1st Sunday of Advent (B)
Readings: Isaiah 63:16-17,64:1,3-8; Psalm 79:2-3,15-16,18-19; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37
Picture: cc woodleywonderworks
Sisters and brothers, imagine for a moment that you are going for a party at a friend’s house. What would it take to make you feel welcome? If you kept ringing the doorbell, and no one came to let you in, would you feel welcome? Or, even if someone–maybe the domestic help–did finally answer the door, but you were then left to wander around the house on your own. Would you feel welcome? How about if you were ushered into the room where the other partygoers were seated. And what if many of these people even greeted you. But no one noticed that all the seats in the room were already taken. No one bothered to make a space for you. To invite you to join in. And you were left to hover awkwardly at the edge of the group. How would you feel? Probably not very welcome. Perhaps not at all.
Which goes to show that hospitality requires a special effort. To make someone feel truly welcome is not just a matter of smiling and talking a lot. Although these things can be helpful. Hospitality is a matter of space. To make a person feel welcome, we have to be willing to make space. To make space in our home, by opening the doors and ushering the guest inside. By offering an empty chair, and a cool drink, or a hearty meal. Or maybe even a room for the night. And the reason why all this is important is not just because the guest may be tired or thirsty or hungry or sleepy. Perhaps s/he isn’t. It’s important that we make space for the guest in our house, mainly because, in so doing, we show her that there is a space reserved for her in our hearts. Our efforts let the guest know that s/he means something to us. That her presence is important to us. That we truly want her to be here. That we are happy she has come.
If this is true–if welcoming another involves not just house-space but also, and above all, heart-space, then a crucial question arises. You see, house-space is relatively easy to make. Often, it’s simply a matter of shifting furniture around. But how do we make space for another in our hearts?
To make heart-space. This is what our Mass readings help us to do today. On this 1st Sunday of Advent, as we begin preparing to welcome the God-Who-Comes, our readings help us to make a space for him not just among us, but also within us. In the gospel, Jesus speaks of this by reminding us of the need to remain alert. We do not know the exact time of the Lord’s arrival. So we should stay awake. Even as we may fill our days with the hard work of meeting the many demands of life, we are called also to reserve a space for God. To be ready to meet and to greet him, whenever he decides to show up.
How do we do this? Primarily by carefully remembering who God is for us. How he is related to us. And there is a gradual progression in how our readings help us to remember. First, as Jesus reminds us in the gospel, this God-Who-Comes is not just any guest, not just a passing acquaintance, dropping in for a casual visit. He is, instead, the master of the house himself. Our lives belong to him. By making space for him, we are actually welcoming the Lord into his own home.
But that is not all. Although God is master of the house, and we are his servants. Our connection with him is not just a legal one. We are not just tenants of a divine landlord. The relationship is much closer. Much more intimate. Both in the first and second readings, we are reminded that God is our Father. And not just any kind of father. For, as we well know, earthly fathers can be good or bad, responsible or negligent, loving or even abusive. But God is a Father who cares for us, his children. As we heard in the first reading: You, Lord, yourself are our Father, ‘Our Redeemer’ is your ancient name. God is not just Father, but also Redeemer. The One who saves and rescues. The One who guides and protects. Like a vinedresser pruning his vines under the sweltering sun and pouring rain, God continues daily to watch over us, the fruit of his creation. Like a potter painstakingly shaping a lump of clay, God continues daily to form us into a work of breathtaking beauty.
But these reminders, of who God is, will probably have little effect on us, if we were simply to treat them as empty words scribbled on a page by a writer from long ago. Or as hollow sounds uttered by a reader performing a routine ritual. But if we were to somehow allow these reminders to penetrate deep into our hearts. To seep into our minds. To awaken in us memories of how God has been caring for us throughout our lives. Of how, in all the particular events and people we encounter daily, the Divine Potter continues to shape us. Of how, even in the trials and tribulations, in the many ups and downs, of our lives, the Heavenly Vinedresser continues to prune us. So that we might bear more fruit. Of how, even as we may sometimes feel like orphans, lonely and abandoned, the loving Father continues to hold us in his gentle arms, healing our hurts, and guiding us on the path of life. When we are able to do this, when we are able truly to remember who God is for us, then perhaps we can begin to find a space in our hearts into which we can welcome God.
Such a space can take different shapes. Our readings present us with three. The first is gratitude. As St. Paul tells the Christians at Corinth: I never stop thanking God for all the graces you have received through Jesus Christ. The second is contrition. In the first reading, even as he is mindful of God’s faithful love toward the people, the prophet is moved also to confess their sins. We had long been rebels against you, he says. We were all like men unclean, all that integrity of ours like filthy clothing. But this sorrow for sin does not lead the prophet to seal himself off in regret and despair. Rather, a space is opened up in his heart, a space that bears the shape of deep desire, the shape of an ardent longing, a longing for God to once again visit his people. Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down!
Gratitude, contrition, and longing. These are the three spaces that are opened up within us when we allow ourselves to remember who God is for us. How much God loves us and cares for us. How much God wants us to be truly happy. I’m reminded too of the words of a hymn written by Anne Quigley.
There is a longing in our hearts, O Lord,
for you to reveal yourself to us.
There is a longing in our hearts, for love,
we only find in you, our God.
For justice, for freedom,
for mercy, hear our prayer.
In sorrow, in grief, be near,
hear our prayer, O God...
Sisters and brothers, both in our lives and in our hearts, how much space is there for God today?