The National Catholic Review
John R. Donahue

"Arrive,” “draw near,” or “come to”—that’s how “advent” enters English via the Latin advenire. Its usage is wide-ranging. The Vulgate translates the Greek parousia as adventus, “arrival” or “presence,” associated most often with the second coming of Jesus. The Advent readings, which initiate a new church year, provide a polyphonous chorus of themes and motifs as they range from the elegant poetry of Isaiah through the strident calls for repentance of John the Baptizer and come to rest in the quiet voices of angels speaking to Mary and Joseph. It is a time of eager expectation and of absence and longing where, in the Sunday Gospels, even the voice of Jesus is muted. The liturgical season celebrates multiple ways God will draw near and come to a people: at the consummation of human history; at the coming in history of the Son of God, born of woman (Gal 4:4); at the drawing near of God to Christian believers through renewed prayer and acts of loving kindness.

 

The season ritualizes a fundamental theme of biblical thought, that the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition is a God who constantly draws near to humanity. From the moment when Adam and Eve hear the voice of God calling, “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9) until the descent of the heavenly Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation (21:1-4), God draws near to a wandering people through saving deeds and words of wisdom. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish theologian, said: “The Bible speaks not only of man’s search for God but also of God’s search for man. ‘Thou dost hunt me like a lion, explained Job’ (10:16).”

God’s longing and love take flesh in “figures of expectation” woven into the tapestry of the Advent readings. Four stand out: the prophets (especially Isaiah), John the Baptist, Mary and Joseph. We make our advent journey in their company.

Isaiah

In an exceptional recent commentary (Isaiah: Vol. 1 Chapters 1-39, 1998), Walter Bruegge-mann compares Isaiah to “a mighty oratorio whereby Israel sings its story of faith.” Sounding through this oratorio are passages of beautiful poetry that shape the hope in God for people suffering external threat and even exile. The rhythmic cadences of the text have bequeathed to Christian history a voice and images whereby people continue to describe their hope in God—hope for a time when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: one nation shall not raise the sword against another nor shall they train for war again” (2:4). Though conscious of their sinfulness and guilt they can still cry out, “O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you the Potter; we are all the work of your hands” (64:8). Even while the kingdom of Judah is threatened with destruction, Isaiah can call out in hope for a messianic king “who will judge the poor with justice and decide to do right for the land’s afflicted” and for a time of peace when “the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them” (11:4-6).

Sounding through this oratorio also are paeans to God’s holiness and God’s anger over the infidelity of the people because of injustice and reliance on worldly power. These, however, are always set in counterpoint to God’s call for change of heart: “Put away your misdeeds from my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good; make justice your aim...though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow” (Isa 1:16-17). Throughout the world, hushed silence in symphony halls is broken by the opening chorus of Handel’s Messiah, “Comfort ye, O Comfort my people” (Isa 40:1). This proclamation from the “Book of Consolation” (Isa 40-55) heralds to a dispirited and exiled people that their “service is at an end” and their “guilt is expiated.” In the desert, they are to wait now for the God who comes with power, but who will feed his flock like a shepherd and gather the lambs to his bosom.

But Isaiah’s fervent hopes and expectations were not fulfilled. Nor, most often, are ours in a world marked by violence and injustice. Yet as a figure of expectation, Isaiah provides us with an alternative vision of the world, a glossary of images that counter the pollution of the imagination that we suffer from a distorted media. Years ago in a stunning little book, Images of Hope, William Lynch, S.J., noted that people in sorrow or depression suffer an impoverishment of imagination. They simply cannot imagine a world different from the one that imprisons them. The critic Hugh Kenner once wrote, in his book The Pound Era:

 

 

Whoever can give his people better stories than the ones they live by is like the priest in whose hands common bread and wine become capable of feeding the very soul, and he may think of forging in some invisible smithy the uncreated conscience of his race.

 

Christians today are called to forge new images of hope and to be midwives of the future.

