Click here to listen to a Podcast of this homily: First Sunday of Advent
One of Leo Tolstoy’s stories is called “The Cobbler and His Guest.” I’d like to share it with you today: In the city of Marseilles there was an old shoemaker named Martin who was loved and honored by his neighbors. One Christmas Eve, as he sat alone in his little shop reading of the visit of the Wise Men to the infant Jesus, and of the gifts they brought, he said to himself. "If tomorrow were the first Christmas, and if Jesus were to be born in Marseilles this night, I know what I would give Him!" He rose from his stool and took from a shelf overhead two tiny shoes of softest snow- white leather, with bright silver buckles. "I would give Him these, my finest work." Replacing the shoes, he blew out the candle and retired to rest. Hardly had he closed his eyes, it seemed, when he heard a voice call his name..."Martin! Martin! You have wished to see Me. Tomorrow I shall pass by your window. If you see Me, and bid Me enter, I shall be your guest at your table."
Martin did not sleep that night for joy. And before dawn he rose and tidied up his shop. On the table he placed a loaf of white bread, a jar of honey, and a pitcher of milk, and over the fire he hung a pot of tea. Then he took up his vigil at the window. Soon he saw an old street-sweeper pass by, blowing upon his thin, gnarled hands to warm them. "Poor fellow, he must be half frozen," thought Martin. Opening the door he called out to him, "Come in, my friend, warm yourself, and drink a cup of hot tea." And the man gratefully accepted the invitation.
An hour passed, and Martin saw a young, miserably clothed women carrying a baby. She paused wearily to rest in the shelter of his doorway. The heart of the old cobbler was touched. Quickly he flung open the door. "Come in and warm while you rest," he said to her. "You do not look well," he remarked. "I am going to the hospital. I hope they will take me in, and my baby boy," she explained. "My husband is at sea, and I am ill, without a soul." "Poor child!" cried Martin. "You must eat something while you are getting warm. Let me give a cup of milk to the little one. What a bright, pretty fellow he is! Why have you put no shoes on him?" "I have no shoes for him," sighed the mother. "Then he shall have this lovely pair I finished yesterday." Martin took down from the shelf the soft little snow-white shoes he had admired the evening before. He slipped them on the child's feet...they fit perfectly. The poor young mother left, two shoes in her hand and tearful with gratitude.
Martin resumed his post at the window. Hour after hour went by, and although many people passed his window, and many needy souls shared his hospitality, the expected Guest did not appear. "It was only a dream," he sighed, with a heavy heart. "He has not come." Suddenly the room was flooded with a strange light. And to the cobbler's astonished vision there appeared before him, one by one, the poor street-sweeper, the sick mother and her child, and all the people whom he had aided during the day. And each smiled at him and said. "Have you not seen me? Did I not sit at your table?" Then they vanished. At last, out of the silence, Martin heard again the gentle voice repeating the old familiar words. "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me…Whatever you did for one of the least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Today is the First Sunday of Advent and for us it is the start of a new Church year. We find ourselves today once again back at the beginning of our liturgical cycle. We triumphantly celebrated Jesus Christ as our Lord and King last weekend and now we go back to the beginning of the story; back to Chapter one of the story of how Jesus came and saved us.
In this liturgical cycle, we start with the things that prepared us for the coming Savior and so today we heard from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah who began with the words, “The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and Judah.” That promise of course, was fulfilled in Jesus. Likewise our Gospel called us to begin to seek the signs that something momentous is on the horizon, something unprecedented, something that will forever change our lives.
As our Church year has come to its close the last two weeks, it was a time to review the year behind. Where did last year’s journey take us? Did the practice of our faith make a difference? Did we grow in holiness? Today, I offer a different challenge. In January, when we have our new calendar year, many of us will engage in the cultural practice of making New Year’s Resolutions. Often those resolutions are very superficial. We will resolve to eat less chocolate, to lose 10 pounds, to watch less television. Sometimes, they are more meaningful – we resolve to be a nicer person, to swear less, to be kinder to strangers.
But today, at the beginning of this Church year, I challenge all of us, myself included, to make some spiritual resolutions. Where do we need to grow in faith this year? Is it in our prayer life? In our family life? In our workplace? Where is Jesus calling us to love more, to be more bold in proclaiming His Word? Where are we being challenged to grow in holiness this year?
Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of the Lord. We remember both His historic arrival 2,000 years ago and we look forward to His return again in glory. But, as we look both back and forward, don’t forget to look down right where we are to become always more aware of Christ’s daily arrival in the ordinary events and the ordinary people in our lives. He wasn’t only present 2,000 years ago and at some point in the future – He is present right here in our midst today.
Our Gospel today reminds us that we should be vigilant to recognize and welcome the Lord who comes to us without warning everyday in the people, the places and the events we least expect. If we are preparing for the Lord’s coming by looking up to the sky, Luke today invites us to instead look out, to look to the person on our right and our left, to see the arrival of God that is before our eyes every day, to look into the story of our daily lives and recognize the Lord who comes to us in the ways we least expect.
Jesus doesn’t care how much money we make, how many fancy cars we own, how nice our home is, how many people work for us. On Judgment Day, Jesus won’t even ask us how many times we went to Church, or how many times we prayed – because those things only have value if they have lead us to the main criteria for salvation – did we love – without restraint, without condition, without measure? Our spiritual lives and prayer practices are crucial, necessary, we can’t live or be saved without them. But, these prayers are only working if they lead us to action, to love, to reaching out, to actively loving “these least brothers and sisters of mine”.
Jesus didn't say that the poor would thank us, the hungry share with us, the imprisoned welcome us back nor the sick be healed by our visits, but He did say if we recognize His presence especially in them, we will be among those welcomed into the eternal joy of life with Him in Heaven.
So, let us so resolve on this first day of a new Church year, to be people ever more conscious of the presence and action of Jesus in our lives in the big ways and in the small ways. Let us resolve to be people who witness to that presence of Jesus in the lives of others – especially in those places that have been difficult for us in the past. Let us make this a holy Advent, leading to a holy Christmas, an even holier year for us all.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel! Make us new!
May the Lord give you peace.