1ST SUNDAY OF ADVENT: SEIZE THE DAY

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In Dead Poets Society, one of my most favorite films of the deceased American actor Robin Williams, Williams plays the unconventional professor John Keating. Keating delivers the words, “Carpe Diem” to his students on the first day of school at Welton Academy. Keating tells his students that one day, no matter what kinds of people they become as adults, they’re going to be “food for worms.” Because life is all-too short, students should make the most of their time on the earth. The best way to make the most of life is to be creative and original—to seize the day—and not simply to repeat one’s parents’ and grandparents’ lives. In other words, Keating’s goal as an educator is to teach his students to think for themselves, to explore their passions and live accordingly.

What are the most important things you want to do before you die? I am not referring to a bucket list like to skydive or climb the Himalayas which only the rich can afford. Perhaps, you can ask forgiveness from a loved one whom you have wronged, say I love you to a special person you have wanted to but didnt for a long time, reconcile with a long lost friend, follow your dreams and your passion. In other words, don’t just be a cliché, dont just be a statistic. Just do it now, seize the day!

This coming Sunday marks the beginning of a new year in the church with the celebration of the Advent season.  Advent is about the profound mystery of the coming down of God into humanity. God became human and dwelt among us more than 2,000 years ago in Jesus Christ. Christ will come again at the end of time to finally establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  Thus, Advent is the celebration of the coming of Christ in two parts, the first part expresses the exultant anticipation of the 2nd coming of Christ, which is celebrated in the first four Sundays of Advent. The 2nd part commemorates the joy of the 1st coming of Christ, which begins on December 17, 8 days before Christmas.

On this First Sunday of Advent, the readings are about the end times which will culminate the fulfilment of God’s glory. Although the readings today talks about the end times, the real message of the readings is to pay attention to the present, for it is in the present that God is always coming. It is in the present that we rehearse the fulfillment of God’s promises for the future. We live in the tension between the fullness of time in the end and the nitty gritty reality of the here and now. The end times is already here but not yet. Thus, in a nutshell, the challenge and the message of the readings is, seize the day!

The end times is not about destruction and annihilation but the jubilant expectation for what will God do to our present times. The Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth once protested that for many Christians today the last judgment had become a dire expectation of doom, whereas the New Testament Christians looked forward to “that day” with joy, waiting for and earnestly desiring the coming of the day of the Lord (2 Pet 3:12).

The New Testament writers expressed this mindset about the end times through the understanding of time as kairos. Kairos was used to mean “the appointed time in the purpose of God,” the time when God acts (for example in Mark 1:15: “The kairos is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand!”). Kairos was used 86 times in the New Testament to refer to an opportune time, a “moment” or a “season” such as “harvest time,” whereas chronos was used 54 times to refers to a specific amount of time, such as a day or an hour (e.g. Acts 13:18 and 27:9).

The call to seize the day is ubiquitous in our readings today. To seize the day is to see the wonders of God working in our daily lives along with our actions and efforts to build a better world. In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah prophesied what the end times mean in terms of God’s wonders and human cooperation–there will be ample opportunity for peace building instead of the usual war strategy,

They shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
one nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again.

What a beautiful vision! People will be moved to turn instruments of war, like swords and spears, into implements of peace, like agricultural tools such as plowshares and pruning hooks. Imagine what the world will be when all the trillion of dollars spent on war every year would instead be used for building sustainable irrigation systems, more effective farming implements and better support for farmers. We would have a boom in food production and have a massive reduction in hunger and poverty.

In the second reading, St. Paul tells the Romans to seize the day now that God’s salvation is near:

You know the time;
it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep.
For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed;
the night is advanced, the day is at hand.
Let us then throw off the works of darkness
and put on the armor of light;
let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day,
not in orgies and drunkenness,
not in promiscuity and lust,
not in rivalry and jealousy.
But put on the Lord Jesus Christ,
and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.

Pope Francis said the same thing in 2013, when he challenged the Atheneum students to shun the security of their lives and avoid complacency,

Please do not watch life go by from the balcony! Mingle where the challenges are calling you to help carry life and development forward, in the struggle over human dignity, in the fight against poverty, in the battle for values and in the many battles we encounter each day.

Vespers with Atheneum Students
Saturday, 30 November 2013

In the gospel, Jesus told his disciples and the people to seize the day by being vigilant and always prepared for the coming of the Lord in the present which offers many opportunities:

Therefore, stay awake!
For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
Be sure of this: if the master of the house
had known the hour of night when the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and not let his house be broken into.
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

Advent is a way of life. Advent is an attitude to make the most of the opportunities of the present. Advent is a new way of seeing God’s wonders in a world mired in violence, injustice, division and despair. Advent is to seize the day as we journey toward the fullness of Life to come.