John the Baptizer

With the words of Isaiah ringing in our ears, we hear the often strident voice of the second figure of expectation, John the Baptizer, “a voice crying in the wilderness” (Mark 1:2), harkening to the meeting of God and the people in the wilderness of Sinai. John the wild, ascetic prophet summons people to a baptism of repentance (metanoia), a symbolic washing that signals a new way of thinking, which leads to forgiveness of sin (literally, sending away, Gk. aphesis), a pardon, release from captivity or cancellation of punishment. John points to the future baptism in the Holy Spirit that the “stronger one” will bring (Mark 1:8).

Matthew recounts the poignant story, not in the Advent readings, of John in prison facing execution (11:3-5). His disciples go to Jesus with the question that has formed John’s life, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to await another?” Though praising John as the greatest of “those born of woman,” Jesus does not really answer this question but simply says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see; the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.”

Dedicated Christians today mirror the vocation of John. He lives in faith and points to one who will come after him. John speaks out against hypocrisy and sham religion (“bring forth fruits of repentance”), and he lives what he proclaims—in popular terms, John “talks the talk and walks the walk.”

Mary and Joseph

Like all parents awaiting the dawn of new life, Mary and Joseph are figures of expectation. We first meet Mary in Luke’s Gospel as a young woman awaiting marriage who is suddenly perplexed by a visit from an angel announcing that she is God’s graced one. She is then told that she will be a mother to God’s son. When proclaiming that she is still a virgin, the angel assures her of God’s abiding help. As we listen to the message to Mary in Luke 1:26-38, a crescendo of future promises shatters the quiet of her repose: “and now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of David, his father. He will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” As Mary questions how this can be, the promises continue: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”

As in a great symphony, the mood softens to pianissimo in Mary’s response, “May it be done unto me according to your word.” By her yes, Mary will bring forth not only “the Son of the Most High God,” but the future hopes of a suffering people, which flow forth from Mary when she next speaks in Luke, praising God who has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid, but who will “show mercy” from generation to generation, cast the mighty down from their thrones and raise up the lowly (Luke 1:46-55). As an Advent figure of expectation, Mary, now hailed as Mother of the Church, summons her daughters and sons to hear the word of God, to let it come to life in their bodies and continue to proclaim a God who does “great things,” even in our shattered world.

Though Joseph often stands in the shadows of Advent celebrations, in Matthew he stands in striking parallel with Mary. After the rolling cadences of the genealogy, the narrative begins with a jolt: “When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit.” Joseph, named (as Jesus will be during his passion) “a just man” (1:19, 27:19), is troubled, loving Mary and not wanting to follow the Law to expose an apparent adultery. Now, like Mary in Luke, Joseph hears the voice of an angel saying, “Do not fear,” as the angel recounts the power of the Spirit and the future greatness of the child: “He will save the people from their sins.” Joseph awakes from the dream vision and “did as the angel commanded him” (Matt 1:18-25).

Envisioning Joseph as a figure of expectation requires removing from our imaginations our art-encrusted pictures of him. In much Christian art, Joseph looks more like Jesus’ grandfather than his parent. Given the high mortality rate of women in childbirth and the indication that Jesus had brothers and sisters, most likely Joseph was a young widower with a family to raise. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke present fascinating, complementary figures of expectation: a young woman and her spouse, both open to God’s future. Both are puzzled before the unsettling call of God: to be a virgin mother, and to take a virgin bride; to face danger and adversity as they nurture this child to young adulthood and to live with faith in God’s promise. During Advent, parents can look on the fruit of their lives and love with joy and hope, as they see in Mary and Joseph their vocation and challenge.

Remembrance and Longing

Advent is poised between remembrance and longing. In prayer and song, we remember the hopes of Isaiah, John the Baptizer, Mary and Joseph. Their actions and words are a balm to our troubled souls. We also know them as people of trusting hope that the God who interrupted their lives has never been really far away. Such is the hope of Christians today as they sing that utterly paradoxical refrain, “Veni, veni Emmanuel” (O come, O come, God with us).

John R. Donahue, S.J., is the Raymond E. Brown Distinguished Professor emeritus of New Testament Studies at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, Md.

Recently in Faith in Focus