Fr. Michael McGourty is the pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in Toronto.
It is not difficult to believe that the words we hear in this Sunday’s reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah have been spoken by women and men of many generations in the face of tragedy and difficulty: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
These words are certainly not very different from those I found myself praying at the time of the first COVID-19 lockdown here in Toronto. As the first shutdown got underway, I, like many, was frightened about what might be coming in the future: I feared for the parish and how I would be able to serve the needs of the parishioners; I was frightened that we might have to lay off our parish staff; I wondered how I would visit the many people isolated in senior’s homes; and I feared that many might get sick and die as a result of the pandemic.
The tone of many of my prayers was, “Lord, O that you would tear open the heavens and come down and help us in these difficult times.”
What has truly amazed me during this pandemic is that God did come down and answer my prayers; just not in the way that I expected.
Since the first wave of COVID-19 hit our city, I have been so inspired by the way that many people have stepped forward with offers to help others and the parish community. During this time, people have called and asked if there is anything they can do for others in our parish. Volunteers have offered to call seniors or lonely individuals. Those who assist at the parish’s outreach meal program have made arrangements for takeaway meals to be served, instead of the regular sit-down gatherings. So many others gave their time and talent and through their financial donations made it possible for our parish to pay the bills.
Perhaps God has not exactly leaped down from Heaven and solved every one of our problems, but He has clearly been at work and with us throughout this pandemic. It is certainty His presence that has given me great confidence that – even though there will be difficult times ahead of us as we head into the second lockdown – God is with us.
One of the most beautiful titles for Jesus is “Emanuel.” It means “God is with us.” On this first Sunday of Advent, we are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Emanuel. God with us.
Called to Serve
As a result of His birth, Jesus has changed history. Through Jesus’ birth, God tore open the heavens and came down to dwell among us. During His own lifetime on Earth, Christ was God present among us and He made God’s love known. After His death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit was sent upon the Church by the Father and the Son, and the Church became Christ’s ongoing presence in the world. Through baptism, you and I are the Church, called to make Christ present in the world today.
In the theological language of the Church, we, the baptized, are Christ’s Mystical Body called to continue His work in the world today. This idea is expressed beautifully in words from St. Theresa of Avila:
"Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on Earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which He looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which He blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are His body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours."
The Two Comings
As Jesus changed history by His birth, He also invites us to change history by continuing His mission in the world through His Church.
During the Advent season, the Church invites us to prepare to celebrate the first coming of Christ when He was born as a child, while it also reminds us that we are to be ready to meet this same Christ at the end of time, when He will come to judge the living and the dead. It is interesting that the Church’s liturgical year begins and ends with a similar note.
Last weekend, on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, we celebrated the Solemnity of Christ the King with the reminder that Christ will come at the end of time to rule as King of the Universe over all redeemed creation. This Sunday as well, on the first Sunday of Advent, we hear in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 13, that we are to be ready to meet Christ when He comes to meet us at the end of time. The stark warning from today’s Gospel is: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”
The season of Advent draws our attention to the two comings of Christ, both His coming at His birth and His coming at the end of time; and it calls us to be ready to meet Him at the end of time by “keeping awake.” This call to be ready to meet Christ by “staying alert” is a real call to be ready to meet Him as He comes to us today. The Gospel this Sunday invites us to be ready to meet Christ at the end of time by being ready to meet Him as He comes to us today.
The call to meet Christ today was very clearly articulated in the Gospel reading from last Sunday, in which Christ the King told those whom He encountered on judgement day that they met Him and cared for Him whenever they had extended charity to those who were lonely, hungry, naked, sick or imprisoned. He also told those who had neglected Him that they had done so whenever they had neglected the stranger, the hungry, the naked, the sick or the imprisoned. In the beautiful words spoken by the King: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
As we begin Advent, we are reminded that the Christ child who we are preparing to welcome will also come at the end of time. We are cautioned that the way in which can be awake when He comes, is by being awake and ready to meet Christ by encountering Him today in our brother or sister in need.
The call to meet Christ in our brother or sister in need is one that Pope Francis has taken up in his recent encyclical on fraternity and social friendship, Tutti Fratelli. This letter, which Pope Francis issued on the Feast of St. Francis speaks of the way in which St. Francis strove to encounter Christ in all persons. As St. Francis was convinced that every human being was made in the image and likeness of the creator, he attempted to serve Christ through acts of charity towards all persons.
It is this call to see Christ present in all persons that reminds you and I that in these difficult times, in which we might all be tempted to pray, “O that you might tear open the heavens and come down,” that each of us might be the person that God is sending to others as a way of making His love known. The Advent call to be awake and ready to meet Christ when He comes is a call to the social charity and friendship towards one another that Pope Francis is inviting all Christians to show one another in Tutti Fratelli.
This second wave of the COVID-19 virus means that this Christmas is bound to be different for many of us. Many people will be alone and isolated and without many of the comforts that we normally associate with Christmas. Christ’s call to be ready for His coming by staying awake is a real invitation to ask ourselves how we will encounter Christ this Christmas. More than ever before, we are asked to consider what acts of love, charity and kindness we might extend to others in these difficult times.
I was amazed during the first wave of this pandemic how God did tear open the heavens and manifest Himself in so many acts of charity in our community. As the second wave of COVID-19 is expected to be more serious than the first, I believe this Advent is calling all of us to consider more serious ways to encounter Christ in our brother or sister in need through acts of charity in this season of Grace.
During Advent and Christmas, we recall that the Christ child was born into the poverty of a manger to redeem humanity. He and His parents had nothing. Christ’s parents were forced to flee their country for the safety of Egypt. Throughout, they were dependent upon others for food and shelter and the necessities of life. God provided for them through the acts of love and the kindness of others.
While Christmas is the story of Christ’s birth, it is also the story of the others who welcomed the Christ child and His family in their need. Over Christmas, we also tell the story of those who fed, housed and visited the Christ child and the Holy Family. In their need, Christ and His family are visited at the manger by the adoring shepherds and brought gifts by the wise men. God the Father did not tear open the Heavens and come down to care for His Son Jesus. Rather, God the Father cared for His Son by sending others to do this on His behalf.
This Christmas, let each of us be awake and alert to encounter Christ as He comes to us in our brother and sister in need. There are many seniors and shut-ins that we might look in on this Christmas to bring Christ’s presence. Perhaps money that might have been spent on trips or gatherings can be donated to our parishes or other charities. Our care for others may be as simple as wearing a mask when we would rather not. There are so many ways in which we have normally celebrated Christmas that we will be unable to carry out this year. The great challenge of this year is to think of ways that will really make this Christmas different by the way we each seek to be alert and awake to Christ’s coming to us today through those in need.
When God tore open the heavens and came down, He did so by coming down as a little child who could not survive without the care and support of others. Christ, who came to be “Emanuel” — “God with us” — did so by inviting us to care for one another and recognizing each other as brothers and sister. As we prepare for this difficult Christmas, in the midst of this second wave of COVID-19, let us do so aware that God is very much with us in our trials and difficulties. He also calls each of us to help Him be present to others by sending us to them as His hands, feet, eyes and body.
I wish to thank all those who have supported our community through this difficult time by their acts of charity, kindness and financial donations. May we all continue to make Christ present by caring for and supporting one another. Christ is always with us. He calls us each day to be alert to His coming among us by caring for one another.
Blessings to all in this Advent 2020. May God keep us all safe and well.
This reflection based on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent, Year B: Isaiah 63: 16b-17; 64: 1, 3-8; Psalm 80; 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9; and Mark 13: 33-37.