One of the most exacting challenges from the Second Vatican Council was its summons to read the “signs of the times.” It was a call to reflect deeply on the events unfolding before our eyes and to respond to them out of mature faith. This was difficult, because many of us were accustomed to react to life rather than interact with it, and few of us possessed what today might be called mature faith. We probably knew the teachings of the church and were well grounded in genuine devotion, but we were passive rather than actively involved in critical thinking about faith.
This changed with the council. Over the years we have grown into social sensitivity. We take faith-based political stands. At times we even turn a critical eye to the teachings and traditions of the church. Our faith has matured and our devotion has been enriched by reading the signs of the times.
Today Jesus directs us: “When these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads, because your redemption is at hand.” Of which signs is he speaking? Is he really talking about the end of the world? Should we all start reading Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking so that we know what to expect? Though such reading would certainly enrich our appreciation of the universe of which we are a part, Jesus is probably not talking about the cosmos. Then of what?
He clearly tells us. “Your redemption is at hand.” The days that Jeremiah said were coming are about to dawn, and we are called to read the signs of their dawning. The prophet described them as days of peace and fulfillment, of justice and security—a very encouraging picture. The Gospel paints a very different scene. It tells us that there will be suffering before these days really appear. And why will there be suffering? Because we have to be transformed, rather than the cosmos.
Paul prays for our transformation. He prays that we will abound in love, that our hearts will be strengthened, that we will be blameless in holiness, that we will conduct ourselves to please God. The apocalyptic cosmic upheaval is a powerful metaphor to describe the cost of such transformation, especially for those of us who are so rooted in anger, fear, deception and “carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.”
We know that the days of our redemption have already dawned with the coming of Jesus. But because our own transformation is always ongoing, we move yearly through the liturgical celebration of the mystery of our salvation. While Advent is set aside to commemorate Jesus’ coming in the flesh as well as his final coming in glory, it is also a time for us to open ourselves to the Lord’s coming into our lives and our world today. In order to do this, we must read the signs of the times.
One of the apocalyptic signs mentioned in the Gospel is the “dismay of nations.” This is certainly evident today, and unlike many times in the past, we are all personally affected by it. Some of us know people who lost their lives in acts of terror or war. Fear has made us suspicious of people of other races or religious beliefs. Sometimes our anger has grown into a desire for revenge, and our fear has taken on features of paranoia.
Some public officials have betrayed the trust we placed in them. They lied to us, misappropriated our money and led us astray. They seem too often to have placed their own personal advantage ahead of their responsibility to those who placed them in office. Our disapproval of their service has left many frustrated. Our inability to change the system has turned some away from any kind of civic involvement.
The sinfulness of our church, a sinfulness we have always acknowledged as a fact of human frailty, has been revealed in all its heinousness. The beauty of the body of Christ has been marred by scandal, slander of the innocent and disparagement of legitimate authority. Its shame is there for all to see.
If these are the signs of our times, how can we say that our redemption is at hand? Because these are not the only signs. In the face of all this dismay, we see heroism and patience and understanding; we see honesty and unselfish service of others; we see genuine holiness and fidelity. There are people in the world, in government, in the church, in our neighborhoods and in our families who are committed to justice and peace. Their lives testify that the reign of God has indeed taken hold. Advent reminds us that we too can be transformed into it, and so it calls to us all: “Stand erect and raise your heads, because your redemption is at hand.”