This past week, I went to Nashville – my first-ever time there – for the annual meeting of the bishops and priests’ councils of the Louisville Province (that is, the 4 dioceses in Kentucky and the 3 in Tennessee). Like any American city at this time of year, it was all decked out for Christmas. Or, at least I assume it was. Actually, all I saw of the city was the downtown hotel where we were meeting. But that was certainly all bright and beautiful with Christmas trees and lights and other holiday trimmings and touches. It’s that so very special time of year, when the world really brightens up and seems even to cheer up – or at least it tries to.
The stores, of course, have a vested interest in manufacturing holiday cheer as they court the devilish demon called profit. For the rest of us, holiday cheer may come less automatically – depending on what kind of year we’ve had personally and what kind of year it’s been overall for the world. This week, I tried to imagine what it was like preparing for Christmas in Europe back, say, 100 years ago, in 1914, in those traumatic first few months of World War I, the war that pretty much ruined everything for the 20th century. Of course, it wasn’t quite obvious yet that World War I would mean the end of European civilization as people then knew it. But by then it was certainly already obvious that things weren’t going as planned, that things weren’t going so very well for anyone on either side. Still, Christmas came, as it always does in both good times and in bad. Silent Night was sung all over the Western Front – in German, in French, and in English. And soldiers and civilians alike did their best to find comfort where they could.
Times were tough too in Israel – her capital in ruins, her Temple destroyed - when Isaiah spoke the consoling words we just heard. Just when everything seemed so hopeless, the prophet proclaims glad tidings and good news. It’s enough to make you sit up and pay attention. Here comes with power the Lord God. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. Power and glory are good. And when you’re hungry – and we’re all hungry for something – the promise of being fed, as a shepherd feeds his flock, that’s good news indeed!
On this 2nd Sunday of Advent, the good news comes to us in three complementary voices. First comes Isaiah’s prophetic announcement [Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11]. Not for nothing is Isaiah Advent’s pre-eminent prophet. Then comes the actual voice of one crying out in the desert, John the Baptist’s New Testament prophetic fulfillment - calling out to us to elicit our response [Mark 1:1-8]. Sandwiched between them and so easy to overlook, we hear Peter, speaking for the Church, proposing our response [2 Peter 3:8-14].
And like the Israelites in exile and like those early Christians to whom Peter wrote, we wonder what this all means. Both Isaiah and Peter had to respond to the tension – the personal and social stress – of being in-between, of being between the challenging and perplexing present in which we still find ourselves and the promising future for which we have been taught to hope.
If anything, living in the in-between may be even harder for us that in was for those early Christians Peter was addressing. Our contemporary way of life with its ultra-fast pace and information overload is sort of like a collective case of attention-deficit-disorder. Like our ancestors unexpectedly caught up in a catastrophic world war a century ago, we are also a civilization in distress, but we are, if anything, even less able to see our way through, thanks to our technologically induced impatience.
But God is patient - and patient with us - Peter assures us, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. And so, he asks us to ask ourselves, what sort of persons ought we to be, here and now, in this in-between time, while we wait not just for Christmas morning and the presents we hope to find under our tree, but for that endless Christmas dinner our entire life is a preparation for?
Advent asks more questions than it answers. The answer, of course, is Christmas, which even now has the power to light up the world because Christ came into the world a long time ago. How much brighter will the world be when we respond fully to Advent’s invitation to become Christmas people and recognize Christ’s coming among us in the here and now, living in his Church which continues his presence and action in the world? When the full reality of Christ’s coming finally makes a difference for each one of us. Meanwhile, be eager, as Peter says, to find him - and to be found by him.