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November 27, 2011
Homily: First Sunday of Advent
"Be watchful, be alert!"
Most Rev. James D. Conley, S.T.L., Auxiliary Bishop of Denver, delivered the following homily for the First Sunday of Advent at Mother of God Catholic Church in Denver, Colorado.
Be watchful, be alert!
These words of Jesus at the beginning of today’s gospel reading from Saint Mark, set the tone, if you will, for the whole season of Advent which begins today.
Be watchful, be alert!
Advent is a time of waiting, a time of keeping vigil, a time of hopeful expectation for the coming of the Lord. And all of the readings from Sacred Scripture, the liturgical prayers and the beautiful hymns which we will sing during this season of Advent carry this same theme of watching and waiting for the Lord.
Saint Basil the Great, who lived in the 4th century, put it like this: “Be vigilant every day and every hour in order to be ready to perfectly fulfill that which is pleasing to God, know that in the hour we do not expect, the Lord will come” (Regole Morali LXXX).
While it is true that every Advent we wait in hopeful expectation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus on Christmas day, this holy season is more than just an historical remembrance, more than just a nostalgic retelling of the Christmas story, more than just a commemoration of a great event of the past – as wonderful and marvelous as the historical birth of Jesus was.
Advent can be a little microcosm of the story of our lives. Our whole life is a time of waiting, a time of keeping vigil, a time of hopeful expectation for the coming of the Lord in our own lives.
This is why the fathers of the Church, like Saint Basil the Great, saw Advent as a three-fold coming of Christ: the coming of Christ in history, in majesty, and in mystery.
The coming of Christ in history, of course, is the commemoration of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem on December 25.
The coming of Christ in majesty is the definitive coming of Christ at the end of time, the second coming of Christ when he will appear in all his glory and majesty to judge the living and the dead.
This is what Saint Mark writes about in today’s gospel when he urges us to be alert and not be caught unawares at the coming of the Lord: “May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”
And then there is the coming of Christ in mystery, the coming of Christ each day in our lives when we meet him in our daily prayer, in our neighbor, when 2 or 3 are gathered in my name I am there, in his holy word and, perhaps most mysteriously, when we meet him in the sacred liturgy, in the Holy Eucharist.
It is this third way of meeting Christ, of celebrating his coming in our public worship that, it seems to me, is the most transforming and practical of the three-fold coming of Christ.
This is why the US bishops have chosen today, the First Sunday of Advent, to roll out the new English translation of the third typical edition of the Roman Missal.
Because the sacred liturgy, the public worship of God is the most important thing we can do as Catholics, then it seems most fitting that as we begin an entirely new liturgical year of worship, we would begin the year with the debut of the new English translation of the Mass on this First Sunday of Advent.
The way we worship God is at the heart of who we are as Christians and the Mass defines us as Roman Catholics. And so the Roman Missal is the great treasury of prayer, the mysterious heritage of faith that has been carefully handed down to us over the centuries.
As I mentioned in my column this past week in the Denver Catholic Register, more than 80% of the prayers in the Roman Missal date back to before the ninth century! This is why it is so important that we hand on this legacy of worship and prayer carefully and accurately to the next generation.
Why do we need a new translation now? What is wrong with the translation we have been using for the past 40 years?
Very simply put, when the current translation was composed in the 1960’s, it was done rather hastily and without sufficient faithfulness and adherence to the ancient Latin texts. In a desire to render the Latin more accessible and “dynamic,” the texts were translated in accord with certain definite cultural tendencies at that time.
In the words of the noted Catholic author Fr. Robert Barron, “starting in the 1960’s, we began to prize speech that is blunt, clear, direct, casual and unadorned. And we developed a prejudice against language that seems… overly ornamental” and formal.
In the former English translation, there were words and whole phrases that were left out in the desire for more simplicity and brevity of language. The art of paraphrasing was used and the language had a more common feel about it. Not necessarily a bad thing at all.
But what many bishops, priests and liturgists came to realize, there was “a certain flattening out of the language of the liturgy, a rendering pedestrian of that which ought to be elevated.” There are many examples of this, which have been pointed out by numerous authors.
