Monday, 8 December 2008

2nd Sunday of Advent Year B

There are two distinct phases in what we term as the beginning of the liturgical year. The world at large may not appreciate this subtle and yet significant distinction. In fact, they are more familiar with the second phase. All they want, apart from two front teeth, is Christmas—or better still, what is associated with “consumer” Christmas. Where we are, it is still Advent, the 1st phase at the start of the Liturgical year. This is a period of waiting and preparing. That we are preparing makes sense. Look at the pink candle in the Advent Wreath. Next week is called Gaudete Sunday when we change to pink—the colour a shade lighter than purple to symbolise the joy of anticipating Christmas. As a result of this lack of appreciation for the distinction between Advent and Christmas, the world at large marks Advent as if it were Christmas. When Christians are unaware of this distinction, it has disastrous consequences for evangelisation.

For Christians, Advent through the Gospel of Mark helps clarify this distinction which has consequences for our preparation and waiting. Mark’s Gospel stands in contrast with the other Gospels simply because it is short and it seems simple enough—almost like the “Air Asia” of the Gospels because it has no frills. Both Luke and Matthew have the Genealogy. Through it, we are treated to the colourful background of Jesus’ ancestry. From the genealogy we know that amongst Jesus’ ancestors, there were personalities of questionable reputation. Look at John’s Gospel. It may not have the genealogy but it takes us to the moment before Jesus’ genealogy began. “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God”. Mark does not seem to have any of these sophistications.

But the simplicity or the lack of sophistication is rather deceptive because Mark actually starts with no less than a solemn declaration. Listen again: The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. What is interesting is that we, the readers, are introduced to this fundamental fact that only halfway through the Gospel that Peter will declare in response to Jesus’ query about His identity: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter in 8:29 says: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”.

As such, Mark begins the Gospel without hesitation that the subject he writes about is none other than the Christ (that is the Messiah) who is the Son of God. The pinnacle for Mark’s Gospel is often accepted to be Peter’s response or confession in Chapter 8. But, consider that the title “Son of God” is not only a declaration of a fact. Instead, it is also significantly an acknowledgement that we cannot save ourselves and as such are in need of a Messiah. This is what we witness at the end of Mark’s Gospel, generally taken to be Chapter 15. Here in Chapter 15 of Mark’s Gospel, we encounter a Jesus abandoned not only by his disciples but also by his Father. Here, we face a Jesus without eloquence as we find in the later Gospels. He simply cries out “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani?” (My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” In the midst of abandonment and despair, we find in 15:39 a pagan, a non-believer, an idolater, a Gentile oppressor, a Centurion coming to a solemn realisation: Truly this man was God’s Son.

I never liked Mark’s Gospel. But, I am beginning to appreciate it more because in the first 8 chapters before Peter’s confession, we find a Jesus, who also calls Himself the Son of Man, identifying Himself with the poor, the hungry, the sick and the possessed... the Son of Man is destined to suffer. Thus, through these 8 chapters, we cannot understand who Jesus is and be His disciples unless we accept the centrality of suffering in His mission and in ours too. Mark’s Gospel is not only a Gospel of the Son of God but also a Gospel of Discipleship.

This has serious implication for our Advent and for Christmas. We are not preparing to receive gifts. We are not preparing to open gifts on Christmas morning. We are, however, preparing to receive a Gift, no less than the Son of God. Thus, Advent requires, according to both the 1st and 2nd Readings, a radical change of heart in order that we be true disciples. Isaiah urges the people to prepare a way for the Lord’s coming to save them. Prepare a straight road by straightening our lives with integrity, honesty and justice. Peter, in discussing the relative length of time believes that if the Lord appears to be slow in coming, then it is because we are given the chance to change and be ready to meet Him when He comes.

Thus, Advent’s message is really spiritual; a message of purifying ourselves for discipleship, as we free the space of our hearts for no less than the Son of God. The fact that we are preparing to welcome Christ the Son of God puts into perspective all that we are doing. In fact, everything pales in comparison; everything measures to nothing if our preparation is not about Christ. Cakes and cookies, turkey and ham, gifts and parties will only bring us to the 25th of December, a calendar date but they will never bring us to Christ if our hearts are already full and our stomachs filled. In fact, the very idea of Christmas gifts itself is instructive. We leave our gifts under the Christmas tree waiting for the right moment to open the gifts. Isn’t that waiting a “purification” of our desires and our senses? In waiting for Christmas to open our gifts, we already have a practice of self-denial as we wait for the proper time to unwrap the gifts. How good if that practice of waiting can be translated into other areas of our life so that we may truly prepare and purify our hearts to receive the Son of God coming to us at Christmas.