Advent and the growing spark of hope

Listen to mp3 file
2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A: Dec. 8, 2013
Isa 11:1-10; Ps 72; Rom 15:4-9; Matt 3:1-12

Back in 1950, the residents of the town of Flagstaff Village, Maine, knew that their town would soon be flooded. A dam was being built that would expand the nearby lake, completely covering where their town was then standing. And so plans were being made to move the residents elsewhere, and to clear the land before the flooding.

And during those final months, as one man noted, no repairs were being done. Which is pretty understandable. After all, why paint a wall, or repair a hole, or improve any aspect of a house that will soon be destroyed? So no one did it. They just let them go.

Perhaps you know the feeling. Perhaps you too, at times, seem to hear the sound of the gradual construction of something like that dam that will soon sweep away what you have known.

  • Perhaps for you it is change in our society and culture.
  • Or in our government and laws.
  • Or in our physical environment.
  • Or in your family.
  • Or in your own financial situation.
  • Or in your bodily health and mortality.

You hear the sound of the machinery; you see the structure taking shape. And you know it is only a matter of time. Why bother with repairs, at a time like this?

And certainly this was the feeling of those who heard the words of the prophet Isaiah, among the People of Judah, back in perhaps the 8th century B.C. Within their nation, the descendants of David upon the throne were petty and cowardly; outside, the Assyrian empire loomed, arrogant and oppressive, having already conquered the neighboring northern kingdom of Israel. They could practically feel the floodwaters rising. Why bother with repairs?

And into this dark hopelessness Isaiah spoke the word of the Lord.

  • A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse: Jesse was the father of David, and clearly this meant some new descendant, different from those that they knew.
  • The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and strength, of knowledge and of fear of the Lord. This ruler would be amazingly gifted by God himself.
  • And he rule with perfect justice.
  • And his reign would be characterized by astonishing peace. No longer would the weak and tender—like a lamb, a kid, or a baby—have to fear the fierce, wild beasts—like the lion, the wolf, or the cobra. There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain, the Lord said. This would be the doing of the root of Jesse.

This was the word spoken through Isaiah in the darkness of the 8th century. And it was taken up again by John the Baptist in the darkness of the 1st century. The kingdom of heaven is at hand: it’s here, it’s now, it’s happening! The one who is coming after me will separate the wheat from the chaff; he will bring about the promised kingdom.

And so, in the darkness of our own 21st century, during this season of Advent when we focus on preparing ourselves for the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus, the Church invites us again to listen to the prophetic promise of Isaiah and the message of preparation of John the Baptist. Because we need to hear this message. We need the light in the darkness. We need the enkindling of hope in our lives.

For hope is fundamental to any human life. How easily we recognize, in ourselves or in others, the lack of hope: when we experience present pain, and don’t see any possibility of it going away. This lack of hope, this despair, this depression, weighs us down and snuffs us out. Why bother with repairs? And you surely know as well as I what it is to have hope restored—in yourself or in someone else. I see it in conversations I have with people, sometimes within confession: the light return to their eyes, their whole face light up, when they suddenly see the possibility that their current painful situation could change. Hope is fundamental to human life—

—and it is fundamental to our Christian life. St. Paul constantly refers to it, along with faith and love—the three “theological virtues.” (CCC 1812-13) When we possess this hope of the kingdom of heaven and eternal life—when we trust in Christ’s promises and do not rely on our own strength (1817)—then we have that encouragement that St. Paul talks about; then we have that endurance. Then, as the Catechism tells us, we are buoyed up, not pushed under the waters; then we are sustained, then our hearts are opened up. (1818)

And so, as this season of Advent refocuses our gaze upon the Second Coming of our Lord, the increasing light of the Advent wreath matches the increasing light shining within our hearts. For we know that the day is coming when our Lord will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, when he will make all things new. (Rev 21:4-5) And so we know, as the Second Vatican Council taught us, that every good effort we make now will pay off: that we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father this eternal kingdom. (Gaudium et spes, 39)

And so, should we bother with repairs? Absolutely! This is what John urges us: “Repent—change, repair—for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” And so, in the light of hope, we prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts and lives, seeking:

  • to set aside impatience and selfishness, and grow in love;
  • to leave behind any impurity in thought or action, and grow in holiness;
  • to shape our lives according to justice and right;
  • to help those around us in need of mercy, whether materially or spiritually;
  • seeking, in every way, to repair and to prepare, for our Lord when he comes.

Back in the 1500s, St. Teresa of Avila wrote:

Hope, O my soul, hope. You know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes quickly … the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end. (cited in CCC 1821)

Hope, O my soul, hope! Come, Lord Jesus!


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