The grace of Advent is hope. Advent can revive hope when it has been lost, refocus it when it has been misplaced. It puts our hopes in order, raising them to a higher level. Advent is about transforming our outlook and expectations. This is why Isaiah keeps talking to us, why John the Baptist keeps coming on stage, why apostles are so busy reminding us of the Lord’s coming.
The politicians offer us a better future: a better country, a better Health Service and all the rest. This is expected of them. We all want what’s good. The disagreements are about what makes things good or better; the content, not the principle. No politician ever stands up and says, to take a fanciful example, let’s make a trade agreement with Greenland which will damage our economy and make us all worse off. No, we all want what’s good. And on the back of that wanting rides hope. Hope keeps us alive. We’re sad and sorry things when our hopes are dashed.
Enter Advent. Advent offers us what the New Testament calls a “good hope”, a “blessed hope”, a “better hope”. The Funeral Liturgy talks of a “sure and certain hope”. It’s a hope that makes us pray. It empowers us to keep on patiently doing good even when there’s no immediate result. It makes us wait like a farmer, St James says, while the crop quietly grows, the precious fruit of the ground. It’s a great and good hope because it is hope in a great, good God, the Father who raised his Son from the dead, the Son who has loved us to the end, the Spirit sent into our hearts.
Take today’s 1st reading. It presupposes a landscape of distress: first, a natural environment where there are no trees, no flowers, no growth: wilderness, dry-lands, wasteland – the name of a famous, bleak poem by TS Eliot. It’s a picture of ecological failure. Then second, we’re shown a mental, moral landscape, equally pained: weary hands, trembling knees, faint hearts, shortage of meaning and purpose and belonging. Some young Catholics in Elgin were asked recently: what should Christians and the Church be bothering about? Their answer was: depression, mental illness, the suicide rate. Lastly, Isaiah presupposes a landscape of physical distress: people are blind and deaf, crippled and dumb. These three landscapes are all connected. They are literal and metaphorical at the same time. They’re real. There’s a world here without joy – non Gaudete. But into it Isaiah, Advent’s spokesman, pours hope. Beautiful phrases flow out: the glory of Lebanon, the splendour of Carmel and Sharon, the glory of the Lord. God is coming. Retribution is coming: closure on evil. He is coming to save you. The following Psalm reads like a litany: “it is the Lord who keeps faith forever, who is just to those who are oppressed, who gives bread to the hungry, who sets prisoners free, who protects the stranger, and upholds the widow and orphan…The Lord will reign forever, Zion’s God from age to age.” In the Gospel, John the Baptist appears to stumble: “Are you the One who is to come or are we to wait for another?” Remember, John was in prison, living in the dark, probably chained, short of food and water, lying in his own excrement. No wonder he had a question! And into that dreadful place, Jesus sends hope. “Go and tell him what you hear and see.” Prophecy is being fulfilled. Do not lose faith. So, John would keep hoping even in the dark, as Mary would under the Cross. Do not lose heart, says St James, to us in turn, to the Church. Be patient. We have a good, blessed, better hope; a sure and certain hope. It gives us the capacity to go on, though nothing seems to change. It looks beyond the present. It’s an anchor, says the Letter to the Hebrews, thrown into eternal life and drawing us to it, keeping us from being swept out to sea. It’s like a telescope, says the poet George Herbert. “Behold!” Keep looking. Lift your eyes and see what Isaiah sees: a transformed environment, everything sorted between us and Nature; ourselves interiorly transformed, with new hearts and a new spirit; our bodily life healed and restored. Christ’s Resurrection validates all this. If Christ is risen, a new world, new hearts, new flesh is already present, “at the gates”.
“Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” The question can always recur. Islam claims there was “another” after Jesus: Muhammed. Is Islam perhaps just impatient? We say: the One who is to come has come and will come. Our good hope isn’t just for a heavenly future, nor is it a hope that history, this world, our life will suddenly turn sweet. Our hope is both present and to come. The hope of Advent, of prophets and apostles, is Christ, past, present and to come. It is in the child born in Bethlehem, the man bringing wisdom and healing in Galilee, the one who hung on a Cross in Jerusalem and left an empty tomb behind him. He’s in us through the Holy Spirit. He’s by our side, present in word and sacrament. He has made himself part of our life. Through the window of his Eucharist, we see God’s future. And so, we do not lose heart.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, 15 December 2019)