1st Sunday of Advent (Cycle B)

Let me be the first to wish you all a HAPPY NEW YEAR! That’s right. Today, the First Sunday of Advent is the first day of the new liturgical year of the  Church. That it doesn’t happen on January 1st shouldn’t come as any big surprise. Business revolves around a fiscal year that doesn’t begin on January 1st and end on December 31st. And the school year begins  in August or September and ends in June. In the same way, the Church’s liturgical year begins on the 1st Sunday of Advent and ends with the feast of Christ the King. It’s very appropriate, I’d say.


But, I know you’re all sitting there asking yourselves, “What’s that got to do with today’s gospel reading from Mark?” Well, I just thought I’d  let you in on “the coming attractions.” Every liturgical year is devoted to a particular set of Gospel readings for each Sunday and they run in a three year cycle, corresponding to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Last year was devoted to Matthew, while this year’s readings will be primarily from Mark. John gets thrown in here and there throughout every cycle and sometimes you’ll hear from one of the other Gospel writers if  they have a particular reading (pericope) that that corresponds to a certain feast day or occasion.


So today’s reading is just the beginning of many passages from Mark that you will be hearing throughout the whole year, until next Advent when we start on  Luke. I might suggest that a good spiritual exercise for all of us this Advent, in preparation for the new millenium, would be to sit down one evening, turn off the T.V.,  and read the Gospel of Mark all the way through. It’s the shortest of the 4 gospels so try to do it in one sitting so you don’t lose any of the flavor of it. Then, when we come to Mass on Sunday and hear various passages of the Word of God  proclaimed, we’ll know where they fit in with the whole scheme of things.


Now keep in mind when you’re reading Mark or when you hear his Gospel proclaimed in Church on Sunday that he’s a little different from the other synoptic  writers, Matthew and Luke. He emphasizes deeds over words. Mark’s Gospel has more of a sense of urgency, of immediacy. His is an action Gospel. I sort of think that if Mark were alive today,  he’d be making his Gospel with a camcorder instead of a pen, and it would kind of look like the movie The Blair Witch Project or the T.V. show COPS.  It  has that same sense of urgency. And he doesn’t paint pretty pictures, he gets right to the point.


Mark doesn’t have an infancy narrative, he starts with an adult Jesus. And this Jesus is not a comfortable Jesus, he is a controversial and challenging  Jesus. He’s counter-cultural. And you know, even thougth it’s just a coincidence, Mark’s Gospel is probably the perfect Gospel for a new millenium. Take a look at our century, with its “culture of death.” Did you know that there have been more martyrs for the faith in this century than in any other time in history? Mark has the same urgent message for the Church as a country preparing for battle. “Come on!” “Christ is coming back  and we need to be prepared!” “Not tomorrow, but NOW!” Mark uses the word “immediately” 42 times in his short gospel.


Not only does he warn us to be prepared, but he challenges us to imitate this controversial, counter-cultural Christ that he shows us. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Deny youself - take up your cross - follow me.” How often does society today tell us to deny ourselves? It’s clear that throughout Mark’s Gospel there is one predominant theme - a suffering  messiahship and a suffering discipleship. Mark’s Christian faith is firmly anchored in the risen Lord. But he is also keenly conscious of living “between the times”: between the resurrection and the consumation. Victory is the destiny of the faithful Christian. But life in the here and now is real and earnest and it can be grim. Mark acknowledges that Christian existence is paradoxical, and he finds it normal that it should be like that. Jesus won his victory through suffering and death. There is no other way of Christian living or path to Christian victory. Mark wants us to understand and accept this. The liberal  protestantism that has influenced our culture over the last 150 years or so has a real problem with the message of Mark.


You might find it interesting to note that in ordering the Gospel readings for the year, the Church uses different verses from the same chapter of Mark like  bookends for the year. The message is the same. Today we heard: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” (Another message for the millenium, by the way, especially for those who think the end of the world is right around the corner.) Next year, on the Sunday before the Feast of Christ the King, we hear the same message: “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor  the Son, but only the Father.” And so we are cautioned to be prepared.


So get ready to be challenged this year. This new millenium. I’ll start off with a challenge for us all. Let’s do like I said at the beginning. Let’s grab our bibles this Advent season and sit down and read Mark all the way through. Let’s read it slowly, and read it with a sense of wonder and naivete. Let the Holy Spirit begin his work in us.