With You Always
In this beautiful homily for 1st Sunday of Advent, Year B, Father Hanly reminds us that God has not left us, and that remembering him makes him present and makes us continue on the road together with him into eternal life.
Readings for First Sunday of Advent, Year B
- First Reading: Isaiah 63:16-17, 19
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19
- Second Reading: First Corinthians 1:3-9
- Gospel: Mark 13:33-37
Another Christmas is upon us. And Christmas begins with a penitential season. The penitential season is four Sundays of Advent.
But everybody, all of us are so caught up in what happens after the introduction of the four Sundays — which is Christmas and Christmas Day and Christmas night and all the lovely things, from childhood on, that we have come to love and to embrace — so it’s really not a penitential season in the same way as Lent is.
Lent demands of us that we turn our lives around, that we become what we should become, which is total and complete dedication to Jesus, who takes us by the hand and walks us through our life and brings us safely home.
You notice up the front that we have the Advent wreath. The Advent wreath is a very, very popular way of expressing those four Sundays. And the circle, as you know, the circle of the fir tree, the circle represents God Himself, because the circle has no beginning and no end.
The tree, the leaves itself, the adornment comes from Germany. The Germans have these wonderful forests and they have wonderful trees. And around this time, we also get the Christmas tree in many places, cutting down the tree and bringing it home etc.
But for us the tree is evergreen, another sign that Advent is a time to remember that it will not pass — the leaves will not fall away because the leaves are the leaves of life. And God keeps them as signs and symbols that we shall, and are destined to, live forever.
As you know, there are four candles. Three candles are purple, which is the sign of penitential rites. And the third one, which is the third Sunday, is usually, this one looks a little orangey, but it’s usually red, because red in the old Church is a sign, as it is in China, of great joy, and it’s called Gaudete.
Gaudete Sunday means let us all sing and dance, because, even though it is the penitential season, the little child’s birth is almost upon us and it kind of wipes away any kind of sadness that we ourselves might feel at this time for our sins.
Probably one of the most beautiful pieces of scripture is the beginning, the scripture that was read in the First Reading. It is from Isaiah the Prophet and, basically, it sets the scene for the great joy of Christmas.
It is taken at a time when the Jews were surrounded by enemies, and the threat of Babylon, and the threat of the Assyrians and all of these nations, was very strong.
And there were many ways of addressing this, and some was: let us get our armies together and go to war or make alliances or these kinds of things. And Isaiah was a member of really the staff in the palace and, of course, he was saying that God is telling us no war, not to go to war.
At the same time, the place is in turmoil and everybody is afraid of what’s going to happen in the future. And it’s so bad that you can feel it when Isaiah writes this passage. And I’m going to read part of it again. He says to his people…
At this terrible time…
Now, you must remember that they’re under great peril, and a few very short number of years will pass by and they will be taken en masse to Babylon, the ones that weren’t totally killed and destroyed in Jerusalem, in the fall of Jerusalem, they will be brought to Babylon in captivity.
And so (this is very touching) Isaiah is the beautiful Christmas poet. He’s the one that always speaks of joy and the one who always speaks of faith, and almost with a childlike melodic, poetic love, speaks about his people.
But now is the time for destruction. And that is why he says, “Dear Lord (now he’s talking to God)
You, LORD, are our father,
our redeemer you are named forever.
Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways,
and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?
Return for the sake of your servants,
the tribes of your heritage.
He kind of blames God, who seems to be sulking in heaven and not coming down to do anything about it.
He blames Him for the hardening of the hearts, because the people have gone away from their observances of worship of the true Lord and have gone in one way or another. And he says, “Oh Lord, you have hardened our hearts and that is why we have gone astray.”
Then he says these most quoted words:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
It’s as if God had gone away, and now He’s up in heaven and looking down, but His back is turned to them.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
with the mountains quaking before you,
while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for,
such as they had not heard of from of old.
No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you
doing such deeds for those who wait for him.
He’s talking about when, in the early days, when it seemed that the people would perish in Egypt, yet God rescued them through miracles and wonders and wonderful power, and how He led them through the desert for forty years and He brought them safely into the new land and all these things.
He says, “Why doesn’t that happen?” Isaiah is saying, “Have you abandoned us?”
Would that you might meet us doing right,
And then he says, “If you come and see us now from up there in heaven, you’re going to find… It would nice if we were doing the right thing, a decent people, and caring for each other and loving each other, but we’re not. Would that you might meet us doing the right thing and caring for each other.”
that we were mindful of you in our ways!
