Second Sunday in Advent–December 8, 1974–CNR
St. Paul meant it of the writings we call the Old Testament, but his words may be extended to include his own writings and the rest of the books that constitute the Christian Bible: “Everything written before our time was written for our instruction, that we might derive hope from the lessons of patience and the words of encouragement in the Scriptures.” That sentence speaks well of the place of our Christian living–if we look back to things said and done and written in the past, it is to gain hope for the future.
Advent, we saw last week, is the great season of hope; and in today’s liturgy the focus of its celebration turns from the expectation of the final coming of God’s Kingdom to the anticipation of the Word’s becoming flesh which we will celebrate at Christmas. So Isaiah’s depiction of the ideal future King is read by the Church, as it had already been by the Jews, as a prophecy of the Messiah, the true Son of David, judging justly and returning the world to the primordial harmonies of Eden. And in the Gospel, the rude figure of the prophet in the desert points beyond himself to the One mightier than he, who would cleanse a people for himself in the Holy Spirit and fire.
These texts, of course, were not read today so that we might put ourselves back into the state of Israel before Christ; these too were read “that we might derive hope,” and that we might derive hope precisely as Christians walking in the light of the Messiah come already. These readings refer us to the first of the great grounds of our hope, the Incarnation of our God in Jesus Christ. For that mystery is the great truth, as Paul says, that God has “accepted” us. It is the great assurance that this humble and threatened existence of ours is of ultimate value in our God’s eyes, and that to rescue and preserve it, he did not spare even his own Son but handed him over for our sake. There is nothing now–nothing in our experience or even in our imagination–that can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. We are cared for beyond our pain, beyond our distress, beyond our confusion, beyond even our sins–“Be consoled, my people, for your slavery is over and done.”
Our liberation has been worked through the One more powerful than the Baptist, who came baptizing in the Holy Spirit and fire. The whole tone of this passage evokes the searing heat of a purifying and refining fire. It is a fire which consumed Jesus himself first, and which every sinner must experience once he takes seriously the first and greatest demand of the Gospel: “Reform yourself.” But if the Spirit must come first as purifying fire, that is not the only experience of his presence which the Christian may know. He comes also as the second great ground of the Christian’s hope. In his letter to the Romans, Pail has spoken of a sequence we may all experience: “We even rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Rom 5:3-5). The outward demonstration of the love of Cod for us, in the life, death and resurrection of Christ can be confirmed by the inward witness of the experience of the Spirit who is himself the love of God for us.
These are the grounds of our Christian hope, and they must undergird our lives in our several situations. The threat to hope is experienced by us in different ways. For one, it may be the long experience of enslavement to some sin or to some addiction or to some flight from responsibility. For another, it may be a fearful refusal to ask any questions other than those asked by most around us, other than those that shape the contours and assure the continuance of a mediocre comfort. For another, it may be an unintelligible and seemingly unending series of disappointments, frustrations, anxieties. For another, it may be the despair that follows so easily after opening one’s eyes to the brutal and massive injustice of this world.
There are many reasons for not hoping, and we have no reason to think that hope is any less fragile than are faith and love. But this is a season for letting hope be reborn or grow or deepen or widen. The only way this season can fail of that purpose is by our refusing to be en-couraged–given courage–by our preferring the more familiar world of the comfortable and the compulsive. But if we let them, then the words we have heard today, and the Scriptures of future Eucharists, and the Scriptures of our private reading and meditation,–these great “words of encouragement,” as St Paul calls them–can become the well of our hope, of that great hope which does not disappoint.
SECOND SUNDAY IN ADVENT – DECEMBER 9, 2001 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
St. Paul says in today’s second reading that the Scriptures were written so that by their encouragement “we might have hope.” It is a very simple statement, perhaps not the one we might have proposed had someone asked us what we think the Bible is for. Other purposes might have come to mind first–instruction, challenge, comfort–and, among the virtues, love and faith. But we are celebrating the season of hope–Advent–and perhaps a thought or two might be given to why St. Paul gives it such prominence, why he thought it distinguished Christians, to the point that he referred to others as “those who have no hope.”
