Homily for 1

Homily for 1st Advent (B), November 27, 2011. Fr. Joseph T. Nolan
A priest once approached me to ask, “Have you any new ideas for preaching on Advent?
All I have so far is three points: he comes in history, in mystery, and in majesty.” I said,
“That’s terrific! The first one, of course, is Christmas, the Incarnation. The second, he
comes in mystery, has been true ever since – he comes in word, and sacrament, and
people. And the third, he comes in majesty, is his return at the end of the world.” He said,
“That’s too much for one homily!” And I agreed. Since Christmas is our favorite feast
and we even sing about it in our joyful carols, the coming that really needs attention is
Jesus in word, sacrament, people. A person at daily Mass once said to me, “Why do you
say at the end of Mass, ‘You are the body of Christ – go in peace to love and serve the
Lord’?” I said, “Because you are. Have you ever heard that before?” She said, “No.”
Somewhere we should have made plain to everyone that the body of Christ is indeed the
consecrated host but also the consecrated people. That’s why we changed the prayer in
giving the communion – and thank God that survived the changes we are incorporating
today. The priest continues to say to you, in just four words, “The body of Christ.” And
you answer, “Amen.” That means, as you know, “So be it.” Or as a youngster would say,
“Right on!”
So there is a double meaning that invites your assent! The real presence of Christ is not
only in the host but in the people. And receiving communion is really an invitation to
achieve communion with each other.
In the old days (which were not always the good old days), before the reform of the Mass
in 1969, only a minority completed the Mass by receiving communion. Now, it is a
majority, and we offer as well as receive, by joining in the prayers, by song, by
presenting the bread and wine – and really ourselves. We are all part of the offering, and
gladly take the return gift of Christ himself. I mention this because a new generation may
not know what a great achievement it was forty-two years ago, the first fruits of the
Second Vatican Counsel, to bring us all into the great action we call Mass or Eucharist.
The changes beginning today in your responses at Mass are rather minor, for example,
the prayer, “Lord I am not worthy to receive you” is now amended to, “I am not worthy
that you should come under my roof.” It is the more complete sentence from the gospel,
the words of the Roman officer whose faith Jesus praised. It is astonishing, even
delightful, to think that his words have echoed ever since in thousands of Masses, and we
make them an act of faith, an invitation.
The coming of Jesus in majesty refers to the official belief that Christ will return at the
end of the world to “wrap things up,” so to speak. To come in judgment and salvation.
This Second Coming is an act of faith to which many pay little attention, because it
seems so unreal. And it is not helped by the surreal texts of the Apocalypse which are
often read at the end of the church year, preceding Advent. They all have the fearful tone
you encounter in the gospel today. This belief in the Second Coming has been
misconstrued often, and has done much harm. Many fundamentalist Christians expect it
is just about to happen – like next week – and they are quite sure they are among the
saved. Unfortunately they borrow a word from Saint Paul, “the rapture,” even picture
themselves caught up to heaven while the rest are doomed. They are the chosen few. I
know there are texts like the Apocalypse in the bible that seem to support this final
coming, but I refer you to the vision you find in John’s gospel. Unlike Matthew, Mark,
and Luke, there are no apocalyptic passages in John. It seems likely that by 90 or 100
AD, when this gospel was written, they had decided the Lord is not about to come back
any moment; rather, the community of believers called after the apostle John came to this
wonderful insight: the risen Jesus, the Lord, is already here. It is the work of the Spirit;
we should wake up to his presence and treat each other as members of his body.
There is a medieval prayer for Advent that says it well. I first learned it from our beloved
professor, Fred Lawrence, who has taught so long and so well at Boston College. These
are words of wisdom from our forbears.
Thou shalt know him when he comes
not by any din of drums
nor the flaunting of his airs.
Neither by his crown nor his gown,
nor by anything he wears
but his coming known shall be
by the holy harmony
that his presence makes in thee.