ADVENT (1) – Look to the East

1st Sunday of Advent (A) – November 27, 2022

St. Paul – Lyons, KS

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122:1-9; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44

“Look to the East.”

There is a great scene in the Lord of the Rings—and if you haven’t watched the movies or read the books, please go do that. But J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the Lord of the Rings, was a devout Catholic, and very intentionally littered it with a Catholic worldview. Tolkien was trying to help us see! For example, in the second book, second movie, there is a huge battle: the battle at the fortress of Helm’s Deep. The forces of evil are bearing down on the forces of good. And there is no way they can win! They are holding on as long as possible, but they know they will die defending this fortress. But one person has made a promise: the character Gandalf—a character who, un-coincidentally, rose from the dead earlier in the story—Gandalf promises that one day, at dawn, he will come from the East, bringing victory. And when he does, the enemy will finally be destroyed. And (spoiler alert) that’s what happens. At the dawn, he arrives with the rays of the rising sun, victory.

So what is Tolkien describing? Well, with his Christian worldview, with the lenses given to him by Jesus and his Paschal Mystery—what is Tolkien trying to describe? What picture is he painting? Tolkien is describing us—Catholics, Christians. As Christians, this is a portrait of us—especially us in the season of Advent, but us each and every single day of our lives.

Here we are in this world, fighting our daily battles, enduring persecution (just like Jesus knew we would). And we can’t win. We can hold out for a while, but “death comes for us all.” However, in the midst of this, one person has made a promise—one who, un-coincidentally, rose from the dead. And the promise is that he will return. And on that day, the Enemy, our enemies, those who make themselves the enemies of God—this one will have the victory. Jesus Christ will come like the dawn, bringing victory. That is our hope. That is our life!

This is why Christians look to the East! A church should be built with the altar toward the eastern wall, so that the people are facing East. And if it’s not, the direction of the altar is known as the “liturgical east.” This is why if you build a Catholic cemetery right, the the bodies and the tombstones face the East. Even the earliest Christians, in the catacombs of Rome—we find the image of the cross on the eastern wall. Why? Why is this? Because it is the direction of the rising sun, the dawn. We look to the East because that is the direction of hope, the hope of victory, our only hope in this world. Jesus Christ is the “morning star,” the “Dawn from on high,” the “Sun of Justice.” We look forward to his coming. Advent isn’t just a four week countdown to Christmas. Advent is a time when we once again place ourselves in a very intentional position of “expectant waiting”—waiting for him. This is the Christian life.

“Go to Church” vs. “In need of Christ present, alive, active, real”

The reason I bring this up is because of something that really struck me hard this last week. And what struck me was this strange way that we often view our faith, being a Christian, being a Catholic. Several people, several times just this week, have talked about their faith or the faith of others as “going to Church.” Being a Christian, being a Catholic—that means that I am one of those people that “goes to Church.”

And it struck be, because when “going to church” is all it means to be a Catholic or a Christian…it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And that’s what people tell you when they stop “going to church,” when they abandon the faith. They say things like, “Well, I didn’t really get anything out of going to church. ‘Church’ wasn’t for me. Going to church is boring. I have other things I need to do on Sunday morning.” And on and on. Do you see what I mean, though? When being a Catholic, being a Christian just means “a person who goes to a church on Sunday”…it all falls apart rather quickly.

Now, to be sure, from the earliest days of Christianity, the people would gather on the first day of the week, on Sunday; the Sunday gathering was definitely one part of it. But there was so much more to it than that! More than anything, their lives were dominated by the anticipation of Jesus’ coming. And not just at the end of the world, or when they died! They anticipated Jesus’ arrival in their midsts every day. Because Jesus wasn’t dead, he was alive. He wasn’t distant, but present. And he wasn’t just some passive spectator, but active in their midsts. They continued to have a relationship with him. Everything was based on their relationship with him. Their life was dominated by this continued “arrival” each and every day, with the dawn of each new day.

