Traveling, undertaking a journey, always has at least two important aspects to it. First, you have to have a clear idea of where you’re headed – the whole point of a journey of course is to arrive at a final destination. Second, you have to know how to get there. Setting out for a destination without an idea of the way to get there isn’t a journey – it’s just wandering.
The season of Advent is a journey, one which we undertake as a Church beginning today. It’s important therefore that we understand those two aspects: where we’re going and how to get there. One might say that the destination we’re headed for is Christmas, and that’s certainly true to an extent. Advent is indeed the season preceding Christmas, and it’s a time to reflect upon the wondrousness of the Christ Child’s coming. But at a deeper level, Advent is also meant to prepare us for the final coming of Christ, when we will meet him in his glory and be judged for our lives.
In the Gospel today, Jesus tells us his disciples to be watchful, to be alert. The Master has gone away on a journey, but he is going to return, and we do not want to be found unaware, unready for him when he does. Advent offers us the opportunity to reflect on a broader scale how we are readying ourselves for the coming of Jesus – not just as the Christ child at Christmas, but as the Master who will return in judgment.
So that’s where we’re going. How do we get there? In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah cries out that the people of Israel have lost their way. It seems as if God has abandoned them, that he is angry with them. As he reflects, he realizes that it is not God who has rejected Israel, but Israel who has rejected God. By their sinfulness, they have drifted from the path that he laid for them, and so Isaiah cries out to God to return to them, to set them straight, to mold them again – like clay in the hands of the potter – according to his purpose.
We don’t like to admit it, but couldn’t the same be said for us? God has molded us after himself, and yet by our pride, often we end up rebelling against his fashioning. He has set us on a path for himself, and yet by our sinfulness, we often take off in our own direction and end up lost and isolated. As this Advent begins, maybe the best thing we can do is to acknowledge before God our sinfulness. Only then do we realize how much we need to be refashioned according to his purpose; only then, do we realize how much we need the redemption that Christ comes to bring.
Throughout time and history, whether to Israel in the time of Isaiah or to us here and now, God calls human beings to repentance. He does so not to make us feel bad but rather to return us to himself, to create us anew with his grace. If we begin this Advent season recognizing our own sinfulness and our need for repentance, I think all of us will come to realize individually how this season offers us the opportunity to draw closer to him. It will be different for each of us – maybe we need to open the Bible for a few minutes to start each day; or maybe we need to recommit ourselves to refraining from gossip or grousing; maybe we just need to make a thorough examination of conscience and a good confession because it has been too long. Whatever it is, it starts with recognizing that we have gone astray, and that we need to prepare for the Lord who will return.