Hope involves wishing and waiting for something that has a chance of becoming a reality. The Scripture readings for the Second Sunday of Advent enable us to see what is important and distinctive in the biblical understanding of hope: God is the origin, ground and goal of hope. They also remind us that hope occurs in the concrete realities of human history.
Today’s Old Testament texts from three different literary-historical perspectives focus on ancient Israel’s return from exile in the sixth century B.C. The quotation from Isaiah 40 that is embedded in the reading from Luke 3 reflects the beginning of Israel’s return from exile in Babylon. The voice calls upon a once captive people to take to the road, walk across the desert and make their way back to Jerusalem. The reason why the people should undertake this difficult journey now is the assurance that God is with them.
With the reading from Baruch 5, the scene shifts from Babylon to Jerusalem. There Jerusalem is personified and addressed directly. She is a symbol of those Jews who were left behind when Israel’s religious and political leaders went into exile in 587 B.C. Now Jerusalem is witnessing the return of the exiles. Her reaction is captured beautifully in the scene where she is told to stand at the highest point of the city and look out and rejoice over the exiles streaming back home “at the word of the Holy One.”
Psalm 126, today’s responsorial psalm, moves the story of Israel’s return from exile one step further. Here the return from exile has already been completed. The dream of a few persons had become a reality. The psalmist attributes the fulfillment of this hope to God: “The Lord has done great things for us.”
The origin of biblical Israel’s hope was the God who created them, chose them and promised to be with them always. The ground of their hope was what God had done in leading them from slavery to freedom in the exodus from Egypt. This is why these readings are full of allusions to the Exodus event. And the object of their hope was to resume and renew their worship of God at the Jerusalem Temple.
In the Bible hope is not an escape or a fantasy. Rather, it involves real persons in real times and places. All the Gospels present John the Baptist as the precursor of Jesus, the Messiah. While extolling John’s greatness, they insist that he was subordinate to Jesus, whose coming he proclaimed. In introducing John the Baptist, Luke places John and Jesus in a concrete time and place, highlights the themes of repentance and forgiveness and emphasizes the universal significance of Jesus.
Before introducing the public ministries of John and Jesus, Luke situates them in their specific historical context. He tells us the year in the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius (A.D. 29) and the names of the various political and religious officials in Israel. Thus he indicates that the story he is telling is not a myth or fiction. Moreover, Luke’s abbreviation of Mark’s account of John’s activity has the effect of highlighting two great themes in John’s (and Jesus’) ministry: repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Finally, Luke expands that quotation of Isa 40:3-5 to include the statement “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Right from the start of Luke’s two-volume narrative of Jesus and the early church, we hear about the universal significance of Jesus.
The reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (often described as Paul’s favorite community) reminds us that the ultimate hope for Christians involves the full coming of God’s kingdom and eternal life with God. Paul prays that “the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” He goes on to express his hope that in their own time and place they will grow in love and knowledge “for the glory and praise of God.” Paul’s hope has its origin, ground and goal in God.
As we prepare ourselves spiritually for the celebration of Christmas, we may need to remind ourselves of the nature of biblical hope and of the historical particularity and universal significance of what we commemorate. What we celebrate is the saving power of God that has appeared in Jesus of Nazareth in a particular time and place (historical particularity), which has meaning for all humankind (universal saving significance). What we celebrate is the fulfillment of a hope that has its origin, ground and goal in God, and that should be a stimulus for us to be signs of hope in the time and place in which we, like Paul’s beloved Philippians, “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.”