“… that we thought of you, we worshipped you.
But we’re totally ignoring you.”
And now you get the feeling that the one prophet is standing between God’s wrath and the people.
Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful;
“We are without love.”
And he says, “And rightfully so, you should be angry with us, because we do not care and we do not show concern for others and we do not love.”
all of us have become like unclean people,
all our good deeds are like polluted rags;
we have all withered like leaves,
and our guilt carries us away like the wind.
There is none who calls upon your name,
who rouses himself to cling to you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have delivered us up to our guilt.
Then, of course, the great line:
Yet, O LORD, you are our father;
we are the clay and you the potter:
we are all the work of your hands.
What he says is, “Despite how terrible we are, how miserable we are, what we want you to do is to forgive us and we surrender.
“You have made us, you have formed us like a potter forms the clay, and we are the work of your hands.”
And he wants, Isaiah, “Don’t forget this, never forget this!”
And what happens?
The people are saved. He does come. He comes down in a very, very special way. Not right away, but the little child is born and the great promises are kept, that God loves His people even when they turn their back, even when they walk away, even when they are not ready. And yet the end of the story is Bethlehem.
And so it is that a little girl, a teenage girl, conceives the greatest of all gifts, God’s Son, because God so loved the world He gave His Son. God’s Son is conceived and born, and he is the Saviour of the world.
That’s why, in Advent, what you’re supposed to do is nothing. You’re not supposed to run around and say prayers and do this and do that. You’re supposed to do nothing, absolutely nothing.
Well, what are you supposed to do?
You’re supposed to wait.
And what do you wait for?
You wait, and as you wait, you’re like a waiter, very, very aware of everything that’s going on around you. You’re not making any big moves or small moves. You are, but you’re still waiting and waiting and waiting.
And suddenly that waiting bursts out in the birth of the Messiah. And the only ones that accept the Messiah are the nervous Joseph, a Mary who’s only a teenage girl and, of course, the angels who sing at the birth of the Messiah.
What does that mean for us?
It means this: God is always with us, has never left us. He’s not up in heaven. He’s not angry. He lives in the depth of each and every one of your hearts. And that is where you will meet Him. And that is where you will find your Christmas.
And that is where you, talking in your own language, to Him — who has always loved you, who has never judged you, who takes you into His arms — and you sit down and you walk with Him and you talk with Him, and that is your life.
It’s not following orders. It’s not written in the sky. It’s the presence of God who comes because He has never left you. And when you bring your heart and you search for Him in your heart, then He is always present and always there.
Isaiah is saying, “You have left us. You have left us all alone. Please come down, come back.”
And God says to him, “I have been with you all days, even from the beginning of the world. And I will be your God all days, even to the consummation of history.”
So what are you supposed to do?
You’re supposed to do what love tells you to do.
Because the one thing we know about God is He has made us for Himself alone, and we will not rest until we rest in Him.
And He has made us that we might experience His love.
But you will never, never experience His love until you reach out to your own brothers and sisters and take that love and use it to forge your own life. Because the secret is not with God. The secret rests in your own heart.
There’s an old Jewish saying:
The Rabbi says to his children, he says, “Where is God? Where is God?”
And they all say, “God is everywhere. God is everywhere.”
And the Rabbi looks at them and he says, “No, He’s not.”
And they have heard, as we have heard, that God is everywhere.
“What do you mean, ‘No He’s not?’ Where is He then?”
And the Rabbi looks at them and he says, “God is where you allow God to be.”
And that is the story. The story of the Old and New Testament is God is, but God is present to you only where you want Him to be.
And what is that presence?
That is the presence that Jesus comes. Because when Jesus is born and lives, he doesn’t run away. He says, “I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world.”
And so in the last parable when he says, it’s like a man who goes a short distance and he’s gone for a while, what do you do?
You remember him. But your remembering him makes him present and makes you continue on the road together with him into eternal life.
So what is the things that you do during Advent?
You rejoice, you give thanks, and you look around at the people and forget your own ego, what I want, what I need, what I have, because that buries you into a big impenetrable wall that says, “I can’t hear you if all you want is something that I have to give you. I only respond to love.”
And that is why, at Christmas, we are givers and not takers. We are lovers, and not demanding like children pouting in the corner.
Because this is what Christmas is, it’s to open us to the greatest mystery of all: we never walk alone.
He is with us from the moment we get up to the moment we fall asleep at night. We are never alone and all we have from Him is love.
If we do that, we’ll all have a very happy Christmas.