Sleepiness and Distractions

But do we have that same hope? Every day when we wake up, throughout the day, when we go to bed each night—is your life dominated by that hope? Let’s be honest: for most of us, probably not. I’ll speak for myself: my life has gotten so crazy and hectic and distracted, that I have fallen out of the habit of expecting to see him each day. It’s bad, I know! I am always trying to catch up on sleep. And during the day I have a lot of work, and friends and sports to keep up with, and going to the gym, and news, and on and on and on. And so at the end of the day I am so tired that I forget what even happened to me that day! I get distracted. I live a very distracted life! And I lose focus on the one thing necessary, the one thing that makes life interesting, the one reason I am a Christian: Him, his coming, his presence.

Our readings today focus our attention on that theme: this urgency to wake up, to be alert, to get with the program, to not be unaware. The Son of Man is coming, Jesus is coming—don’t miss it! And not just in a, “Don’t miss it or else!” sort of way. But a pleading way! “Here is everything in your life, the one thing you are truly searching for in life! Don’t miss it!”

Maybe you can relate with my experience. Maybe you have felt the busyness and craziness of life, the distractions…and faith has become just trying to “go to church” on Sunday. Maybe we have allowed ourselves to be sucked into so many other things—work, sports, Netflix, you name it—maybe, if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t really think about our relationship with Jesus that much. Instead of our life being dominated by Jesus, by his presence and activity in our life, our life is dominated by things that only distract us from this one necessary thing.

This is the time to awake! This is the time to focus our attention on Jesus once again.

Keep vigil for the dawn!

I know for myself, this Advent I am recommitting myself to three things. The first is prayer. I “say my prayers” every day. But this Advent, I want to get back to prayer. Real prayer. Every morning. There is a long tradition of keeping vigil for the dawn, waking up before dawn to keep vigil in prayer for the dawn of a new day. So that’s what I I’m going to do: get up before all of the distractions of the day begin so that I have time to very intentionally pray, prepare for his coming, prepare for a day centered on him. So every morning: wake up to pray.

The second thing is to be in silence more often. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I always have something on: some noise, some distraction. Whether that’s music or a podcast or videos or Netflix or football…I always seem to have something, some noise in the background. Even when I sleep, I have white noise machine! And with all of this noise, I am always distracted. I want to be more aware this Advent, more aware of Jesus’ coming, more aware of his presence. So every day: no more purposeless background noise.

So prayer, silence. And the third thing: attention. I want to be more attentive to Jesus Christ in my life. Remember, the early Christians knew that Jesus wasn’t dead, but alive. He wasn’t distant, but present. And he wasn’t just some passive spectator, but active in their midsts. I want to be attentive to that. I want to recognize where he is present and alive and active. So at the end of every day: I’m going to make an examination of the day and ask, “Jesus, where were you present today? Where were you alive and active today?”

All three of these things—prayer, silence, attention—waking up each day to pray, not having purposeless background noise, and making an examination at the end of each day—all three of these are to help me “wait for the dawn,” to not be distracted, but to be attentive. All of these are to help me focus on the one thing necessary. All of these are to help me to place my hope in Jesus Christ, to base everything on my relationship with him. I would encourage you to find three things as well (and you are free to steal mine)—find three things that help you “wait for the dawn,” that help you focus your attention on the East, to watch for his coming, to recognize him present.

The Coming of the Lord

Again, go back to Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings, that beautiful scene from the second book. In the midst of the battle of the day, in the struggle of the day, all through the night—hope was sustained by the confidence of the arrival of the dawn. This is also an image of what we are doing here today! Even now, as we gather, we face “East.” At the Mass, the Church has us face this direction on purpose! And facing this direction, we see his coming: here in the Eucharist he becomes present.

In our daily battles, in our daily struggles, he comes to us even now! He is alive, he is present, he is active. Just as at this Mass we kneel in prayer and silence and attention waiting for his coming on this altar, I hope and pray that this season of Advent is a truly blessed time to be in prayer and silence and attention, and to watch for the dawn, to anticipate his coming—not just at Christmas—but each and every day of our lives. Because that is when this becomes more than just “going to church.” That is when this, our entire faith, takes on a whole new dimension.

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