God is there at our darkest hour

By  Fr. Scott Lewis S.J.
  • November 24, 2006

First Sunday of Advent (Year C), Dec. 3 (Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36

The predictions and prophecies made in our own lifetimes seldom square with what actually comes to pass. Today most of them are very negative and are designed to generate fear (and perhaps wealth and power for those who capitalize on that fear). Often we are surprised as events take unforeseen directions.

Jeremiah's prophecy, written after the destruction of the first temple in 587 BC at the hands of the Babylonians, is a case in point. Judah was not saved from destruction; Jerusalem was only partially restored and much later, and Israel fell under the heel of foreign domination for centuries. But prophecy is not about predicting the future; it is concerned with refreshing and healing the sacred imagination. Examined from another angle, the prophecy is about hope and the assurance that God has not forgotten or abandoned God's people.

Taking these prophecies in a very literal sense not only sets us up for disappointment. It can blind us to the less dramatic but equally important work of God that occurs continuously all around us. Judah and Jerusalem may be understood as metaphors or symbols for the individual soul, especially those who strive to clothe themselves in the righteousness of the Lord.

Being blameless on the day of the Lord's coming is a bit easier when it is expected any day. For the first generation of Christians, D-Day was just around the corner. Paul's First letter to the Thessalonians is the first of the New Testament writings and represents well their attitudes.

Two millennia have passed, and Jesus has not returned, at least in the manner expected by Paul's community. And it is exceedingly difficult to be "blameless" when we are talking about a normal lifespan of 70 or 80 years. Short of putting ourselves in a state of suspended animation, we can count on mistakes, faults and sinfulness to take their toll.

But the core of Paul's message still stands: increase and abound in love for one another and for all. Having our heart set in the right direction and doing our level best to learn the lessons of love and service is a fine definition of being holy and blameless.

The evangelist is writing with the memories of a ravaged and devastated Jerusalem and its temple fresh in his mind. To Luke and his generation, these events seemed to be the beginning of the end. The return of Jesus and the final judgment could not be far off, so Luke's words were meant to steel the nerves of his community to face the terrifying events and the cosmic cataclysm that were expected.

Reading accounts of the Jewish War against Rome and its aftermath, their expectations are easy to understand. Several years of brutal slaughter and destruction left Judea in ruins and most of its population either dead or sold into slavery. Europe at the end of the Second World War, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or 9/11 are similar terrifying and pessimistic memories to those who experienced them.

Luke assures his community that when things seem the darkest and despair has the upper hand, that is when God and liberation are the closest. Although not always the case, it is something that is generally confirmed by human experience. It is so important to persevere one more day, take one more step or try one more time. This may be the day.

How do we receive and apply texts such as these? We should not make their fear our own. Words of encouragement to those in today's war ravaged lands are called for, as well as to those who are the victims of natural disasters. The lessons of perseverance and hope might even apply to our personal struggles.

Our expectation of the Lord's presence should not be tinged with fear or foreboding. Neither should we be in constant anticipation of destruction and doom. These texts should be an invitation to spiritual awareness and sensitivity to the presence and action of God in our midst. Even at its best, life is short and time slips by swiftly and silently. By living our lives joyfully and to the fullest, and with a sense of gratitude, we are always ready to meet the Lord.

The anticipation of the Lord's presence should generate joy and hope, not fear and dread.

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