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The First Sunday of Advent

Isa 2:1-5; Ps 122:1-9; Rom 13:11-14; Matt 24:37-44

November 27, 2013

We are a Pilgrim People

At Thanksgiving time, when people in the United States hear the word 'pilgrim,' they immediately think of the Puritans who were some of the earliest European settlers of this country. However, the religious meaning of the word 'pilgrim' is often better understood in other countries, where pilgrimage is more a religious practice than a matter of migration. Many people make pilgrimages to Mexico to the shrine of our Lady of Guadalupe, or to Lourdes in France, or Fatima in Portugal. In fact, we read in the Pastoral Constitution of the Second Vatican Council that we are a pilgrim people. Just what does this mean?

Pilgrimage is an apt characterization of the journey upon which we embark today. Liturgically, we begin the season of Advent. From this point of view, we are on a journey toward the feast of Christmas. On a much deeper theological level, we are beginning anew the journey to eschatological fulfillment. In other words, we are beginning our yearly reenactment of the drama of our salvation, beginning with the mystery of the Incarnation (Christmas) and culminating in the celebration of Christ's ultimate victory (Christ the King). Today, we take our first steps on the way.

Our life-long journey toward fulfillment is going to be a complicated and often tedious one and, lest we lose track of our ultimate destination, it is placed before us at the outset. In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah introduces the image of pilgrimage to describe the great gathering of the future. He announces that all nations will stream toward the mountain of the Lord, the place where God dwells.

There they will all be instructed in the ways of God, and in response they will "beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again." What a glorious image! What a poignant sentiment! What a timely promise!

When we turn to Paul's message to the Romans - and to us today as well - we are told what we must do to help bring about the vision of peace. He exhorts us: "Conduct yourselves properly." He warns us against "orgies and drunkenness...promiscuity and lust," lives of self-indulgence of any kind. More than that, he condemns the "rivalry and jealousy" that result in parish or family feuds and alienation, in ethnic or national antagonism and wars.

If we are genuine pilgrims on the way to God's eschatological fulfillment, we must act as pilgrims, not as tourists. We must enter wholeheartedly into the pilgrimage, leaving behind whatever might hinder our progress, accepting whatever hardship our journey might entail.

The gospel seems to paint a dire picture. It describes how the disaster of the flood caught the people of the time of Noah unaware, and it speaks of not knowing when the thief is coming during the night; it says that some will be taken and some will be left. Actually, the point of Jesus' teaching is the unpreparedness of the people in each case, not the tragedy itself. Had they been prepared, there would have been no tragedy. It also presumes that had they known when the misfortune was going to occur, they would have been prepared. And that is the point! They did not know, and neither do we. And so Jesus admonishes us: Stay awake! Be prepared at all times! "For at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come."

On this first Sunday of Advent, we set off on a pilgrimage to the fulfillment of God's promises and plans for our salvation, salvation from self-indulgence and disdain of others, salvation from small-mindedness and fear of life itself. We have before us a vision of universal peace and reconciliation among nations and religious bodies, among ethnic groups and families. Not too far down the road (Christmas), the Son of God himself will join us. There is great anticipation in our step; there is great urgency in our preparedness. This is the scenario placed before us today. It is up to us to decide whether or not we wish to join the pilgrimage.

Dianne Bergant, CSA
Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP,
Distinguished Professor of Old Testament Studies

This reflection first appeared in America magazine and can now be found in The Word for Every Season: Reflections on the Lectionary Readings (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2010).

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