1st Sunday in Advent (C)
Picture: cc Cat
Sisters and brothers, have you ever heard of a shell game? Do you know what it is? It’s a kind of gambling game. Where three identical containers are overturned on a flat surface. And a small ball, or some other object, is placed under one of them. The containers are then moved around quickly. And the players are asked to bet a sum of money on where they think the ball is. Whoever gets it right is paid. The others lose their bets.
It’s a simple enough game to play. And it’s a gamble, because the players don’t really know for sure where exactly the ball is. They have to guess. And to be willing to stake good money on their guesses. But, as you know, such games are easily rigged. They are often used to cheat people of their hard-earned money. So it’s actually better not to play. To choose instead to walk away. Not to place your bet.
And yet, when we look at it from a certain angle, isn’t life itself something like a shell game? In which we all have no choice but to play. To place our bets. On what are we betting? What is the uncertain outcome? Well, none of us can really be sure what is going to happen to us at the end of our lives. Will there be life after death? Heaven and hell? Purgatory? Reincarnation? Or nothing at all? And does the way in which I live my life now determine how happy I’ll be then? No one really knows for sure. I can only guess.
And not just guess. I also have to gamble. To bet. To choose how I wish to live my life now. Whether to be honest or dishonest. To be selfish or caring. To be righteous or unscrupulous. And when will I know for sure whether or not I have chosen wisely? Probably only when the game is over. When the containers are uncovered. When the ball is revealed. When I breathe my last. For now, I can only keep guessing. Keep gambling. And with nothing less than life itself.
I’m not sure about you, sisters and brothers. But thinking of life in this way makes it seem quite scary. For I have no assurance. No security. No real confidence that I’m making the right choice. And what can sometimes make it feel even more difficult is when my own choices seem to cause me or my loved ones to suffer. Even as other people, who make different choices, may seem to succeed. For example, when I see the selfish and unscrupulous apparently enjoying life, doesn’t it become that much more difficult for me to continue to choose to be righteous and caring?
Which is why it is helpful for us to pay close attention to our Mass readings for this 1st Sunday of Advent. At the very beginning of our church’s liturgical year, our readings invite us to consider the end. Not just the end of our lives. But the very end of time itself. The day when all the containers will be uncovered. And the hidden ball finally revealed. What will happen then?
From the first reading, we learn that in those days God will fulfil the promise made to God’s people. The promise that all who remain faithful to God will be saved. Will dwell in confidence. Will be given a place to live in peace. A place in God. For in those days, God is going to raise up a good and great king. A gentle yet mighty ruler. A virtuous Branch of the House of king David. A leader who will practise honesty and integrity in the land.
in the gospel, Jesus reinforces this message, by describing what it’ll be like when he comes again at the end of time. He himself will be the coming king. The virtuous Branch of the House of David. And when he comes to rule the earth, many people will experience great anxiety and insecurity. Nations will be in agony. Men will be dying of fear… for the powers of heaven will be shaken. But all those who have placed their trust in God, those who have bet their lives on Christ, will be receive their reward. They will be able to stand erect. To hold their heads high. For their liberation is near at hand.
This is what we Christians believe will happen at the end. When the closed containers are uncovered. When the hidden ball is revealed. But for now, we have to persevere in placing our bets. In staking our lives on Christ. In living the way that he has taught us to live. The way that St. Paul urges the Thessalonians to live. May the Lord be generous in increasing your love, Paul writes in the second reading, and make you love one another and the whole human race as much as we love you. Finally… we urge you and appeal to you in the Lord Jesus to make more and more progress in the kind of life you are meant to live…
To make progress in loving not just one another, but the whole human race as well. This is what it means to bet our lives on Christ. And this will probably look a little different for each of us. A little different for a single man than for a family woman. A little different for a religious sister in a convent than for a lay person out in the world. A little different for a teenage student than for a retired senior. Whatever our state or situation in life, each of us has to decide for ourselves, how we wish to live our lives now. So that we may be able to stand erect and hold our heads high when time itself comes to an end. Each of us has to choose to spend our lives walking the way that Jesus walked. So that we can face him with confidence when he comes to meet us again.
And it’s not easy. Not easy to see clearly the way we need to walk. And not easy to have the courage to walk it. To recognise the exact people we are called to love. Our family. Our colleagues. Those who need our help. Both near and far. Not easy to accept the concrete sacrifices we are invited to make on their behalf. Which is why it is helpful for us to pray the prayer that the psalmist prays in the responsorial psalm. Lord, make me know your ways. Lord, teach me your paths. Make me walk in your truth and teach me: for you are God my saviour.
Isn’t this, sisters and brothers, what Advent is really about? More than just preparing for yet another annual celebration of Christmas, it is really about reviewing and renewing our choices in life. Choosing, again and again, and yet again, to commit ourselves to Christ. To love as he loves. To live as he lives. To place our hope where he places his hope. In God. And God alone.
Sisters and brothers, if it is true that life can be likened to a shell game, then where exactly are you choosing to place your bets today?