Welcome to the first day of Advent! We’re beginning our annual 28 day pilgrimage towards Christmas. It’s a familiar journey for us, yet each year we are called to find new and fresh insights along this well-traveled path.
In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah pleads with his people who have left the promised land to return to Israel. They have fled Jerusalem after the destruction of their temple and settled into a life of relative ease. What worries Isaiah most, is not simply that they have left Jerusalem, but that they have left their God behind as well. They have forgotten the all- important lessons of caring for the orphan and the widow, caring for one another. Come now, he says, ‘let us go up to the mountain of the Lord’ – where we can better hear His call ‘to turn our swords into plowshares, our spears into pruning hooks.’
In the second reading, Paul is speaking to his people 600 years later, yet with the same urgency (and the same message) as Isaiah. ‘People, you know what time it is, now is the moment for you to wake from your sleep, lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light!’ Listed next are a familiar catalogue of sins to which we humans fall prey- ‘revelling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy’. And then Paul exhorts us to ‘make no provision for the flesh, nor gratify its desires.’
I would note here that on every first Sunday of Advent, I feel the same sense of guilt filtering in; I get a bit fixated on ‘the list’ and become a bit resentful of Paul- for calling me out! Fixation distracts from the rest of his beautiful message, or the gospel call that comes next.
And, as a gay man, I’m particularly attuned to the use and misuse of the apostle Paul in the current day, so its no wonder that this part of the Advent message leaves me somewhat cold.
The American Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr has helped me work through this dilemma. Where Paul employs the term “sarx” in the original Greek, it has been typically translated as “flesh”. Rohr notes that this translation misses the mark and that the closest meaning To Paul’s ‘sarx’ is today’s familiar word ‘ego’. He suggests that each time Paul employs the word ‘flesh’, we should substitute the word ‘ego’ for it.
Let’s hear Paul’s admonition again with this substitution in mind: ‘make no provision for the ego (flesh) to gratify its desires’. I’ll admit on first reading it sounds somewhat forced, but by exploring further, I think we can come to a clearer and deeper appreciation of today’s Scripture message.
When we consider the term ego, we think of our individual self, that actor within, our inside voice that spurs us on to individual accomplishment in a zero-sum game, the same voice that berates us (with little tenderness) when we fail. Our ego or inside actor is the necessary and God-given instrument through which we navigate the world. But it is an incomplete voice, not naturally connected to anyone or any other higher calling. It is a necessary part of our self, but hopefully, not all of it.
Thomas Merton calls the ego, the false self, Richard Rohr terms it, the tiny self, the self of illusion. However it is termed, our ego is a self-construction, the product of all our human experiences and interactions, good and bad, from infancy to adulthood.
And do you have the experience, like me, that listening and conversing with this inside voice can make for lonely and unsatisfying company? Oblate priest, Ron Rolheiser notes that it is within this interior loneliness and longing that we intuit or come to know that there is something more and greater, that we have a higher calling, and that our inner restlessness can only be satisfied in union with that source that we ‘know’ as God.
Hearing Paul’s words once again – ‘make no provision for the ego to gratify its desires’ we understand that we are being called away from self and towards God and one another, encountering God in all living and created things. Now is the moment, he says, to wake!
And so we come to Matthew’s Gospel and the uncertain timing of the coming of the Son of Man. ‘Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming’. We may not know the time or hour; perhaps Jesus is reminding us here that this should not be our concern anyway, being completely outside our control.
In our preoccupation with the coming of the Son of Man, Jesus tells us that He is similarly preoccupied, longing for us to come towards Him. This is what he means in his plea for us to be ‘ready’.
Getting ready involves wrestling with the self in the quiet of prayer or nature; the longing and loneliness that we feel is real; in our bones we ache for harmony, peace and justice, joy and oneness in Christ.
Getting ready involves sharing our selves in community and offering our gifts to build the kingdom of heaven here in the present moment.
And of course getting ready means preparing to welcome God in the form of a tender infant, in need of our care, love and protection. Our shared journey begins today. Let us then prepare to enter fully into the awesome mystery of the incarnation, Jesus in us and we in Him.