Advent is a complicated season of past and future, and of hope... and it's the hope that can trip us up
“John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!… Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
—Matthew 3:1-2, 10
Advent presumes that we Christians have been formed in an adult faith that is prepared to celebrate an adult Christmas. And, as we know, Advent isn’t a season that is focused only on the past, because this is the time we focus our attention on One who is among us right now and who will come in glory in the future.
I have to admit, though, that I’ve been struggling this Advent. It’s a season of hope, and I’m being tripped up on that very thing. I hope for many things. I hope for justice. I hope for peace. I hope for equality and an end to poverty and oppression. Surely these are good and worthy and Christian hopes.
But that isn’t the hope we’re meant to hold dear in Advent. However noble the desires may be, my hopes have been very subjective — some might even call them relativistic — because what I may recognize as injustice in the world, others see as rightly ordered, or I might be complacent and not recognize discrimination when others feel alienated and dehumanized. And I think this is why Advent has felt underwhelming this year. I hope for something. Someone else may be hoping for the opposite; even in what we hope for, there is division.
So much hope and so much disappointment. How many sermons will be preached this Sunday about what we hope for? I wonder who we’re really helping with all this hope?
So, then, if Advent isn’t about hoping for, then what is it?
Advent is about hoping in. Specifically, it is about hoping in the power of God and having the courage to trust that all things can be set right and that justice will prevail. This is why we hear Isaiah crying out, “The wolf shall be the guest of the lamb … There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord” (11:6, 9ab). Through Isaiah, God promises to act with and for his people.
The liturgy is reminding us that we can’t save the world. Only God can bring justice to life in individual hearts and minds. It is this birth for which we wait and pray during these Advent days.
In our Gospel, Matthew recalls Isaiah’s promises by associating that prophet of the Old Covenant with the great prophet of the New—John the Baptist. But John expands on Isaiah’s vision and message, calling us to away from sin and all-too-human preferences and agendas toward the ways of God. John doesn’t mince words: “Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” It’s harsh and vivid language, but John’s point is unmistakable: preparing the way for the Lord requires constant effort. This is the time we’ve been given and we are expected to do something with it.
John’s call for conversion is where our Advent hoping in and our day-to-day lives intersect. Our adult Advent becomes a season of discipleship.
In the end, we wait in faith, hoping in the One who has the power and the love necessary to renew all of creation. To “prepare the way of the Lord” means living out the call to conversion and discipleship to which we recommit ourselves every time we attentively listen to God’s Word, receive the Eucharist, or mark ourselves with the Sign of the Cross. Because we’re disciples we hope (and work!) for, but our hope must always be grounded in.
So, going into the Second Week of Advent, I’ll try to remember that this season isn’t about me and what I want… or hope for. This season is about what God wants for me — for all of us — and what God is birthing in all of creation.
What are the good fruits of your life? Where do you need to be “pruned” so that you can produce more abundant fruits?
How are your trust and hope in God reflected in the choices you make each day?
How do the words of Isaiah and John the Baptist inspire you to action and service?
Words of Wisdom: “O God who is to come, grant me the grace to live now, in the hour of your Advent, in such a way that I may merit to live in your forever, the blissful hour of your eternity.”—Karl Rahner, Encounters With Silence