First Sunday of Advent (A)
December 1, 2013


Mountains have always mystified me. Oceans frightened me each time, but mountains always somehow make of me a little mystic. I have climbed at least 14 of them in tropical Philippines, a number of them for more than just once or twice, or even thrice, and every time I set my sights on one, I always sigh – and pine for – the heights.

The Israelites were spot on to think of mountains as a place of refuge and a place to encounter God. It certainly was – and is – refuge for me … Then and now … when times get tough and the rough and tumble of life get the better of me. It is also a place of encounter with God, especially when right from day one we started the group – and the tradition of trekking up heights at Don Bosco Mandaluyong, Philippines – we ended each weary day with a lively recitation of the rosary and the traditional Salesian pep talk called the “good night.” But the best was always the Eucharistic celebration either at sundown or at sunrise.

More often than not, we did so, facing the rising sun, “ad orientem” – towards where the light of salvation emanates.

Three weeks after the unparalleled and unprecedented devastation wrought by the super-typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda in the Philippines), I still find myself in tears, unable to find sufficient meaning to so much suffering and death and utter desperation for millions, not hundreds. Although I am not directly involved in relief operations, but in finding ways and means to send help to those who do direct work of helping the hapless victims, I can’t help but be moved every time powerful images of intense suffering and an equally intense spirit of acceptance and resignation, brought about by deep sense of faith on the part of so many fellow Filipinos.

Today, first Sunday of Advent, thoughts of mountains come rushing back to my mind. After all, the prophet Isaiah says so: “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills” (1st reading). Mountains definitely conjured up images of strength and power as refuge. The ancient Israelites looked up to the mountain for solace and strength: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where shall come my help” (Ps 121:1)

Today, we are starting afresh … a new liturgical year … another challenge … another opportunity to be prepared for suddenness, for surprises. Typhoon Haiyan caught us all by suddenness and surprise. No one of us understood fully what “storm surges” were. Many of my countrymen thought they were safe inside their own homes, unmindful and unaware of what that much vaunted “storm surge” really would amount to. I don’t blame them. I probably would have done the same.

Now, in retrospect, casting another glance at today’s readings, and reading them once again using the prism of faith, we stand to learn a lesson or two that is totally apt for the Advent Season we are just beginning.

And just what would that lesson be? Simply this … nothing beats preparation for suddenness and surprises that can spring any time in our lives. But let me clarify this a bit … Suddenness and surprises only have to do with life in this unpredictable world as we know it, in our earthly and human way of reckoning. Suddenness and surprises can overwhelm only those whose minds, hearts, and total personhood are not attuned to the God of death and the God of life – the God who can give life while killing, the God of the living and the dead.

Suddenness and surprise can defeat only those whose focus never goes beyond the here and the now … those whose take on life does not go higher than satisfying physical bodily needs and desires … those whose only preoccupation is to make the most out of life this earthly life offers. Suddenness and surprise can only thwart one who refuses to “know the time,” and who refuses to acknowledge that “it is the hour now for [us] to awake from sleep.”

Advent is an antidote to suddenness and surprises. And Advent, more than being an antidote is really a powerful vitamin booster. It does not make us immune to suddenness and surprises. We will still be surprised by suffering, even as we will still be surprised by joy, even despite the suffering. Advent will never make us immune to pain of any kind, but what Advent leads us to is something beyond the heights, beyond the mountain peaks, beyond what mortals can pine and dream about, beyond thoughts, beyond imagination, beyond anyone’s loftiest longings and expectations.

It is great and noble enough for our strivings. It is worth our while to “prepare” and “stay awake for,” “for it will come at an hour we do not expect.”

It is beyond suddenness. Beyond surprise. It is the coming of the “Son of Man.” And when He comes, suddenness and surprises pale in comparison and will have to take the back seat. For we will then be in the realm of God’s promised SALVATION.

Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord!