Second Sunday in Advent – December 4, 2005 – Blessed Sacrament
Advent is a season of expectation, of anticipation. Something is coming, about to happen. Or, rather, someone is coming. The prophet knew it: his message was one of comfort for the people of Israel in exile; the days of their punishment were over, and a highway must be built in the desert for their God who was about to lead them back to their homeland as in a new exodus. “Here comes your God,” the prophet cries out, “Here comes with power the Lord God.”
John the Baptist knew that something was about to happen, that someone was about to come. Mark the Evangelist takes up the prophet’s words to describe the Baptist: “A voice crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’” The one who comes after him, John says, the one mightier than he, “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” The coming of Christ is the fulfilment of Israel’s hope for a return from exile.
And the Apostle Peter knew that something was yet to happen: the “day of the Lord” was yet to come, and with it “new heavens and a new earth.” When it is to come he did not know; this was something hidden in God for whom our measurement of time is irrelevant: a day for him is like a thousand of our years, and a thousand of our years like a single day. But come that day will, and now is the time to prepare for it in repentance, holiness and devotion, living in accordance with what we hope is to come, waiting for the day when the prophets will announce that the day has dawned when the Lord returns to bring us back from the permanent exile of our existence.
The Church’s situation, that is, our situation, is one of expectation, of hope, of anticipation, of a coming (adventus) of the Lord. I’m inclined to think that this element of anticipation and hope is not the first thing people think of when they think of Christians; perhaps even most Christians don’t think of it. We know, of course, of the three theological virtues, faith, hope and love, but most of our attention goes to faith and to love, with hope a poor third, if mentioned at all. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a flurry of interest in “the theology of hope,” but it declined within a decade, it seems, and with it hope once again fell below the common Christian horizon.
This is unfortunate because the absence of hope often does not mean its opposite, which is despair; there is another, perhaps even stronger enemy, and that is self- satisfaction or resignation. Hope is not a virtue likely to be cultivated by the comfortable, who usually feel they don’t need it, who are content with who they are and where they are. Hope is the virtue needed by those in difficulty or danger, by those aware that something is lacking, something in themselves (their own imperfections or addictions), something in their situations (illness, say, or unemployment), something in their world (various forms of injustice, war, hunger, poverty).
The vision on which hope rests–of a new heavens and a new earth, and within them, a new self–does not lead to despair or to resignation. Hope is a re-invigorating virtue; it rescues from despair and abandons resignation. It gets the heart beating again and the blood rushing; it alerts the mind to possibilities and realities unseen before; it notices things to do and makes us eager to do them; it discerns a better self we might become, a better society we might construct, a world less unlike the new heavens and new earth God has promised. Hope looks to the future–not as “pie in the sky when you die”–but to a future that gives life even now because of its certain promise.
There is a sacrament of hope, the sacrament of reconciliation. Anyone who has ever been sunk in a consciousness of his weakness and sinfulness, of some persistent addiction, of some great wrong done for which he cannot even forgive himself, will know how confession is a sacrament of hope: of the hope for forgiveness and reconciliation, of the hope for the ability to begin again before God and with those we love, of hope for the comfort that can come with this encounter with the God who, when he comes, comes only to save. It is a sacrament that overcomes despair, yes; but also, and perhaps more importantly in this day and age, it is the sacrament that challenges the other great obstacle to hope: self-contentment, self-satisfaction.
Today’s readings, and this season, should make us examine whether we desire a different future, a different world, a different self, and if we do, then that is already the beginning of hope at work within us, and we can respond in a more vital and eager way to the promise of God’s coming.