Last Sunday we considered the broad sweep of Advent and reminded ourselves that Advent begins with us looking at the inevitability of our death, and the end of the world. We remind ourselves that it is right that we should be anxious and concerned about what God will say to us and the world on the Day of Judgment. But we shouldn’t be held in the grip of fear because God’s judgment is that we are worth saving. God’s judgment comes to us in His grace and mercy, given us in His Son, Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
That theme continues today. In the first reading God tells the Prophet Isaiah to comfort His people. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” he tells Isaiah, and proclaim to her that her time of trial is coming to an end. “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”
Advent is a time of expectancy along with our waiting in hope. Advent is forward looking. It’s different from Lent, which is a time of reflection and examination. During this Advent season, we have our own sets of expectations. While it is true that God’s Kingdom has been established among us, it is also true that we human beings have not responded to God’s offer as we should.
We long for peace, and yet we are at war. We cry out for justice, and yet our culture is selfish and greedy. Security remains elusive. Dishonesty, corruption and greed still overwhelm us. We lament the fact that the world in which we must live is in the condition that it is in. During Advent we are encouraged to “make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God.”
This vision is both broad and personal at the same time. God speaks to us as a people, His chosen people, while at the same time He speaks to us personally and individually. We all have our responsibilities, both communal and individual. God’s judgment falls upon nations just as much as it does upon individuals.
But just what sort of comfort do we seek? Are we looking simply to feather our own nests, or do we seek justice for the oppressed, relief for the burdened, and dignity for outcasts? Just how comfortable can we be when all around us we hear the cries of those who have been shunned, ignored and treated with contempt? Just how comfortable can we be in the midst of the famines, natural disasters and oppression that beset millions of people in the world around us?
What changes do we want to take place in our world? What changes do we want in our own personal lives? Do we in fact really want any changes at all? Some people might prefer to simply hunker down with what they’ve got and not risk any changes at all.
The problem with materialism and wealth is that they are narcotics. Like drugs they dull our sensibilities. When we are over-fed we over-indulge and we become sleepy and lethargic. Let us remember that John the Baptist’s message was intended to disturb the comfortable and to prod the complacent. It is likewise a prod for those held hostage by fatalism, those who claim “well that’s just the way things are” and so do nothing to change either their own lives or the conditions in the world in which they live. John the Baptist calls us to face change with expectant hope. Many, however, face change in fear and dread.
Change is in the process of forcing itself upon our society right now. Change is in the process of forcing itself on the world economy. Given the depressed financial situation in which we still find ourselves, some experts are saying that England can no longer continue as a manufacturing economy. The question we face is how to face the change. And yet, in the past we successfully changed from being an agricultural economy to an industrial one. Cannot we now successfully manage another change of equal, if not greater, magnitude?
We face changes in the Church, particularly with respect to the way we manage the shortage of priests and the growing role of the laity in the life of the Church.
The hardest changes of all, however, are those that are needed in our own personal lives. More and more Catholics feel that attending Mass each and every Sunday is not necessary. Countless numbers have abandoned the practice of Confession. Many no longer bother themselves with what the Church teaches. Perhaps all of these things are indications of our unwillingness to change our attitudes and our ways of doing things. Have we allowed our Imperial Selves to become the sole and supreme arbiters of what we should think and do? Has the individual ‘self’ become weary of living responsibly in community with others?
Advent is a time of looking ahead in expectant hope: because we need a Saviour. We need a higher power to take us in hand and save us from our selfish and destructive imperial selves. Operating on just our own powers is simply not working. We find ourselves sinking into deeper and deeper isolation, cut off from the gifts and powers that God is offering us.
Today we hear the very first words of Saint Mark’s Gospel; and these words are all about change: change that is coming upon us, change that we should face, not in fear and dread but change that we should accept in faith and expectant hope. Because we all need what God can offer us in changing not only the world around us but in changing our own lives, which is perhaps the most difficult of all of the challenges we face.
Christ came to empower us with God’s Holy Spirit, an empowerment that should give comfort to us all; a power God gives us to comfort those around us and to change, for the better, the world in which we live.