There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken.
As a young priest at my first parish, I would regularly go into the grade school classrooms on the morning after a television show entitled something like “Ancient Prophecies” regularly aired. And no matter what our topic was, our conversation would inevitably turn to what the students had watched the night before and the sensationalistic manner in which passages from Scripture were supposedly predicting an immediate and cataclysmic end to the world. And yet, in our opening collect, I prayed the words, “Grant your faithful, we pray, Almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet the Christ with righteous deeds at his coming.”
But what is it that can give us this resolve? What is it that can allow us to ignore the sensationalism and fear-mongering offered by the doomsayers of popular culture? What is it that can allow us as believers to set ourselves apart from unbelievers, whose only hope is in this world, so that we are able to stand up straight and to raise our heads in joyful expectation of our redemption?
In the reading for the first Sunday of Advent, the prophet Jeremiah offers a message of hope to a people who are lost in despair. Their nation has been destroyed. The Temple in Jerusalem is in ruins. And the people of Israel have been scattered like sheep without a shepherd. Jeremiah alone offers a voice of hope, reminding them that God is always faithful to his promise. He speaks of a future in which Israel and Judah will be restored and God will “raise up for David a just shoot” who will “do what is right and just in the land. In those days, Judah will be safe and Jerusalem shall dwell secure; this is what they shall call her: ‘The Lord our Justice’.”
These are welcome words to a people who have walked for so many months in the darkness of a pandemic and the political and social turmoil which are so much the signs of our current times. They are welcome words to anyone struggling with his or her faith, with anyone simply trying to find a reason to get up in the morning and go to work and face whatever life will bring. They are welcome words to all of us as we try to make sense of our often-messy lives and what it means to be persons of faith in an age in which our faith is openly scorned or even dismissed.
When we face trial and tribulation, when we are alarmed by the darkness which looms on the horizon, by the roaring of the sea, the trembling of the earth, and world affairs which seem to be ever more troubling, we are called to remember the promise God made through the prophet Jeremiah. We are called to remember that God has promised to restore Jerusalem—not in its earthly form but to its heavenly glory, where God himself will be our light, outshining the darkness of sin and suffering, and making whole all that is broken. We are called to remember the words of St. Paul, who looked for the coming of the Lord in his own day not with fear and trepidation but with joyful expectation as the fulfillment of all that Jesus said and did on earth. As modern-day disciples of Jesus, we are called to make St. Paul’s expectation our expectation—to make his joy our joy—to make his belief in God’s promise, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, our belief in God’s promise. We do this, certainly, through prayer. But we also do it by living the faith that we profess—by working actively in the world—in our jobs, in our families, in our discourse with one another—to proclaim our salvation in Christ in the way we see one another and treat one another, in the manner in which we seek to carry the cross for one another. It is only in doing so that we can, as St. Paul states, be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.
I am reminded of the wisdom of St. Teresa of Avila, who wrote the following words in her breviary, perhaps as a constant reminder to herself of this joy, this expectation, this promise:
Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee;
All things are passing;
God never changeth;
Attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth
In nothing is wanting;
Alone God sufficeth.
(English translation by Arthur Symons)
As we enter together into this Season of Advent, we do so not with the fear and anxiety for our future but with the peace of mind expressed by Saint Teresa in this beautiful prayer. We enter into this Advent with the conviction that God has already fulfilled his promise of salvation to us in the Incarnation of His Son, Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, in the fullness of time. And throughout this season of Advent, as we prepare ourselves for the celebration of his birth in the fullness of time, we also prayerfully prepare ourselves for that time when Christ will come again into our world. We gather at the altar in joyful expectation that Christ will remain true to his word and will take all who place their faith in him to himself, that they, that we, might live in the mansion prepared for us at the foundation of the world. We are not afraid of the gathering darkness because we believe that Christ our Light will shine away the darkness of sin and despair so prevalent in our world. Through prayer and vigilant reflection upon the promises of salvation found in Scripture, we find the courage which allows us to open our eyes with confidence, so that we even “as we walk amid passing things” (Prayer over the gifts) in this world, we might keep our eyes on the promise of heaven. And it is this confidence, this faithful assurance, that will give us “the resolve to run forth to meet Christ with righteous deeds at his coming. (opening Collect).
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