The Word of God in Advent
A diaconal perspective to the season’s unique homiletic opportunities
I was ordained a permanent deacon on May 21, 1994, at St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre, New York. Over the last 25 years, preaching during Advent always reminds me of the season’s uniqueness.
Advent is a time of waiting, preparation and hope. We prepare for Jesus’ coming at the end of time, whether our own time on earth or the end of days. We celebrate the sacraments and recognize Jesus’ coming at this moment in history, as well as looking back in time to see how Jesus was born into a family of simple means. Advent reminds us that God (Emmanuel) is always with us. Our Advent journey is rooted in preparation and hope.
The world that Jesus was born into, first-century Palestine, was a time in which people were searching for hope: hope for release of living in the bonds of Roman rule, hope of the coming of the Messiah and the hope of Israel returning to the heights it had known under King David. In today’s world, ministers of the Gospel are constantly being reminded that people cannot live without hope. Turn on the television, listen to the radio, go online and you will be inundated with suffering and hopelessness. As deacons, many of the ministries that we are involved in pull us into the vortex of people who live their lives without hope.
A very dear friend and colleague of mine, Sacred Heart Father Paul Kelly, died last year. One of the last written pieces that Father Paul submitted to the Sacred Heart Province Vocation Office was an Advent reflection booklet for 2017. His topic was hope. Father Paul wrote:
“Hope is so necessary for living life more fully. It seems to me that these times of ours test our hope in so many significant ways. Natural disasters seem to be so frequent. Tensions between nations seem to be escalating. Climate change and diseases appear to be adding to the picture. How do we continue to hope?
“Hope may not change disastrous realities around us, but it does change us. People with hope bring light into the darkness. Small thoughtfulness and kindness should not be dismissed. It has been my experience that the living Lord and my hope in him continually renews my strength.”
Intertwined with the People
The first Sunday of Advent in Cycle A (Matthew’s Gospel) focuses on preparation, readiness and the hope of peace. What is the peace for which our people are looking? How are they preparing for the coming of Christ? What is their hope this year, prior to the celebration of the birth of Jesus?
As preachers, it is extremely important not only to know our congregation (audience), but to be involved in the lives of the people. Pope Francis continually has exhorted priests to get out of the rectory and be with the people. As deacons, our lives are often personally intertwined with the people of our parishes. We work in the community; our spouses, children and grandchildren are involved with so many in the parish.
A homilist must study the needs, interests and situations of a parish in order to effectively address their concerns. However, when the Lord wanted to communicate with men and women, he became one of us. Through the Incarnation, God became man. In the person of Jesus Christ, he was entangled in the lives of people on an intimate basis. When Jesus preached, he knew his audience. This incarnational model of preaching and communication needs to be emulated by preachers in order to be successful.
A wonderful professor in my doctoral program once ended a class by telling us that next Sunday, when we finished preaching, he was going to be standing at the back of the church and would ask us three questions:
“What does it have to do with me?”
He noted that if we answered these three questions, we will have given a solid homily. Through the years I have shared this wisdom with numerous preaching students.
So what? It’s Advent. In our preaching, can we teach and explain the need for repentance as we contemplate the end of our time on earth and the end of all time? Perhaps we can address the anticipation of fulfillment — the Lord is coming! There is joy and hope in the return of Jesus.
What do we know about the people to whom we are preaching? For some, Advent is only a period of time prior to celebrating the birth of the Savior. However, as homilists, can we turn their attention to preparing themselves not just for the commemoration of Christ’s birth, but remind them of the connection of that birth with the coming of Jesus on the last day?
It’s all about preparation. Lord Baden Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, issued the Scout motto: “Be Prepared.” Be prepared for anything! The Gospel passage from Matthew 24:37-44 on the First Sunday of Advent reminds us to “stay awake” and “be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”
Collects from the Roman Missal during the first week of Advent repeat this theme: “Keep us alert as we await the advent of your Son … that he may find us watchful in prayer” (Monday). “Prepare our hearts so that at the coming of Christ your Son, we may be found worthy” (Wednesday). While Advent does not have the same penitential tones as Lent, there is a penitential spirit that is similar.
Liturgically, we are preparing for the Second Coming of Jesus, the Parousia. However, with that sobering reality, there is also a spirit of joy and elation as we await the event of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem.
Waiting and Preparation
The people to whom we preach understand waiting and preparation. We wait for letters of acceptance to college and check our emails for the notification that we have received the grade we hoped for. We pray, prepare and hold our breath as we await medical test results. We wait nine months in joyful hope for the coming of the birth of our own children. We know that when the child arrives, comes forth from the womb, life will be totally changed, and we make preparations for that day. The anticipation of waiting and preparing for an authentic encounter of the coming of Christ should be at the top of the list in terms of preparation!
Who cares? Who cares about tomorrow, 10 years from now or when we retire? We have hope that the Lord will guide us and give us strength. Is that enough? The Scriptures of Advent call us to prepare. Matthew 24:37-44 (First Sunday of Advent) reminds all men and women that in the days before the flood, people were eating, drinking and marrying — in other words, just living their lives, not recognizing that some day life will end. John the Baptist makes his appearance on the Second Sunday of Advent (Mt 3:1-12) with the admonition to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Prepare. Life is about to change.
What does it have to do with me? Our people need to have something to take back to work with them on Monday morning. As a teacher, police officer, nurse or electrician, people leave church asking themselves, what does this season of Advent have to do with me and my lived experience? As deacons, our homilies are rooted in our interrelationship with the Lord, work, family and our ministry. For me, it has always been the word in which I find the answer.
The prophet Isaiah is read during all four weeks during Cycle A. Isaiah 2:4 states that “he shall judge between the nations. … One nation shall not raise the sword against another.” We look backward in our history and see that every generation has had the hope that God will intervene and create a world filled with justice and peace. We look to the present and observe the attempts at peace accords around the globe and dream of a future when the Son of Man will bring about reconciliation among all people.
Isaiah pulls us back into the past even though he was looking toward the future. In our time, the war in Afghanistan continues. There are constant battles between Israel and Hamas. Venezuela is reeling from the effects of a government plagued with problems. Yet the Scriptures assure us that the Lord will bring about peace. “The wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid” (Is 11:6). “There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord” (Is 11:9).
Our homilies this Advent must address our personal and communal responsibility to prepare ourselves and our world to receive Christ.
DEACON STEVE KRAMER, D.Min, is the director of homiletics and assistant professor of pastoral studies at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wisconsin.
Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception Transfers to Dec. 9
Because Dec. 8 is the Second Sunday of Advent, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is transferred to Monday, Dec. 9, in 2019. The obligation to attend Mass, however, does not transfer. The optional memorial of St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, Dec. 9, is omitted this year.
— Liturgical Calendar for the Dioceses of the United States of America