Homily notes: First Sunday of Advent Year B

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ 23 November 2023

What makes the Church focus on the second coming of the Lord is the keen sense – arising out of the condition of our world – that the longed-for messianic salvation is far from complete.

First reading:
Isaiah 63:16-17; 64:1, 3-8
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 79(80):2-3, 15-16, 18-19
Second reading: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Gospel: Mark 13:33-37

Link to readings

Advent is the time when the Church longs for the coming of the Lord.
In this longing the Church looks in two directions. Backward to the Lord's first coming as a child born to Mary in Bethlehem; forward to his second coming at the end of time.

What makes the Church focus on the second coming of the Lord is the keen sense – arising out of the condition of our world – that the longed-for messianic salvation is far from complete. In the saving events of Christ's death and resurrection, we have indeed been reconciled to God. In this renewed relationship we already enjoy the essentials of salvation. But as far as the outward conditions of present existence go we still have much to long for. The world in which we live is a world captive to forces hostile to God and the achievement of a decent human existence for the majority of human beings alive today. 

So, despite our belief that the Messiah has come and our awareness of all the gifts we enjoy as a result, we can identify with the people of the Old Testament who longed for the coming of a saviour. We long for the (second) coming of the Saviour as they longed for the first. In the words of the prophets and the psalms, we can find an expression of our own longing that the work of salvation is made complete. 

Not that we take the New Testament allusions to the future coming of Jesus in a literal sense – as though Jesus were suddenly one day to appear on a cloud, summoning the world, with a trumpet blast, to judgment. We leave that understanding to fundamentalist sects. What the statements about the Lord's coming, in all their richness of imagery and symbol, communicate is the truth that our lives and indeed the whole of history stand under the eventual judgment of God and that the Crucified One, now risen Lord, remains the criterion of what true human existence should be. His grace and his power continually knock at the door of our lives, seeking to move us along his way. It is this sense of the Lord's coming that the Advent season proclaims and celebrates.

The readings for the First Sunday of Advent this year begin with a passage from the final part of the Book of Isaiah (63:16-17; 64:1, 3-8). The passage expresses strongly a longing for salvation yet to be achieved. The return of Israel from Exile in Babylon had been far from the expectations aroused by prophecies found earlier in the Book (chapters 40-55). At the beginning and also at the end, the text calls upon God as 'Father', an address to God unusual in the Old Testament. The sense is primarily that of God as responsible for Israel's very being-hence the concluding image: as the potter can refashion the clay, so God can refashion Israel's fortunes (cf. Jer 18:1-6).

Halfway through the passage (64:1), we hear a strong Advent plea: 'O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down'. The Synoptic accounts of Jesus' baptism offer a clear response to this plea. As he emerges from the water, 'the heavens' are 'torn apart' (Mark 1:10) and the Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and he hears the Father's voice, 'You are my Son, the Beloved' (v. 11). The longed-for salvation has begun to 'come down'.

The Second Reading, from the beginning of Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, 1:3-9, gives perfect expression to Christian hope for the second coming of the Lord. We should not miss the 'trinitarian' cast to this expectation. During the time of 'waiting' the experience of the Spirit assures believers of God's love (Rom 5:5). The Spirit is also active in a variety of gifts that serve to build up the community and equip it for mission (1 Corinthians 12-14). Despite his physical absence, believers enjoy 'communion' with the risen Lord. (Communion more accurately expresses the sense of the Greek word koinonia than the weaker term fellowship.) This koinonia presently involves sharing Christ's sufferings. Through the faithfulness of God the Father, it will eventually become a sharing of his glory (cf. Rom 8:17). 

The Gospel, Mark 13:33-37, features a brief parable – really simply an extended image – from the end of the long discourse on the future that Jesus gives to his disciples just before his Passion. The householder who goes on his travels gives instructions to all his servants, but the focus of the parable lies on the one charged to watch the door.

The master expects to be welcomed when he returns. Everyone else may sleep, but this servant must stay awake at night, always on the lookout for the master's coming. Believers are like that servant: 'gatekeepers' for the coming of the Lord. The rest of the world may 'sleep', but we are 'children of light and of the day/ (1 Thess 5:5), our lives bathed in the dawning light of the risen Lord and enriched by the hope of his final coming. 

Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media