The following is my homily for the 1st Sunday in Advent, Year A. The readings can be found here.
This week, the students at UGA enter an intense period of preparation: it’s final exam time. Ready or not, here they come! It doesn’t matter if they’ve been studying all semester or they haven’t attended a single class. On a certain date at a certain time, judgment will take place. This, is serious business. It is time to hunker down; time to focus; time to load up on coffee.
I remember finals week when I was in college, knowing that there was only so much I could do, that the minutes were just slipping away. I’d take out my syllabus, look over the study guide and ask myself, “What are the most important things I need to know? Professor mentioned this multiple times—review. This is the last thing the professor said at the end of class—very important. Optional readings for enrichment—psh, no time, throw it in the garbage.” As much as finals week was stressful and just the absolute worst, there was something about the urgency of it all that I actually liked. There was a focus, a clear direction. It forced me to work hard, and as much as I hate to admit it, I learned a lot more in classes that had final exams than in ones that didn’t. The seriousness of it all, the gravity of the situation, even a little sense of fear—it all made me a better student.
And it makes me wonder, sometimes. That sense of urgency, that seriousness, that ability to hunker down and intensely focus on a task—do we devote that sort of energy to our lives as Christians? We may not be in school, but as “disciples” of Christ, we are by our very nature “learners” of his way, and as much as we would like to downplay it, there most certainly is a final exam. Jesus tells us over and over again that there will come a day of judgment; there will come a day of separating the sheep and the goats; there will come a day when the Son of Man will return and some will be taken up to heaven. More than some biology test that we’re going to forget about the minute we finish it, this should give us a bit of urgency. This—our salvation, our life in heaven—has got to be the most important thing that we will ever prepare for. Right?
And yet, there are times when I look at my life and see almost no effort. Quite recently, in fact, I’ve looked at the way I pray, the way that I live my life, the way that I spend my money and eat and have fun, and have been sorely disappointed. Just this week, really, I had a bit of a panic. You know that feeling when you didn’t do the homework and you realize that there might be a pop-quiz? I realized that if Jesus were to come back today, if that final exam turned out to be right now… I wouldn’t be ready. I realized that I am lacking any sense of urgency in my discipleship, that I am just coasting along—not horribly bad, but also not particularly committed either. I’m not sure if you ever feel like this… but it should be a wakeup call for us
Advent is a time to instill that sense of urgency back in us. Just as the students are preparing for exams, Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of our Lord. But not as a child in a manger, not wrapped in swaddling clothes. No, these things already happened. We do not prepare for the past, but remember the past in order to prepare for the future: the birth of Christ two thousand years ago, the act of God coming to be like us so that we could come to be like God—all of this marked the assurance of the promise that there will come a day when a new heaven and a new earth will be established, a day when all nations will go climbing the mountain of the Lord, a day when Jesus will return in his glory and judge the nations. Jesus doesn’t say when this will happen, but St. Paul absolutely nails it when he says that “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” It’s coming, and we’re running out of time. Advent reminds us that we have no more time to waste—our preparation, begins today.
So, what do we do? How do we prepare for the ultimate test of our lives? Well, luckily for us, just like those taking final exams, we have been given a syllabus. Even more than that, in fact, Jesus has given us the very questions. We know exactly what he wants from us; we know exactly what we must do. Seriously. There is no trick to this exam, no surprises. Jesus made it very clear in everything he said and did what he wants of us. We know intimately of his will because we’ve heard it over and over again: love your enemies, show mercy, give to the poor, become poor yourself, take up your cross daily, love your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul, and your neighbor as yourself. For years and years and years we have heard this, and I doubt anyone in this church would say that they don’t know what is expected of them.
And so the real question is not what this test will be like, but rather, have we taken the time to open the book? Have we taken the time to practice the equations, to memorize the definitions. We may know what Jesus wants of us, but there is a big difference between knowing the questions and being confident in the answer; a life in the way of Jesus does not happen overnight—there is no cramming of virtues, no drinking a gallon of coffee and staying up all night to develop a prayer life. These things take time. They take practice. They take struggling and falling and getting back up again.
If you, like me, feel that you are sorely unprepared for this test, if you look at your life and think, “I’ve got a lot of work to do,” then this is your wakeup call. Advent is your inspiration, your warning. It’s time to take seriously your prayer life. It’s time to start showing a bit more forgiveness to your friends and family. It’s time to start practicing the corporal works of mercy, to begin living with peace and justice. It’s time to start preparing your heart to receive your Lord. He’s coming. I can only hope we’ll be ready.