by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“No one has ever seen or heard of a God like you, who does such deeds for those who put their hope in him.” Isaiah 63, 16-19; 64, 2-7
“And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!”
Mark 13, 33-37
Welcome to Advent and the beginning of a new Church year. The prominent themes of the Advent readings are patient waiting and expectation. However, to better understand the significance of the Advent season and its focus on preparing for the coming of Jesus – at both the end of time and the time of his birth as a human being, we might do well to look at the origins of the celebration of what we now call Christmas.
The feast of Christmas was not introduced into the Church’s calendar until some time in the fourth century. Understandably, the prime focus of the early Christian community was on Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus from the grave. Ever since Christmas found a place in the calendar, its profile has grown, and, in the popular mind, now overshadows Easter in importance. However, in recent decades, it has been stolen from Christians by the secular world of marketing and retail sales.
But, back in the fourth century, Christians borrowed much of the symbolism of Christmas from ancient cosmology. As the ancients observed the changes in the earth’s seasons and weather patterns, and watched the movements of the sun, they began to wonder, as the days became shorter and colder, if darkness would eventually blot out the sun’s warmth and light. They thought of the progression into winter as a contest between light and darkness. However, they also noted that, after what we call the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, the days were slowly becoming longer. This transition from darkness to light was celebrated with a festival towards the end of December. It was a celebration of the triumph of the sun over darkness. The Christian community capitalized on this festival, replacing “sun” with “son”, referring directly to the coming of Jesus, the Son of God into the world. Desolation, gloom, despair and sin would be overcome by Jesus, the light of the world. This triumph they called Christmas, and established Advent as a season of preparation for the time when darkness would be dispelled by the arrival of Jesus, the Light of the World. Advent is a time for Christians to ready themselves to live in the light. It confronts us with a very direct question: What darkness are we aware of in our own personal lives and in the world to which we belong? Do we want to overcome or reverse that darkness? As we embark on a new year in the Church’s calendar we are challenged to look at our lives and our surrounds of family, community, work, relationships and confront what needs to be changed. Only then will we be living with integrity and authenticity. And that’s all about our readiness to let Jesus and all he represents into our lives. If we are prepared to do that, we, too, will play a part in rolling back the darkness of things like prejudice, fear, corruption and loneliness.
Still, today’s readings could leave us a bit confused. While they invite us to ponder the notion of expectations, the first reading from Isaiah looks at the expectations the people of Israel had centuries before the coming of the Messiah. What their descendants were given eventually was the birth of Jesus – something that was a long way from matching their expectations.
Isaiah looked at the situation of humankind before that event, and compared what the people of his time were hoping for with what they actually got. That’s what today’s first reading is all about. But, when we look at the second reading from Corinthians and the gospel from Mark, we find that we are being invited to examine what we expect for the future, in the light of the impact that Jesus Christ has had on our world and our lives. So, some of the readings for the season of Advent focus on expectations related to the first coming of Jesus, while other readings concentrate on expectations related to his second coming at the end of time.
The remainder of this reflection will give some attention to events that led up to the incarnation, the birth of Jesus.
Think for a moment of the chequered history of the people of Israel over the centuries before the coming of Jesus in the flesh. True, they had high hopes and expectations, but their history was littered with experiences of neediness, desolation, hopelessness, exile and deportation, as well as with occasional surprises and satisfactions. But, if you think about it, the miracle of their history is that they had any bright expectations at all. Incredibly, they held on to the expectation of a saviour. To expect a solution, let alone a solution in human form, was testimony to their abiding faith. It was one thing to believe in God’s providential care, but quite another to trust that God’s providence would have a creative impact on the unfolding of human history. But that is something that grew in their consciousness and to which they held fast.
Having the benefit of encountering the person Jesus, his history and his message, we Christians can appreciate how he reflected and made real in tangible ways the goodness and love of God. But, take just a moment to imagine what our expectations and hopes would be like if Jesus had not yet come. Would you and I, surrounded by greed, corruption, terrorism, stupidity, superstition, indifference and cynicism, be able to summon up in ourselves any expectations of relief, comfort or consolation?
The miracle of the people of Israel was that they never lost hope in God’s promise to them. That led them to rise above their desolation, despondency and the cynicism that springs from doubt. Somehow or other, their prophets and patriarchs kept alive for them the promise of God, so that it invaded their dreams and their waking hours, and spoke to them in their prayers and their political fortunes and misfortunes; in their triumphs and their failures. As a people, Israel held fast to the conviction that God would work something marvellous in their humanity, because that was God’s promise. And, as they looked back over their history, they could point to countless signs of that promise.
Our own lived experience tells us that we are unable to put faith in any promise that is baseless. We know that we can have no faith in promise unless we can recognise that it has real possibility. If we expect nothing, in all likelihood nothing will happen. If someone offers me a scholarship to study medicine, nothing much will come of it if I cannot see some glimmer of possibility for actually practicing as a doctor. People don’t become Olympic athletes unless they can see within themselves the promise and potential for that.
Time and again, the people of Israel were challenged to find within themselves seeds of possibility. They were asked to trust that God could develop in them the capacity to identify and appoint wise kings, heroic judges, courageous prophets and selfless healers. That’s why their scriptures have been a source of spiritual wisdom for us and for our world.
And yet, things could have been different. Imagine how things might have been had Israel settled for the pitiful self-portrait we see in today’s reading from Isaiah: “All of us have been sinful; even our best actions are filthy through and through. Because of our sins, we are like leaves that wither and are blown away like the wind” (Isaiah 64, 5-6). Providentially, Israel clung to the belief that God could and would transform humanity as sure as God had created it: “And yet, Lord, you are our Father; we the clay, you the potter, we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64, 7-8).
Tragically, when the potter provided the solution in the shape of an infant named Jesus, born in obscure circumstances, many could see no promise. Faith has to be flexible enough to be open to the unexpected.
And that’s where our lives intersect with today’s readings and the invitation to engage in the whole process of Advent. As we live the next few weeks preparing for the Christmas event, we are invited to articulate for ourselves our hopes and expectations. No fewer than four times, today’s gospel urges us to be awake. Awake to what? Awake to God present in every person we encounter, in every event of each day, in the feelings we feel, and in the beauty we see in the created world around us; in our failures and successes, in our disappointments and sadnesses. Advent urges us to be awake to the opportunities life gives us to discover God in our midst. It calls us to the signs of God’s unmistakable presence in our lives, and to live our lives expectantly as a gift from God who is present to us in everything that happens, even in our vulnerabilities. But we will experience God’s presence only if we take the time to pause, to look and to ponder.