Waiting for the Spirit

  • December 2, 2010
Third Sunday in Advent (Year A) Dec. 12 (Isaiah 35:1-6, 10; Psalm 146; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11)

When water is withdrawn from the land life virtually ceases. We have all seen the pictures of parched devastation in the countries of the sub-Sahara where creeping desert has reclaimed the land. Areas hit by drought in other countries yield only the withered remnants of fruit and grain. But the addition of even a small amount of water can make the desert areas come to life and bloom.

Perhaps you or someone you know has experienced the weakness and fatigue that hits the knees and joints with age, or the effects of hearing or visual loss. Often miracles of medicine give new life to those suffering from debilitating conditions. These vivid Old Testament images are used to reveal the presence of God — and they say a lot. God is a god of life not death, of healing and not disease. Wherever God is present wholeness, new life, rebirth and hope are found. The images are often used to encourage the people of Israel with a portrayal of what God would do for the people in the future. They represent a cry for deliverance and a vision of hope that can only come to people suffering oppression, destruction and deprivation. The people of Israel had lost nation, temple, land and freedom — they had only God.

It is the sort of cry that we might hear from many quarters of today’s world: Afghanistan, Haiti, Pakistan and the people under the yoke of dictatorial or totalitarian regimes. It is a cry for an infusion of God’s life-giving spirit and for the gift of hope and courage. It should warn us against ascribing death and destruction to God. God gives life, even in the midst of misery and destruction. This point was expressed so poignantly in the gathering of the people of Port-au-Prince to celebrate Mass and give thanks to God in the days following the terrible earthquake.

And when will relief and redemption arrive? This heartfelt question was often the topic of biblical passages. The phrase “How long, O Lord” was a common refrain, just as “Come, Lord Jesus” was the desire of many in the New Testament period. It is not easy to wait, especially when suffering is involved. Our own petty impatience at everyday delays and frustrations pale in comparison to the suffering of so many. James gives us the usual answer: it will happen in God’s time, not ours. But our waiting must not be just pacing back and forth and looking at our watch or calendar. How we wait is of utmost importance. Spiritual waiting involves community building, generosity and compassion. Providing for the people of Haiti is but one example of the way in which we can give concrete expression to God’s answer to their prayers.

We shouldn’t feel guilty about struggling with doubts for even those closest to Jesus had their timorous and questioning moments. John the Baptist sent word from the prison where he would eventually meet his end to ask Jesus a point-blank question: Are you the expected one or not? Say so now, so we can continue the search if need be.

But Jesus often refused to answer directly and this instance was no exception. He challenged the messengers and John to look around them and note what they observed: restored sight and hearing, the cleansing of lepers, the restoration of crippled limbs, new life and great hope. Draw your own conclusions — these are all the infallible signs of God’s immediate presence.

But Jesus continues by heaping praise on John the Baptist — he is the best man in the world. But he can’t even compare to the glory that the coming new age — God’s Reign — will bring. As wonderful as a human being can be, he or she is nothing compared to the transformation that only God can bring about. Religious claims need to be measured by this standard. When we claim that God is present, we need to ask if there are signs of new life, healing and hope. Is reconciliation and forgiveness taking place? Are people set free and empowered?

All of the religious rhetoric in the world is useless if it is accompanied by a sense of deadness, helplessness and despair. God always leaves clear signs of His presence, and those signs are often found in surprising places.

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