Why do we not typically rank hope very high among the characteristic Christian virtues? Perhaps it is because hope is a virtue for difficult situations, for times of uncertainty, and difficulty and uncertainty may not have marked our lives. Or could it be also that we are a nation that tends to regard every problem as capable of rational and technical solution, and that we are trained up to plan our lives well, to provide for the future? We have our IRA’s and our health-insurance. What more could we want? And where is the need for hope when everything can be taken for granted by planning and preparation?
There was perhaps something unreal about the attitude, or at least we often forgot how rare such security is, the great majority of people on the planet not being blessed with it. But perhaps September 11th shook us out of any such complacency, at least temporarily. We experienced a traumatic disruption of our normal lives, the contradiction of what we could expect to unfold on any typical day, the shattering of our sense of security both as a nation and as individuals. We found ourselves no longer taking anything for granted. I went away on a weekend retreat in October carrying the Washington Post with the front-page headline: “FBI Warns of New Terrorist Attack in Next Days,” and I wondered what I might return to two days later, that is, if I were to be able to return at all. We suddenly have found ourselves needing to hope, at least in the sense of the elementary confidence that enables one to get out of bed and to think it worthwhile to live one’s life.
Christian hope is more than that, of course. It is not confidence in a future of our planning and preparation. There is nothing automatic, fated, simply natural about it. It relies instead on God’s promise, on his fidelity to it, and on his power to bring it about. Like faith and love, with which it has been associated from the very beginning of Christianity, hope regards God, refers to God. It is linked closely with faith by which we entrust ourselves to the God who has saved us in Christ; and it is closely linked with the love that God’s love has evoked in our hearts. In the last book of the Bible God is said to be “he who is” and “he who was,” and then, just when we expect it to say that God is “he who will be,” the language changes, and the text says “he who is to come.” Perhaps we might say that faith regards the God who was, love the God who is, and hope the God who is yet to come. It is confidence that God is never done with us, that there is no situation from which he will be absent, no power, nothing in life or in death, that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Perhaps, then, we might take this Advent, lived in these circumstances, to ask ourselves what it is for which we hope. Or maybe we ought to ask whether we hope for anything at all. Perhaps we will find that there is a deep stratum of hope upholding our lives, and if so, we may be grateful to this foundation. Perhaps we will discover that our Christianity has little of a future-orientation to it at all. If so, then we ought to use the season of the God who comes to consider in what ways we might wish God to come into our lives yet again and more fully, to consider also whether he might not be able still to enrich us personally and in our families and communities, and what such hope requires of us in order to be ready to receive him.
Second Sunday in Advent – December 5, 2004 – Blessed Sacrament
Our readings today orient us towards the celebration of the coming of Christ. The passage from the prophet Isaiah was written at a time of despair on his part, and he placed his hopes on the appearance of an ideal king in an ideal future. He would be a shoot from the stump of Jesse, that is, the father of King David, as if one had to go back to the very source of David’s line to find someone who could fit the task. He would display the gifts a great king needs, wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge and fear of the Lord. He would be devoted to justice for the poor and the afflicted, and fierce against his enemies. And his reign will restore the peace of Eden, when natural enemies in the animal world will be reconciled. And, finally, the future King will attract the nations to his glorious reign.
The Church reads this passage because, along with the NT, she believes this passage to have been fulfilled in Christ, or at least partially fulfilled–enmity among the animals, and especially among human animals hardly having been effected. But to this portrait of the Messiah the passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel stands in some contrast. We are introduced to the wild figure of John the Baptist. He is a throw-back to the old-style prophets, and his message is the same that Jesus would soon begin to announce: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” But the images of the coming royal intervention of God differ from those with which we are familiar from the Gospels: The ax is being swung at the root of the trees; it is the time for winnowing the wheat from the chaff. It is the time for the radical discernment of the true Israel, and of the rejection of the false.
Now when Jesus begins to preach, he certainly calls for the people to read the signs of the times and to recognize what God is doing in him, but the nature of the kingdom as he announced it differed so much from the one anticipated by John that it was necessary for John to send disciples to inquire whether Jesus could really be the one he had hoped him to be.
