Today is the beginning of the Church's liturgical year. As we do every year, today we begin the cycle of Mass texts that help us to understand the nature of our relationship with God our Redeemer, and with the plans he laid to enable us to work out our salvation. You can think of the year ahead as a sort of drama, depicting the important events of salvation history.
But this "drama" is more than something to sit back and watch -- it is not a mere stage play, at which were are to be no more than spectators, but a drama in which we ourselves play some small part. It is, after all, about our salvation. We must take our roles in this "drama" by attending Mass with great regularity (particularly on Sundays and Holy days), by participating in those Masses through the use of the missal and by reciting the prayers assigned to us, and by carefully trying to understand the epistle and Gospel that we hear at each of these Masses. We should also try to put ourselves "into the picture," so to speak, by trying to see these events of our salvation with the eyes of our minds. And, finally, we can extend our time at Mass through the praying of the Rosary and meditating on its mysteries, which reflect many of the same important events.
Today we begin the observance of Advent. We can think of these four weeks as a reminder of the four thousand years or so that mankind waited for the coming of the Savior after the fall of Adam and Eve. It is a particularly good preparation for Christmas for us to have some understanding of the longing of God's people -- a longing that would continue on for may centuries and many generations. Preparation for Christmas is, of course, the keynote of the season. And by "preparation" we must understand more than the things that the secular world does -- more than the Christmas shopping, and housecleaning, and holiday decorating.
For Christians, the Advent season must be a spiritual preparation for Christmas. "Now is the hour for us to arise from sleep, for our salvation is nearer than when we first came to believe." The color of the Mass vestments today reminds us that Advent before Christmas ought to be a little like Lent before Easter. There are no extra requirements for fasting and abstinence beyond the Ember days and the Vigil of Christmas, but we might make some for ourselves; at least some sort of voluntary restriction on treats and snacks between meals. We ought to make sure that we allot some time for prayer and spiritual reading, which probably means cutting back on TV and other forms of entertainment. Perhaps there is something that we can do for the poor, so that no one goes without decent food and warm clothing when it is necessary.
Advent is not the time for Christmas parties, so, to the degree that we have control over our social obligations, we ought to see to it that we do these things on or after Christmas day. Be aware that the Christmas season starts only on the 25th, and that it continues on for a generous time thereafter -- certainly till after the Epiphany, annd, at least in theory, till Candlemas on February 2nd.
The secular world has the excellent custom of making "new years' resolutions." For us this is the day to make them -- which calls for an examination of conscience -- an honest asking ourselves about our moral deportment and spiritual life -- asking ourselves what we need to do to be better, and then resolving to do it. "Let us walk becomingly as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in debauchery and wantonness, not in strife and jealousy. Today is our new year's day, so there is no reason not to start observing our resolutions this very day.
It is no accident that the Gospel this morning speaks about the end of the world. The Church is trying to attract us to the spiritual and moral life by reminding us of our final end. It shows us this glimpse of the end times so that we don't have any question as to why we are asked to keep the Commandments and to pray and to do good works. As Catholics, we should always have judgement day in the back of our minds, weighing everything we do in terms of the reality of heaven and hell. We should do everything that we do with the premise that life is brief, and that one day we will be standing before Almighty God. We certainly don't want Him to look up from the Book of Life and have to ask who we are -- we should be continuously directing the activities of our life toward Him, so that we are well known to Him on judgment day.
For some, the idea of the "end of the world" may sound a bit remote. Even though modern man has, pretty much, the capability of ending the world as we know it. we tend to be optimistic. After all, nearly 2,000 years have passed since our Lord spoke the words we read today. Many people have lived their lives and are long gone within that space of time -- why should we be any different? The answer, of course, is that we simply don't know what to expect -- we might be living in the end times, but then again we might not -- the world might go on spinning for another 20 centuries, or more.
But the plain reality is that we are mortal, and that some day we will meet our own private "end of the world." And it matters not whether everyone else meets it with us, or we meet it quite privately in our sleep, or in an accident, or at the end of an illness. Almost certainly, the youngest person here will not be here a hundred years from now, a very brief time when we consider eternity.
So today is the day, and this is the hour, and this begins the season in which we should rise from our sleep. We must examine our consciences, and put our lives in order, and prepare not only for the celebration of Christmas four weeks hence -- but we must prepare for the rest of our lives, prepare for the absolute certainty that some day, relatively soon, will come our judgment day.
"Heaven and earth will pass away, but [our Lord's] words will not pass away."