Sunday, November 27, 2016
Advent is IMPERATIVE!
If the parish ever runs short of money and I need to moonlight, I have a perfect job waiting for me: teaching grammar.
It seems almost everyone I know under forty has forgotten the basic rules of English grammar. Just about every day I hear someone say “her and me went down to McDonalds.” On the radio this week I heard “Less people attended the rally this year.” Come on! Less rain, maybe, but fewer people.
Some of our younger parishioners consider me a badge-carrying member of the grammar police. But I can’t resist correcting some of these mistakes, even if I’m not brave enough to correct their parents.
So today I thought I might offer a brief grammar lesson. The subject is a verb form known as the imperative. In grammar, the imperative mood expresses a command. The simplest example, known to every parent, is “don’t.”
Different languages form the imperative in many different ways. English has a particular imperative that uses the verb “let.” “Let’s have a drink” is an imperative, even if it sounds less like a command than “don’t.”
Let’s go looking, then, for imperatives in today’s Scripture readings. There are plenty of them, and they give us a great push for the start of Advent.
The first reading begins with a familiar image, the mountain of the Lord. Mountains have an important place in the Old Testament. Moses receives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai and Elijah meets God on Mount Horeb, for example. In the New Testament, Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray and, at the end of his earthly mission, he ascends from a mountain to heaven.
Here “the mountain of the Lord’s house” is Mount Zion, the goal of all peoples.
And so we find today’s first imperative: “Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob.” Isaiah puts these words on the lips of “many peoples”—not many people, but many peoples or nations, because everyone is called to make the pilgrimage to God’s mountain.
Climbing Mount Zion is imperative because there is found instruction; there is found the word of the Lord where scattered and confused people are united by the truth.
The first imperative is addressed to the whole world, particularly to those who do not know the ways of the Lord. The second command, “Let us walk in the light of the Lord,” is spoken to the House of Jacob, to Israel, the people to whom God has already taught his law. What’s imperative for them is to walk in the light—to follow the commands they already know.
Today’s Psalm repeats the imperative we heard in the reading from Isaiah, almost word for word: “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” The command to journey to God’s house is not a burden but a joy: “I was glad when they said to me, Let us go to the house of the Lord!” Biblical Hebrew used didn’t use exclamation marks, but the English text has one at the end of this sentence—the speaker is enthusiastic.
This Psalm, Psalm 122, was sung by Jewish pilgrims arriving at the gates of Jerusalem in obedience to the Lord’s command to gather there in worship three times a year. (The Collegeville Bible Commentary, 780). The speaker is enthusiastic because he’s at the gates—they’re almost there.
You can see the connection between Isaiah’s prophetic word and actual religious practice. The pilgrims aren’t literally ascending the holy mountain where God dwells, but they know he may be found in his holy temple in Jerusalem.
What’s true for them is truer still for us. It’s imperative every Sunday that we go up to meet the Lord in worship—not as a burden but as a joy. We are commanded, yes, but it’s a command that should make us glad.
Advent is a natural time to adjust our attitude to the Mass and to the Sunday obligation. It’s an ideal time to get our bearings and ask whether we’re well on the road to the Lord’s house or not.
This is clear from the imperatives we find in the second reading. “Let us lay aside the works of darkness,” St. Paul says. Let us examine ourselves in preparation for the great feast of Christmas, and ask whether there are shadows in our lives that the light of Christ must overpower.
It’s true that Lent’s the time when we usually think about our sins, but Advent is a penitential season also, which is why I’m wearing the same purple vestments worn in Lent. Everyone knows that Christmas takes a lot of preparation, whether it’s baking or gift-buying or just plain planning; spiritual preparation should not be neglected.
St. Paul’s second imperative points in a slightly different direction: “let us put on the armour of light.” The only way to end the darkness is to turn on the light—accentuate the positive to eliminate the negative, as a song from the 1940s put it.
Advent should be a time of extra prayer and good works; those things are armour against sin. They’re like shining breastplates that deflect the enemy’s arrows. Once again, Matthew Kelly’s Dynamic Catholic organization offers a free prayer or video every day of Advent; sign up for “Best Advent Ever”; it’s a specific and practical way to put on the armour of light.
Other things you can do include making an effort to get to a daily Mass each week of Advent, planning some charitable service, or giving alms to the many charities that help the poor at Christmas, including our own Christmas hamper program.
The last imperative we find in today’s reading is the most imperative of all. It’s not the friendly form that begins with “let us” but the more direct and urgent imperative that’s clearly a command.
In the Gospel, Jesus says “keep awake.” He then repeats the command in different words: “be ready.”
Getting ready for Christmas is hard work. In his delightful story “Dave Cooks the Christmas Turkey,” Stuart McLean creates a conversation between Morley and her husband Dave, where she tells him “My life is a train. I am a train. Dragging everyone from one place to another.
Dave is too smart to ask where the train is heading. He knows Morley will tell him. And she does.
“The train starts at a town called First Day at School, then goes to a village called Halloween, and then through the township of Class Project, and down the spur line called Your Sister is Visiting.”
“All the way to the last stop on the line—Christmas dinner.”
Everyone knows that feeling, even if mothers know it best. But why do we do all that work to get ready for the festive aspects of Christmas without making much effort to be spiritually ready?
Jesus is pretty tough about this. He tells us to stay awake, but he might as well have said “wake up.” The stakes are high, because there is a thief who wants to break in and steal the Christmas presents from under the tree.
That thief is a real enemy, not some sort of fairy-tale Grinch. In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus describes him in these words: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”
So keep awake. Get ready.