Sunday, December 3, 2017

Dare to Hope

   First Sunday of Advent   B 
The Advent wreath in St. Joseph’s Church here is huge: about 8 feet across and suspended on four long chains somewhere near 8 feet off the ground.  I understand that someone before Mass was concerned that the first candle of the wreath was already burning.  I had asked our crew to look into installing a trapeze so that I could swing right by to light it, and I even pondered shooting a flaming arrow to do the job, but since there wasn’t sufficient time to practice either of these very technical maneuvers, we took the path of least resistance and simply used a ladder ahead of time.

Crazy, right?  But no crazier than so much of what we heard in the news this past week.  In fact, it seems lately that each week is a bit wilder than the last.

For my taste, the most disturbing thing in the news—and the competition was stiff—was the scene from an international courtroom in the Netherlands.  Maybe you saw it, too.  A Croatian general, convicted of heinous war crimes, had appealed his sentence.  He had never once admitted his guilt—even in the face of overwhelming evidence and many eyewitness accounts of the brutal rape, torture, and ethnic cleansing that had occurred under his command.  When the judges announced that the general had lost his appeal, he defiantly pulled a small vial from his pocket and—with people watching live around the world—drank a fatal dose of cyanide.  He died shortly thereafter, having chosen to make a dramatic exit rather than face the facts: refusing to accept hard reality, refusing to accept his responsibility.

Our first reading this Sunday—the very first reading of this new season of Advent—is drawn from the final chapters of the long book of the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah had the challenging task of speaking to God’s people in times not unlike our own.  The world around them seemed to be going mad, to be falling apart.   Israel was conquered, Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed, the survivors had been led off into exile.  How could this be?  Why was this happening?  Isaiah’s task is to get his fellow countrymen to own up to their guilt.  They had really messed things up.  They had grievously sinned.  And so we hear them cry:
            Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways,
            and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?
            Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful;
            all of us have become like unclean people,
            all our good deeds are like polluted rags;
            we have all withered like leaves,
            and our guilt carries us away like the wind.
It may have felt like God had abandoned them, but the truth of the matter was that they had abandoned God. 

Aren’t we faced with similarly troubling circumstances today?  As public, trusted figures—politicians, journalists, and entertainers—are exposed for their corruption, one after another, we’re discouraged and disheartened.  Things are getting crazy, falling apart, everywhere you look.  But we must not be surprised: in a culture that sells sex and violence as entertainment, in a society where the lines are increasingly blurred between what’s true and what’s false, between fact and fiction, can we really expect anything different?  Both collectively and as individuals (there are no “innocent bystanders”), we reap what we sow.

Many—like the Croatian general—when faced with the darkness around them and the darkness within—give in to despair.  Suicide isn’t the only way to check out—to skirt reality and responsibility.  Some seek ways to numb the pain—whether it’s drugs, alcohol, social media, pornography, sports, or one of countless other obsessions or addictions—so prevalent these days.  Some just choose to ride the wave, to let go of their moral bearings: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” 

But that’s not the message of Isaiah, and that’s not the message of Advent.

After pointing out Israel’s crimes, and calling the people to admit their guilt, he holds out for them a divine promise—something they can look forward to: that God has a plan to restore, to renew, to redeem them in a way they couldn’t even dream possible.  Trying to go it on their own had brought on their current misery.  But God himself will save his people.  God will provide them a way out.

And so they find themselves—as we do—at a critical fork in the road, between the path of despair and the path of hope.

Hope is one of the quintessential Christian virtues—along with faith and love.  Hope is the God-given power to long for that for which we were truly made.  God has deeply planted the desire for happiness in every human heart, and—despite the encircling gloom—hope confidently expects this deep desire to be fulfilled.  Hope gives us the ability to recognize where real happiness is found: not in the passing things of things world, but in the things that endure.  Hope acknowledges that happiness comes with knowing, loving, and serving God, and that God has prepared a place for us where we can live with him and be happy forever.  Hope is trusting in all of God’s promises, because he has always come through for us before.  Hope keeps us moving forward, not relying on our own strength—since we clearly can’t make it on our own—but depending on God’s grace.  The Lord will always provide.

Hope is the confident cry of the Psalmist, as we echoed when chanting our Entrance Antiphon today:
            To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.
            In you, I have trusted; let me not be put to shame.
            Nor let my enemies exult over me;
            and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

Jesus gives us a brief but forceful lesson in Christian hope this Sunday when he repeats over and over in just a few verses of Scripture: Watch!  Watch and pray!  Be alert!  Stay awake!   Constantly watching and waiting is how the Christian lives in hope.

Our watchfulness simultaneously looks in two directions.  Most obviously, we look ahead to the future.  As we’ve heard again and again in recent weeks, the Son of Man will come again, but we know not the day nor the hour.  Whether it’s the moment of our own death or the end of all time and history, hope keeps us always ready for the Lord’s return to take us home.  But we must also keep a close and careful watch on the present.  We must be alert to all the ways that Christ is present and active here and now: speaking in his living word, touching our lives in the Holy Eucharist and other sacraments, there to love us and be loved in the members of his Body, the Church.  We can wait in constant hope because Jesus promised not only to return, but never to abandon us.  He remains—just as promised through Isaiah—Emmanuel, God always with us.

Secular preparations for Christmas (and they’ve been underway since shortly after St. Patrick’s Day, I think) focus primarily on the sentimental: we prepare the favorite recipes, sing the old songs, watch the beloved movies, hang the traditional ornaments.  It’s all meant to gives us a warm and fuzzy feeling—and who doesn’t like that?  But if we’re honest, it’s all just a distraction—yet another means of escaping from a world gone mad, a world falling apart.

But the season of Advent—the Church’s Advent—is a lot more realistic, a lot more hard-hitting.  Advent faces the tough stuff head on, requiring us to acknowledge reality and to accept responsibility—not in order to drag us down, but that we might allow God to raise us up.  We are not alone!  Yes, there’s much darkness around and within, but Light from light has come to shine in our darkness.  What only appears to be defeat is actually the prelude to a glorious and ultimate victory.

During these busy days of Advent, and throughout your life in this crazy, mixed up world, when you find yourself at the fork in the road, choose the path of hope.

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