Therefore, ten years ago, Blessed Pope John Paul II, issued new guidelines for liturgical translations in a document entitled Liturgiam Authenticum. In these new guidelines our Holy Father asked that translations of liturgical books be translated with more fidelity and adherence to the original ancient Latin texts.
And so now, after ten years of hard work by bishops, biblical scholars, language experts, poets and liturgical theologians (over 7,000 consultants in all) and after seventeen drafts vetted and proofed by all eleven English speaking episcopal conferences throughout the world (because this same English language translation is to be used in Great Britain, South Africa, Australia, and the Philippines, among other English speaking countries) in April of 2010 the Holy Father approved the new English translation of the Roman Missal which we are inaugurating today throughout the United States. Today is truly an historical day in the life of the Church in the United States and for this we rejoice and thank the Lord.
As one author recently described it: “this new translation portrays in English the more literal meaning of the Latin prayers, restoring words that convey truths of the faith more properly, and reconnecting these texts more clearly to their biblical roots” (Fr. Joel Hastings).
I have already spoken to several priests and, to be sure, this will be a bumpy road. We are all going to stumble over the new words and, I would venture to say, that we already have! It is going to take effort, patience, and understanding. I think priests will have the most difficult time because we have more to say in the Mass than the faithful. The sentences are longer and the cadence is much different.
But change is always difficult. I know for myself; it is easy to fall back into default mode; to use words I have memorized and words that slip easily off my tongue.
I really liked what someone said yesterday in an LA Times article on the new translation when she was interviewed: this new English translation is “both a gift and a challenge,” she said. “We get a lot of gifts in life that we don’t necessarily ask for, and we don’t always like them… I think this is an opportunity for us to think about how we’re praying and what we’re saying.”
I would hope that we all have this same attitude about the new English translation; it is both a gift and a challenge.
We should always approach the liturgy with tremendous humility. And we should always realize that the liturgy, the Holy Mass, does not belong to us; not to the faithful, not to the priest or the bishop, not even to the pope! The sacred liturgy belongs to God. It is a gift.
As one bishop recently put it: “we worship God not by creating our own liturgies, but by receiving the liturgy as it comes to us from the Church. The liturgy should be formed and shaped by the Church herself to help people pray better. And we all pray better when we are disposed to receive what God has offered” (Bishop Edward Slattery of Tulsa).
And so, on this first Sunday of Advent we recall that Christ not only comes to us in history, two thousand years ago in Bethlehem, and not only will he come again at the end of time in the second coming, but he comes to us now, each day in this third way, in and through our prayer, and in a particular way in and through the sacred liturgy, the Holy Eucharist. He comes to us in his real and dynamic presence in Holy Communion.
And so this is why the words we use at Mass matter. And this is why we welcome this new English translation with deep gratitude and humility as a gift from God.
The gospel today reminds us to “be watchful and alert!” In the back of my mind I keep hearing a voice telling me “pay attention to the words! Go slowly. Read carefully!” If anything this Advent, we are all going to have to pay great attention to the words we pray. This new translation will shake us out of our liturgical routine.
And part of being watchful and alert is not just sitting around passively to meet the Lord. We must go out and meet him. We must run out and meet him. This image of running out to meet the Lord when he comes was beautifully illustrated in the new translation of the Collect, the Opening Prayer at the beginning of this Mass. Listen to the words again and notice the beauty, the poetry and richness of the text. It is really quite remarkable.
Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom. (Note: this is all one sentence!) Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
The resolve to run forth to meet your Christ!
This should be our attitude for Advent. Just as the shepherds “ran forth” to the cave to meet the newborn Christ-child, so too, our hearts should be eager to meet the Lord.
This attitude of hopeful expectation is the attitude we must engender in our hearts: to be vigilant, to be watchful, to be alert to the presence of the Lord as he comes to us in our daily lives.
Blessed John Henry Newman wrote in his spiritual diary that to be vigilant with Christ is to look ahead without forgetting the past (J.H. Newman, Spiritual Diary and Meditations, 93).
The season of Advent is an important part of our annual Christian drill, to look forward. After two thousand years we are still looking forward, following in the footsteps of the poor shepherds as our guides, imagining ourselves “traveling with them, at the dead of night, straining our eyes towards that chink of light which streams out, we know, from the cave at Bethlehem” (R.A. Knox, Sermon on Advent, December 21, 1947).