Sunday, December 12, 2010

Patience and Hope

Be patient, says the letter of James from which we just heard [James 5:7-10], until the coming of the Lord. Now, whoever first picked that text to be read right at the mid-point of Advent probably was not intending to be ironic. For us who hear those words today, however, it may seem somewhat ironic to preach about patience in the middle of what has become, for most people, by far the busiest, most frantic time of the year. It is just one of the many paradoxes of our peculiarly post-natural, modern way of life that we manage to be busiest precisely at the very time of the year when everything else in nature is telling us it’s time to slow down. Winter is, among other things, nature’s way of slowing down. Note, for example, James’s reference to the farmer, who waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it, until it receives the early and the late rains. Back before modern technology made us think of ourselves as superior to and separate from the natural order of things, everything slowed down in winter. All sorts of activities came to a halt. Outdoor work and even wars stopped for the season. Of course, modern technology has made all these activities possible now even in winter – and indeed (if something is not done about it soon) may eventually even eliminate winter as we have known it.

Folkloric customs, like our Advent Wreath, remind us that, when winter was really winter, people paused. The Advent Wreath likely originated in the once common custom of removing wheels form carts at the beginning of winter. The practice developed of decorating such a wheel with evergreen branches and candles. If the light of the candles has come to signify the bright light of Christ coming to penetrate the dark night of our present world, the wreath itself signifies our readiness to slow down enough to be able to see the light despite the winter dark.

It may or may not have been winter, but John the Baptist was in the dark too. Confined in Herod’s prison, he too was looking for light and so sent his disciples to Jesus to ask [Matthew 11:2-11]: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

John’s problem (besides being in prison) was whether or not his life’s work had really made sense. John had confidently proclaimed the coming of God’s kingdom and had forcefully challenged people – including Herod – to repentance. Just how successful he was is hard to gauge, but he obviously had made an impression. He’d also acquired enemies powerful enough to put an end to his mission and put him in prison. He had, however, also made disciples, whom he now sent to evaluate Jesus.

Jesus’ (somewhat indirect) answer was meant to reassure John, by recalling the biblical prophecies in which they both believed. Look, Jesus seemed to be saying, the things that are supposed to happen when the Messiah comes really are happening! What more evidence do you need? “Go, and tell John what you hear and see.” In other words, the reality of God’s kingdom is already happening – happening here, happening now!

The Gospel gives us no record of John’s reaction to Jesus’ response. He departs the scene with his question. But it’s a question that the world keeps asking: Jesus, are you the one who is to come, or should we be looking elsewhere? There are, after all, a lot of other places one could look. And increasingly people – particularly younger people, but not just younger people – are doing just that. The contemporary world is a kind of spiritual smorgasbord, with lots and lots of choices and alternatives. But it’s also a world full of confusion and chaos, of broken lives and broken hearts. In such a world, John’s question cannot simply go away – unless, of course, one is prepared to give up and abandon hope entirely.

That John was not willing to do, and people generally have not been willing to do. That is why Christmas is so important, now maybe more than ever. In the dark night of winter, full of fear, danger, and anxiety, in the long night of the present, haunting us, as yet another year comes to an end, with so many memories of lost opportunities, unfulfilled longings, and ruptured relationships, Christmas comes in answer to John’s – and our – question.

Christmas, of course, commemorates an historical event, some 2000+ years ago. Our celebration of Christmas, however, is only in part about remembering an event in the past. It is also – and primarily – about the future for which the coming of Christ into our world makes it possible for us to hope, already even in the present. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote, a few years back, in his encyclical On Christian Hope: “If we cannot hope for more than is attainable at any given time, or more than is promised by political and economic authorities, our lives will soon be without hope. It is important to know that I can always continue to hope, even if in my own life, or the historical period in which I am living, there seems to be nothing left to hope for.”

It was as the historical spokesman for our hope – the perennial hope of men and women of every time and place – that John in prison posed his question, a powerful question, a question the world keeps on asking. To us, as to John, Jesus challenges us to pay attention, and so to hear and see the signs – the powerful signs – of God’s presence and action in our lives and in our world, enabling and inviting us to live in hope, as people of hope.

And because it is we (who continue Christ’s life and mission in the world as his Church), we, who are now the voice of Christ for the world to hear and the face of Christ for the world to see, it is we who are being asked John’s question and we who must answer it by the witness of our own hope – hope for ourselves and hope for the whole world.

Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God … he comes to save you [Isaiah 35:4].

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 12, 2010.

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