What can you seize today?

Advent: A New Understanding of Time

Dali-persistence-of-memory
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

This coming Sunday marks the beginning of a new year in the church with the celebration of the first Sunday of Advent.  On the First Sunday of Advent, I usually greet the people in the shrine “a Happy New Year!” They are dumbfounded to hear this at the end of November. Wait a minute, some of them would ask, you mean to say the church does not celebrate new year on January 1st? I tell them that the church also celebrates new year in January but for the church, the true beginning of the year is the first Sunday of Advent. 

This awareness that a different calendar exist in the church somehow rattles our understanding and experience of time since, pardon the cliché, time immemorial. For us, we simply understand time as just the usual chronology of events measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks and years.  Time gives dimension to our experience like having a beginning and an end. The new awareness of a different time in the church, however, makes us think that there is more to time than the chronological and quantitative dimension of time. Time is something we have taken for granted for so long yet has profound and transformative power. 

The readings for the weekday and Sunday masses during Advent season may have also confounded our chronological understanding of time. It is indeed confusing to think that if Advent is the beginning of the new year in the church why are the readings during this season about the final events and end of days.  In other words, why begin with the end? Does the church have a reversed understanding of time? 

The celebration of Advent, indeed, exposes the different sense of time we employ in the ordinary world and the church. The church through its liturgical year calls us to ponder time in the context of the mystery of our salvation in God. The Church’s liturgical year is a celebration of the Paschal Mystery – the mystery of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ – his Person, birth, ministry, passion, death and resurrection – and the Holy Spirit.  Time in the sense of the church is God’s plan as revealed in time. God’s salvation is not only revealed in the fullness of time, but in the gift of time itself.  It is a gift, as it is a creation of God, and the dimension in which we go about receiving redemption.

Thus, God’s salvation is not separate from the seasons of nature. Just as nature and our lives are responsive to the seasons of the year – Summer, Spring, Winter and Autumn, the Church’s liturgical year follows nature with its distinctive seasons and feasts which sustains the Catholic community’s life and mission. 

It is not just the church, however, who has a different perspective of time other than the chronological time. Even the scientific world has for a long time presented a more dynamic understanding of time. Thanks to Albert Einstein who more than 100 years ago proposed that the universe has no universal and absolute clock. Einstein’s concept of time is encapsulated in his theory of relativity which states that time and space are not as constant as everyday life would suggest. Time, according to Einstein is a relative concept and the higher you live above sea level the faster you should age. 

Even the ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos (χρόνος) and kairos (καιρός). Chronos refers to chronological or sequential time, while the kairos signifies a proper or opportune time for action.  While chronos is quantitative, kairos has a qualitative, permanent nature.

Kairos denotes the right, critical, or opportune moment. In etymological studies of the word, the primary root of the word traces back to the ancient Greek association with both archery and weaving. In archery, kairos denotes the moment in which an arrow may be fired with sufficient force to penetrate a target. In weaving, kairos denotes the moment in which the shuttle could be passed through threads on the loom. The moral lesson is that we should pay more attention to kairos even as we cannot abandon the chronos

The New Testament writers adopted this two distinctive Greek understanding of time. In the New Testament kairos was used to mean “the appointed time in the purpose of God,” the time when God acts (for example in Mark 1:15: “The kairos is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand!”). Kairos was used 86 times in the New Testament to refer to an opportune time, a “moment” or a “season” such as “harvest time,” whereas chronos  was used 54 times to refers to a specific amount of time, such as a day or an hour (e.g. Acts 13:18 and 27:9).

It is in this Biblical understanding of time adopted from the Greeks that we should read the texts of the liturgical readings during this Advent season. The texts are not so much a warning about the end of the world inasmuch as it is a commentary on living in a time of crisis and turbulence. What Jesus is talking about is now. Since we do not know the hour or the day, let this be the hour, let this be the day, let this be the time that we live and die. This day, this moment, this life, is the time to bear fruit. The essence of Advent is readiness for action: watchfulness for every opening, and willingness to risk everything for freedom and a new beginning.  We should all work and capture every opportunity for the elimination of disease, poverty, injustice and death itself although this will only be fully realized at the second coming of Jesus Christ.  

Christianity is fundamentally a religion of conversion. Christianity is an invitation for us to a change of heart and mind; to a transformation of our thinking and living according to God’s thinking, ways and attitude. It is also an invitation to live and act in time in accordance to God’s perspective of time. As the song goes,

In his time, in his time
He makes all things beautiful
In his time

Lord please show me everyday
As you’re teaching me your way
That you do just what you say
In your time