Advent 02, Year C

Nothing is impossible for God (Lk. 1:37)

After saying that the Eucharist is a glimpse of heaven appearing on earth, the encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, no. 19, immediately adds: “It is a glorious ray of the heavenly Jerusalem which pierces the clouds of our history and lights up our journey.”

And very dark clouds have fallen on human history.

The first reading from the book of Baruch, though exuding joy, will not be properly understood, I don’t think, unless some reference is made to the long dark night of the Jewish people that came over them with the fall of Jerusalem and its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar and the subsequent exile of thousands to Babylon.

In the second reading, we have the apostle Paul stating that he prays with joy for the Philippians, his loyal partners in work of evangelization. This manifest joy can perhaps make one lose sight of the cloud that being a prisoner supposes, precisely the condition in which Paul was when he wrote his letter.

And the gospel reading seems to indicate that the odds were so much against the Jewish people with the hated Roman invaders—Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate—and their puppets—Herod and his brother Philip, and Lysanias—being in control and the high priesthood being in the hands of Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas. Were not these two perhaps currying favor with the Roman authorities lest the office of the high priest pass onto another family?

As for the present, I think it is worth repeating here no. 20 of the above-mentioned encyclical that I already cited six months ago. It says:

Many problems darken the horizon of our time. We need
but think of the urgent need to work for peace, to base
relationships between peoples on solid premises of justice
and solidarity, and to defend human life from conception
to its natural end. And what should we say of the thousand
inconsistencies of a “globalized” world where the weakest,
the most powerless and the poorest appear to have so little
hope!

But as the same scriptural readings and the same encyclical make very clear, hope occurs in the concrete realities of human history, no matter how horrible or disheartening they may appear to be (cf. Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., “Hopes and Realities,” in the Dec. 4, 2006 issue of America). So, the prophet Baruch proclaims: “Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever.” Prisoner Paul, for his part, expressed his confidence that the one who began a good work in the Philippians would continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. And John the Baptist, receiving God’s word during the Roman occupation and not despairing of the bad situation brought about by the wicked who were in control, assured his hearers that all flesh would see the salvation of God. Not any less encouraging, of course, was John Paul II when he taught:

A significant consequence of the eschatological tension
inherent in the Eucharist is also the fact that it spurs us
on our journey through history and plants a seed of living
hope in our daily commitment to the work before us.
Certainly the Christian vision leads to the expectation of
“new heavens” and “a new earth” (Rev 21:1), but this
increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility
for the world today.

The Holy Father added a little later, “It is in this world that Christian hope must shine forth!”

So then, as Father Harrington says, hope is not an escape or a fantasy, since it involves real persons in real times and places. Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in a letter he wrote from prison to his friend Eberhard Bethge, though he was speaking specifically of faith and not of hope:

I discovered later, and I am still discovering up to this
moment, that it is only by living completely in this world
that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon
any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a
saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called
priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a
sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean
living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes
and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we
throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking
seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the
world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That I think is
faith, that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man
and a Christian (cf. Jer. 45!).

Nor should hope that turns up even in difficult situations be mistaken for optimism. For optimism, according to Jürgen Moltmann is asking the question, “Given present circumstances, what is the best future we can hope for?” whereas hope asks, “Given what the future must be, what must radically change in the present?”

Please allow me to say that, in my case, I do not believe there is any other change more radical than the repentance (metanoia) that shows itself in the valley of my weakness and faintheartedness being filled up, the mountains and hills of my pride being brought low, the winding roads of my propensity to think ill of others being made straight and the rough ways of my anger and lack of understanding being made smooth, nothing more transforming than the repentance, the conversion, that I also hope will finally lead me to the surrender Bonhoeffer spoke of. When all this is done to me, in accordance with God’s word and will, then will I share in this Vincentian blessing: “We cannot better assure our eternal happiness than by living and dying in the service of the poor, in the arms of providence, and with genuine renouncement of ourselves in order to follow Jesus Christ.” Then, too, will I be part, as participant in the breaking of the bread, of that glorious ray that pierces the clouds of our history and lights up our journey.