Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the 1st Sunday of Advent A
28 November 2010
Not so long ago, America was bullish about itself. For all the laying-off of workers in some giant corporations, Americans enjoyed an unprecedented prosperity that was probably unmatched in 20 years or so. The only world power was confident that it would continue to dominate the world of politics, business and economy. No wonder it was complacent, or so it would appear. But like a balloon, America burst on September 11, 2001. The terrorists, alleged to be part of Osama bin Laden’s al-Quida network of Islamic radicals, reduced to rubble the World Trade Center twin-towers in Manhattan and damaged the Pentagon in Washington DC, sending the entire country into a state of shock. Stock markets dipped, shops closed down, schools were shuttered, buildings evacuated, planes grounded, and the entire nation was quite literally paralyzed. It was the day America cried. No one could have ever thought that a small but determined band of terrorists could have inflicted so much havoc on the symbols of American prosperity and military might, the American people and the American psyche. The only powerful nation in the world, with its superiority in military intelligence and power, had its Achilles’ heel, after all; and the terrorists demolished the invulnerability of America. When one considers this particular catastrophe, he might make a mental note that despite the sophistication of its defense plan, there was obviously a failure in America’s intelligence network. The terrorists caught them flat-footed.
Advent is a time of vigilance; every time we celebrate it, the liturgy always exhorts us to get ready so that we may not be caught flat-footed when Christ’s return in glory. That is why, in this 1st Sunday of Advent (Matt 24:37-44), the themes of the Gospel are: being prepared for God’s coming in history and living accordingly. But what is this object of expectation, in the first place? Is it like a terrorist attack that is something to be feared, and so we always have to stand in readiness? If we confine ourselves to the liturgical readings, the Day of the Lord is not something to be scared of. In a vision of prophet Isaiah that we come across in the 1st Reading (Isa 2:1-5), all the nations will converge on Zion, the goal of their pilgrimage, which Yahweh made into his place of abode, the place of his special protection, and from which he will offer instruction on the right way of living. Of course, this is a Jewish way of understanding the future, but there we have the fundamental message of the things to come: it is the hope that all men and nations will belong to the renewed Israel, God’s people. In the vision wherein nations make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where they would share with the Jews the same worship and the way of life, the law, as God’s people, the prophet shows his conviction that if all the nations recognize and accept the instruction of Yahweh as the right way of living, there will be world peace. Because the sound judgment of God prevails, there would be renunciation of warfare; swords will be beaten into ploughshares. In other words, the object of our expectation is world peace among nations and the brotherhood of all men—that is what will be established when Christ returns. It is not, therefore, something to be feared; quite the contrary, it is one that must be approached with joyful expectation both because it always eludes us however much we try to pursue it, and because it fulfills our dreams and human longings.
And the Gospel asks us to get ready for it. To bring home the point, Matthew tells us the parable of the sign of Noah. In its original version, the story of Noah emphasizes that the flood was a punishment for the people’s wickedness (Gen 6:5-7). In Matthew’s use of the story, the warning about the flood does not point to immoralities committed by the victims; rather, it simply cautioned them that they were engaged in their ordinary activities, like eating and drinking, which were innocent in themselves. If one were to speaking of sin at all, it is that they never gave a thought to the impending catastrophe. In utilizing the Noah story, therefore, Matthew wants to admonish us that to prepare for the day when the Son of Man comes, we cannot imitate the contemporaries of Noah who went about their daily secular business and were blind to the imminent disaster. Considering that we do not know either the day or the hour (Matt 24:36), when the Son of Man comes, even as he will appear swiftly and without notice, much like the slamming of the two commercial planes against the twin towers of the World Trade Center, we can only pursue our interest with the parousia in mind.
Indeed, his coming will be so swift than we would not ever have time to prepare for it at all; therefore, now is the time to get ready so that so we might not be caught napping, or with our pants down. To stress this point, Matthew gives us another brief parable: the parable of the prudent householder (Matt 24:42-44). Here, Jesus compared the arrival of the Son of Man to the digging of a thief through the house (v 44). One is of course surprised by the use of the word “digging” but this is because the typical house at the time of Jesus was made either entirely or partly of clay bricks, and the easiest way to get in is to dig through the wall. And when a burglar does so, he does not of course serve notice to the owner of the house that he is coming in, much like today’s bank robbers who could pull a heist in five minutes and cart off millions of pesos. The approach of the parousia, in other words, will have no signs that could be discerned, and therefore we who await him must act like a householder who watches throughout the night. If the American military intelligence was always on the alert, the September 11 tragedy could have been prevented. The parable therefore is an exhortation that we have to we behave as if the Son of Man is coming at any moment today.
That means of course that we are caught up in an eschatological expectation. In fact, this is how the early Christians lived. Convinced that Christ would be arriving at any moment, they lived in joyful expectation. Just like a householder who is on the watch lest a thief breaks through his house at any time, and therefore who has with him everything that is necessary to defend the house from any burglary, so the Christians tried anticipate the future in the present. Thus, in the 2nd Reading, Paul gives us an example of an eschatological exhortation which insists that we are now living in the eschaton, in the end time: “It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep, for our salvation is closer than when we first accepted the faith. The night is far spent; the day draws near. Let us cast off deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us live honorably as in daylight; not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the desires of the flesh” (Rom 13:12b-14). For Paul, to live in the eschaton is to live in and for Christ; but for Matthew, that life would be expressed in discipleship—listening to Christ and putting his words into action.