First Sunday of Advent: Sacred Liturgy
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand (Is 64:8).
The first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new liturgical year. In the cycle of the sacred liturgy, this is Year B, during which the Sunday Gospel readings will be taken from the Gospel of St. Mark. At the school of discipleship that is our life in Christ, we will recall the great deeds of salvation; events that belong to the past, to history. In the Christian understanding of time, however, what we may term Church time or sacred time, past, present, and future interpenetrate and touch upon eternity. This happens in the liturgy “for the liturgy is the means by which earthly time is inserted into the time of Jesus Christ and into the present” (Pope Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 61). This is possible because when “the eternal Word assumed human existence at His Incarnation, He also assumed temporality. He drew time into the sphere of eternity. Christ is Himself the bridge between time and eternity” (ibid, p. 92).
At the beginning of this new liturgical year then, we are on the threshold of a cycle, an annual cycle centred on Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. As we celebrate the Liturgy of Advent, the ancient expectancy of the Messiah is made present; and in recalling the long preparation for the Saviour’s first coming, we renew our ardent desire for His second coming (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 524). Past, present, and future especially penetrate one another in the liturgy of Advent although this is true of the celebration of any of the Christian mysteries.
The words of John the Baptist recorded at the beginning of the Gospel of St. Mark invite us anew to enter into this unique cycle of time: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). The liturgical year, however, is much more than the recounting of a sacred drama. Those who respond to this call to repentance and discipleship understand that “now is the acceptable time…now is the time of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). As the mysteries of the life of Christ our Lord are recalled, time and eternity, Christ and the Church, the divine and the human, these are all interwoven in the course of the liturgical year, such that our bodies, that is, our bodily existence on earth, become a living sacrifice united to the Sacrifice of Jesus. This transformation expresses the purpose and goal of our worship: our transformation in Christ. In the sacred liturgy we encounter the living God and by means of His grace and our conformity to the mysteries of the life of Christ; our Father looks upon us and sees in us the image of His Son.
To the early Christians in the city of Rome, the Apostle Paul made this appeal: “Do not be conformed to this world (age), but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2). It is as if the Apostle were saying: Do not limit yourselves to this present time. Time is a cosmic reality encompassing all of creation as it moves towards its fulfillment and enters into the Sabbath rest of God when God will be all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15:28). In the sacred liturgy, we transcend the limits imposed on us by time and we already partake in the eternal realities that give our earthly existence supernatural meaning and scope. In the same epistle, St. Paul says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved” (Rom 8:22-24). The Advent liturgy especially recalls humanity’s yearning and hope for the salvation of God, and the fulfillment of this hope in Christ our Saviour.
The sacred liturgy of the Church is the liturgy of Christ the High Priest. It is therefore a cosmic liturgy. The liturgical commemorations of the life, death, and resurrection of our Saviour encompass the ultimate destiny of man and the world. This is what we begin anew today, and we do so with attention, reverence, dignity, and devotion. Especially in the cycle of the scriptural readings, faith perceives God’s promise of fulfillment. Our conscious, active participation in the sacred liturgy, by which we unite the sacrifice of our own lives to the one, eternal sacrifice of Christ our Lord, enables us to glimpse even if “in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor 13:12) and to experience the ultimate goal of all creation. For God “has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of His will, according to His purpose which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:9-10).
This wisdom is ours through His Word which we attentively proclaim and receive with humility. This Word “is living and active” (Heb 4:12). This Word is Jesus Himself; and we encounter Him fully alive in the Word, in the Sacrament of the Eucharist and in the Body of the Church. Our personal encounter with Christ our Lord is in fact a convergence of our existence with His, here and now; and, as a result, we are drawn into the sphere of eternity. Let us then profit from the mysteries that we commemorate, so that as we walk amid passing things along the path of devout humility, our Lord Himself may “teach us by them to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures” (Prayer After Communion, First Sunday of Advent; The Roman Missal). We entrust our interior lives to the care and protection of our Lady and St. Joseph through whom “in the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman…so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4-5).