In days to come,
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest mountain
and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it;
many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may instruct us in his ways,
and we may walk in his paths.”
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
First Sunday of Advent
November 27, 2022
For three of the four Sundays of Advent, our second reading will be from St. Paul’s “Letter to the Romans.” We have read this letter together many times and indeed spent an entire summer on one section. You may find our introduction to the Letter to the Romans helpful. We need only note now that Paul as a Roman citizen could not be executed as cavalierly as a non-citizen. He was being sent to Rome as a prisoner to be tried by the Emperor. The Roman prison system was somewhat haphazard, and a well-connected detainee could arrange for what would amount to house arrest. Paul needed the help of the Roman Church to do this, but he had become very controversial. This letter was at least in part his attempt to show that he was, in our terms, an orthodox believer and a stable person. It is a great gift to us because it provides Paul’s clearest attempt to present his teachings in an orderly manner.
The passages that we will read for the next two weeks are Paul’s comments on the return of Jesus and the establishment of the kingdom. This is fitting for the Advent season. Advent means “arrival or coming” We immediately think of Christmas, but the liturgy of the church focuses on this for only the last week of Advent. Until December 16, the readings and prayers look at the consequences of the return of the Lord.
This is called eschatology. Scott Hahn provides a concise definition of eschatology in his commentary on Romans:
eschatology, eschatological (from Greek ta eschata, “the last things”): theological beliefs regarding the fulfillment of God’s plan in the future. The eschatology of the Old Testament concerns mainly the prophetic expectations that are met in the New Testament—e.g., the coming of the Messiah and his kingdom, the restoration of Israel, and the salvation of the Gentiles. The eschatology of the New Testament anticipates events connected with the end of history—e.g., the return of Christ in glory, the general resurrection of the dead, and the last judgment.
Hahn, S. W. (2017). Romans (P. S. Williamson & M. Healy, Eds.; p. 295)
As we look at these passages let us remember that Paul is not an academic theologian or philosopher. He believes that truth has consequences and just as importantly so does error. How then do we live the truth as we wait for Jesus’ return in glory?
The section before what we read today is an ode to love, it begins with
Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another;
for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
And ends with
All commandments are summed up with
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love does no evil to the neighbor;
hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.
Paul like the other New Testament writers understands that a distinct difference between the Old Testament understanding of the rule of the Messiah and the New Testament understanding of the return of Jesus is that for us the kingdom is already here but not yet fulfilled. Paul speaks of being united with Jesus in Baptism but also rising with him. To quote only one example from earlier in this letter:
Do you not know that all of us
who have been baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death?
Therefore we have been buried with him
by baptism into death, so that,
just as Christ was raised from the dead
by the glory of the Father,
so we too might walk in newness of life.
As this was before the time of electric lights or even effective lamps, physical darkness was very powerful and directly controlled how people lived. It is easy to understand how darkness would be a symbol for ignorance and the reign of dangerous forces.
And do this because you know the time;
it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep
Sleep was also dangerous because it was done in the dark. Light was a sign of goodness and peace and waking up was more than an image of coming to awareness but coming back to life. Prudent people would wake up early to get the advantage of every moment of daylight but as we all know getting up and out of bed can be easier said than done.
Paul tells them today that they are groggy. Awake but not fully so. But the Lord is returning, and they need to be awake to greet him. Paul uses the word kairos for time. It means a special time when an important choice needs to be made. We will either wake up or return to 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;
This is done by living like him. Just as we “throw off” our night clothes for work clothes when we get up, we throw off the works of darkness and cloth ourselves with God’s grace. We are to act as if Jesus has returned, and it is fully day. We have new life through his resurrection and our lives should reflect this reality. He used the example of changing clothes as obtaining virtues many times including in his first letter:
But since we belong to the day, let us be sober,
and put on the breastplate of faith and love,
and for a helmet the hope of salvation.
(1 Th 5:8)
He understood as well what he was combating
Let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day,
not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness,
not in rivalry and jealousy
The list of works of darkness is carefully chosen. They reflect the entire body. Eating and drinking excesses (mouth-ears); sexual excess and lust (heart-eyes in the planning, hands-feet in the execution); quarrels and jealousy (mouth-ears and eyes-heart). Paul and the predominately Jewish community to whom he wrote were physical people and would have understood that he was reminding them that sin affected the whole body and thus the whole person.
But if the darkness can overwhelm us, the light can uplift us.
But put on the Lord Jesus Christ,
and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.
There is here a reference to baptism:
As many of you as were baptized into Christ
have clothed yourselves with Christ
Yet it also includes how one lived one’s entire life. The ethical and the mystical are always connected in Paul. Salvation was not obeying the laws of God but surrendering ones very being to God and taking on his life as Paul says many times, most clearly in the Christ hymn:
Have this mind among you which is also in Christ Jesus,
who, being in essence God,
did not consider equality with God to be grasped
We enter the daylight and share the new life offered to us by Jesus when we love as he does. The more we love, the further we cast off the works of darkness and proudly bear the armor of light.