Advent reminds us redemption is near

  • November 23, 2009
1st Sunday of Advent (Year C) Nov. 29 (Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25; 1Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36)

It takes real courage and conviction to preach hope and redemption in the midst of disaster and suffering. Any politician doing so would be in serious danger of being thrown out of office after being accused of insensitivity, denial, political opportunism and a host of other political and social sins.

And yet this is exactly what the prophet Jeremiah does. He has spent his entire prophetic “career” preaching doom and destruction in an attempt to waken his people spiritually — especially those in high places. Unfortunately they preferred to incline their ear to a coterie of smooth “feel-good” court prophets who made their living telling leaders what they wanted to hear.

Jeremiah did not enjoy the message he had to deliver — the words he felt compelled to preach broke his heart. Now that the disaster has overtaken the nation there is no gloating or “I told you so” attitude on his part. He merely attunes himself to the other part of God’s message: hope and redemption. The suffering and destruction are temporary. God’s plan may be sidetracked in the present but in the long run the divine will prevails. God promises a ruler from the house of David to rule and restore the nation — not a Messiah in our sense of the term but clearly one with a divine mission. Israel has a future; people should not despair even as they undergo the pain of being uprooted and exiled in an alien land. In the culture wars and ethical debates of our own age we must not forget both compassion and a sense of hope and redemption. Without these elements words — even true words — degenerate into poisonous personal attacks and depressing prophecies of doom.

And what do we do in the meantime? Paul has the answer: live in a way pleasing to God and allow our love for one another to abound. It may sound simplistic — and it is relatively simple in the sense of being uncomplicated — but it provides the answer for the sense of weariness and hopelessness that overtakes so many people. Our efforts to repair and transform our world are important. God is not going to save us from economic, political, social or environmental problems, nor is God going to impose justice and peace on an unwilling humanity. These things are our responsibility but their meaning would be seriously diminished without an emphasis on enhancing interpersonal relationships and communal life. Perhaps our greatest contribution to the issues and concerns that we hold dear is to create compassionate and supportive communities that bear witness to a harmonious relationship with God.

The description of the end in the passage from Luke would fit very well into a disaster film — especially those that have an apocalyptic or religious dimension. Films that portrayed cataclysmic disasters in the year 2000 and the current film predicting doom in 2012 are grim examples of this end-time genre. Unfortunately, they can terrify people and leave them with a sense of hopelessness about doing anything constructive in the world. The main concern is preserving one’s own life at all costs. The description in Luke is an apocalyptic set-piece — probably not originating with Jesus — and is intended to signal the momentous nature of Christ’s return and the fact that the world will be radically transformed. The real danger is being so engrossed in the self, smothered in negativity or entangled in everyday concerns that we are oblivious to the signs of the return of the Lord. God has a long history of acting in subtle and surprising ways. What if His return were a rather quiet affair noticed by only those who are awake and alert? God’s presence is heralded by subtle but unmistakable signs: words and actions that reflect the oneness of humanity, equality, compassion, non-violence, sharing and forgiveness. Reading the signs will enable us to recognize the presence of the Christ spirit even without the dramatic special effects.

But the Gospel passage adds something important. Even in the midst of suffering and struggle, stand tall and lift up our heads: our redemption is always near so let us act with the dignity and courage. Advent begins with darkness and a yearning for redemption and a healed world. It will be answered with the light of the Bethlehem star. But we must stay awake.