writing to us, what reprimand and criticism would he make after this uplifting introduction.
The gospel reading comes at the end of the only long discourse attributed to Jesus in Mark’s gospel; it is a discourse about the final days before the end, similar to a type of visionary writing of first century alluding to disasters leading up to the day of judgement and followed by a kind of farewell speech expected of important religious leaders. The reading is the concluding exhortation; it is mixed up with allusions to parables that the readers would know, like those inMatthew and Luke about a leader leaving his servants in charge. There is a hint that even if the times seem dark (“at midnight”) they must be ready; for at the time of writing, the Temple has been destroyed and the Romans are becoming suspicious of Christians. At Advent when we are preparing to celebrate the past coming of Jesus with an eye on the final completion of creation, we are reminded to remain faithful and resist the temptation to postpone committing ourselves wholeheartedly to Christ – to Christian living. From the old missal’s Collect prayer for this day comes the phrase ‘Stir Up Sunday’ with its culinary traditions!