The tension between the two images of the Messiah–the idyllic one portrayed by the prophet and the combative one thundered by the Baptist–might perhaps prompt the question for us today, as we prepare for the celebration of Christmas: what sort of Jesus do we want? For that matter, what sort of Jesus do we have in our minds and hearts? Who is Jesus for us? Do we even have an image of him? What do we want from him? What difference does he make in our lives? Does he make any difference in them? I sometimes ask my students: Are there Gospel-sayings of Jesus that you don’t like? They usually have a couple, including that parable about the workers in the vineyard, but also the prodigal son, and I tell them, well, then, those parable are aimed at you. Well, are there sayings of Jesus that we gladly welcome, and others we pass quickly over, pretend we didn’t hear, or explain away? Over how much of our lives do we allow him to have authority? Etc.
This might be a way to make something of this Advent. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths,” says John the Baptist. The metaphor is that of repairing and straightening a highway for the Messiah to come in triumph. Asking such questions is a way for us to make sure that the road is clear for Christ to come with his full authority because we have opened our minds and hearts to him. We are the only ones who can prevent his coming in the fullness of his word and grace.
Second Sunday in Advent – December 9, 2007 – Blessed Sacrament
The brief passage from the Epistle to the Romans that we heard as our second reading today is one of the NT texts that instruct us on how Christians may read the Old Testament so that by the encouragement they offer “we might have hope,” the great virtue of this season of Advent. In other words, we may read the Hebrew Scriptures, and the prophets in particular, in the light of our belief that Jesus is the Messiah whom they announced and for whom they waited.
In the passage that served as our first reading, the prophet Isaiah, weary of the weakness and betrayals of the Israelite kings of his age, contrasts to them an ideal king of the future who would go back to the origins of the monarchy and spring from the stump of Jesse, David’s father, From that root and stump would come a king who would fulfill the original purpose of the monarchy: God’s spirit would rest on him, giving him the wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, and fear of the Lord to rule well and justly, punishing the unjust and defending the rights of the poor and afflicted. Conflict even among animals will disappear in a kind of return to paradise: wolves no longer pursuing lambs, lions giving up calves and learning to enjoy hay, a child able to play safely at the cobra’s den: no harm, no ruin, on God’s holy mountain because knowledge of Israel’s God has spread like a flood over the whole earth..
It is a beautiful set of images, and it would in time become one of the key expressions of a longing for a royal messiah and for a salvation of universal proportions. It would be quite natural, then, that Christians would see in it a prophecy of Christ, son of David, upon whom the Spirit of the Lord had fallen and in whom, they believed, God had begun, as St. Paul put it, to reconcile all things to himself. It was the experience of his death and resurrection that led them to search their Scriptures for an explanation and for a justification of their belief that in fact Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, savior and restorer of Israel.
The lovely images have come down to us, 2700 years after Isaiah first conceived them, and now they serve not only to confirm us in our faith in Christ but also to help us to realize how much yet remains to be done before Isaiah’s vision is fully realized. The poor and afflicted remain among us still, and cry out for justice. Lion and lamb do not yet lie down in peace, and the child cannot play safely near the cobra’s den. Paradise is nowhere in view. The reign of the Messiah may have begun, as we believe, but clearly his Kingdom has not yet come in its fullness.
It now falls on the disciples of Isaiah’s Messiah to work and pray for the coming of that Kingdom; that is, it falls on us, his Church. Here on earth we will never have a return to the innocence and peacefulness of paradise, but certainly we can commit ourselves to make our world less unlike the Kingdom for which God has destined us. We are supposed to be a people that keeps the messianic hopes alive. That means starting with ourselves, of course, with resisting resignation and trying to correct whatever there is in our habitual ways of thinking and of acting that does not correspond to the Kingdom’s justice and peace. But resisting resignation should also be the work of a community of Christian hope with regard to the larger world also, to the injustice and violence that mark our city, our country, our world. Things need not always be as they are, as the prophet may remind us, and they won’t continue as they are if we are willing to change ourselves and to work for change. The great opposites of hope are resignation and despair, and there is perhaps too much of both in our society and culture. Readings like those we have heard today can prevent us from being content with what is, with what we are, and can place us under the word and grace of God which have the power to give and to achieve what he has promised.