Hope is the predominant word during the Advent season. By definition, hope refers to a desire and expectation that goals that seem difficult to achieve may somehow be realized. Thomas Aquinas said it best when he described hope as what is agreeable, future, arduous and possible of attainment. Our Scripture readings push us beyond our narrow self-interests and challenge us to hope for understanding and peace among the nations of the world, and to look forward to the full coming of Gods kingdom. The ground and goal of these hopes is God. While this kind of hope involves total reliance on God, it also challenges us to expend serious effort in the present time. Wishing is not enough.
Advent is a time to hope and work for lasting peace among nations. Against the shadow of impending military defeat from the Assyrian armies that had already overrun the northern kingdom of Israel, the 8th-century B.C. Judean prophet Isaiah held out a vision of hope. The prophets hope was that all nations might come to know the God of Israel and that the word of God might go forth from Zion to all the nations and so bring peace to all the world. His hope was based not on wise kings or powerful weapons but rather on Gods fidelity to his people Israel and Gods universal dominion and significance. His hope was that the nations might transform their weapons of war into instruments of peace. Through Jesus of Nazareth that vision has been fulfilled in part, since the Gospel of peace has been preached to the ends of the earth. However, the prophets hope for mutual understanding and lasting peace remains elusive and challenges us to increase our effort as we work toward peace on the personal, national and international levels.
Advent is a time for reorienting our personal lives. While not so much a penitential season as Lent is, there is a sense that Advent involves turning our lives more consciously and directly to God and the kingdom of God. As Paul says in his Letter to the Romans, Let us then throw off the works of darkness. It is an occasion for us to examine ourselves and try to see where the works of darkness may have entered. But moral conversion is not the whole story. Rather, the positive challenge is to put on the Lord Jesus Christ. That means allowing our lives to be shaped even more by and better conformed to the person of Christ. It means living out of a kind of Christ-mysticism, whereby we can say with Paul, I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me (Gal 2:20).
Advent is a time to await the fullness of Gods kingdom. In todays readings what both Paul and Matthew have in mind is not so much the celebration of Christmas as preparation for what we call the second coming of Christ. Paul reminds us that our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. And Matthew provides a series of short parables counseling constant vigilance and good actions in the present as we await the full coming of Gods kingdom. Just as the flood came suddenly upon Noahs generation, so the second coming of Jesus as the glorious Son of Man will be sudden. His second coming will involve a discriminating judgment, even between persons apparently doing the same things, whether they be two men working in a field or two women grinding meal. The final parable asks us to consider: What if you knew that a robber was going to break into your house but did not know the exact time? Would you not be vigilant all night long? Since the Son of Man will come like a thief in the night, we must always be vigilant, always on guard and always watching. These parables challenge us to good deeds and constant vigilance in the present, thus providing one of the New Testaments most prominent contexts for Christian ethics.
Next Saturday (Dec. 8) is the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. For a full treatment of its readings, see America, 11/21/05.