It is a bit embarrassing to admit, but I am way behind in my daily readings. As I have mentioned in the past, I get an email from Daily Gospel Online that contains the daily mass readings and a short reflection tied to them. A number of times I have posted these reflections here. The problem, however, is that it is easy for me to get behind. Previously, I have fallen a few days, a week, or even two weeks behind. In those cases, by an act of will I was able to get caught up, as it were binging on the gospel. Over the past 6-8 months, however, I managed to fall disastrously far behind: about three months. Periodically I would make an attempt to get caught up, but invariably would fall even further behind. (One can almost read this as a parable about the futility of attempting to save ourselves by our own works.)
So this Lent I decided to take the double track of reading the daily readings as they come, and also go back and read one set from my backlog. (Please pray that I will be able to maintain this simple discipline in the weeks ahead.) And, by chance, things have lined up so that today, on the first Sunday of Lent, I am also going back and doing the readings from the first Sunday of Advent. Both are penitential seasons, but with different emphases as they lead to two very different mysteries of our faith: the Incarnation of God and the death and resurrection of Jesus. But they are deeply intertwined: the joy of Christmas leads inexorably to both the sorrow of Good Friday and the triumph of Easter. So while this is not a spiritual exercise I would have thought of, providence has conspired to have me reflect on Advent and Lent at the same time.
Today, the first reading from the first Sunday of Advent is strongly penitential in tone and feels equally appropriate for Lent. It is from the prophet Isaiah, and consists of both a call to repentance and strongly worded confession of guilt.
You, LORD, are our father, our redeemer you are named forever. Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage. Too long have we been like those you do not rule, who do not bear your name. Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, While you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old. No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him. Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways! Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean men, all our good deeds are like polluted rags; We have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind. There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; For you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt. Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands. (Isaiah 63:16b-17.19b.64:2b-7)
This plea in the first part of the reading “you, Lord, are our father, our redeemer” is how we should respond to today’s Gospel:
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:”This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)
The confession of guilt is full and perhaps overwhelming: “all of us have become like unclean men, all our good deeds are like polluted rags“. We are crushed by our sins and and would be beyond hope, were it not for the promise of baptism recalled in today’s second reading:
[The flood] prefigured baptism, which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:21).
And it is through the grace of our baptism that we can pray with the prophet:
Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.
Our hope in this prayer is that when our Lord comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, “you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways!”
Today, let us open up our lives so that we might be shaped by the Lord’s hands into vessels of his mercy. As the Father has shown mercy to us by converting the waters of the flood into the waters of baptism, let us show mercy to others. Let us become, as Pope Francis put it in his Lenten message, “islands of mercy in the midst of the sea of indifference.” We must allow ourselves to be conformed to the message of Christ in every part of our lives and not simply in our religious practice. Lent is not the time to simply add a few more devotions while neglecting the weightier works of justice and mercy (cf. Mt 23:23). Pope Francis spoke to this divide in his homily on Friday:
So many men and women of faith, have faith but then divide the tablets of the law. ‘Yes, I do this’ – ‘But do you practice charity?’ – Yes of course, I always send a cheque to the Church’ – ‘Ok, that’s good. But at your home, within your own Church, are you generous and are you fair with those who are your dependents – be they your children, your grandparents, your employees?’ You cannot make offerings to the Church on the shoulders of the injustice that you practice towards your dependents. This is a very serious sin: using God as a cover for injustice.
May the Spirit of the Lord be upon us, guide us through the desert of Lent and lead us to the joy of Easter with hearts and minds renewed! May we find in the humility of the Incarnation a model for our own lives today and every day.