Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The brief but powerful season of Advent is a time to turn with hope toward the Lord. Indeed, we will hear in the first reading from Isaiah a plea to God to help his people who have wandered far from him to make their way back in faith. The Psalm cries out even more clearly “Lord, make us turn to you. Let us see your face and we shall be saved!” A famous Advent hymn begins with the words “People look East, the time is near!” We are reminded in this season to turn to God with our whole heart. To turn to the Lord is to look to the One who is merciful and just, the One who created us out of love and calls us to union with Himself. In the Gospel, Jesus calls his disciples to a state of watchful expectation. Be prepared for the day of the coming of the Lord!
While Advent has a certain penitential character, it is distinct from the penitential nature of Lent. In Lent, we take on penances so that we can be more fully prepared to meditate on the mystery of our Lord’s Passion and Death. In Advent, on the other hand, our penance is one of hope – we look forward to something that is to come and to come very soon. The eager anticipation of the coming of Christmas is in itself a sort of penitential suffering. No one likes to wait! Yet, if we learn to wait well, we remain focused on the thing awaited. If we grow impatient, we turn our attention to other things and are ill-prepared for the thing so long anticipated. This season reminds us not to be distracted by those other things, by those lesser things, and instead invites us to renewal. What is it that prevents me from keeping my attention fixed on Jesus? How have I been distracted? Advent calls me to turn to the Lord once again.
The fact is that our distractions from the Lord do not make us happy. Rather, they rob us of hope. The nature of sin is to distort what is good. Not only distort, but blind. Sin blinds us to the good of which we are capable and blinds us to the goodness of God. The devil, famous liar that he is, wants to convince us that sin doesn’t matter much, and more, he wants to convince us that any kind of rule-following is just a silly game. The commandments, the law, and the prophets? Who needs them? Of course, the further we drift from the law and the prophets, the further we drift from living the way God has commanded, the less happy we are. We begin to feel lost and adrift, wanderers with no homeland. But hope, that great and silent spark, remains alive in us somehow. Do you feel that hope? Do you see it present? To each of us is given this great gift of hope so that, even when all seems dark and we feel most lost, the flicker of hope grabs our attention.
For what do we hope? Or, perhaps a better question, for whom do we hope? We hope for the coming of the Lord, for the one who will teach us how to follow God’s law and plan, for the one who will lead and guide us in the ways of righteousness and truth, we hope for the one who will lead us out of the quagmire of our sin and into the peace of a rightly ordered life. And so Advent begins with this call to turn to the Lord. The first step of the journey is to turn away from that which destroys hope. Remember that there is hope! As we turn to the Lord that spark of hope begins to burn more brightly. We will see the goodness to which we are called, not as an impossible ideal, but as a goal to be achieved with God’s grace and help. We will see the commandments, not as rules to be disregarded (so many adopt the antinomian idea that God’s commands are unimportant and law matters not!), but as lights that show us the way to happiness. The more we turn to the Lord, preparing for His coming, the more we will awaken our own desire for fulfillment. When we follow the commandments, when we are faithful to God’s law, something deeper is at work in our hearts. Following the rules lets us know we’re on track, but it also leads us to a deep desire for more. What more can we desire than the coming of the Savior? Jesus reminds us that the law and the prophets will not be changed, and that He Himself is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets! He comes to fulfill the promise contained within the following of the law, which is perfect reconciliation with the Father, which is heaven itself, which is peace on earth and good will to men.
So in this Advent season, let us turn to the Lord again. Isaiah echoes the many other prophets, as well as the Psalms and Lamentations, which cry out in sorrow for the ways humanity turns away from God. As we hear those words, let them remind us of our own need for mercy and of the hope that is burning in our hearts, calling us to fix our gaze on the east. The light will come to shine in the midst of our darkness. The commandments help us to see the light, but the true source of our hope is the light itself, not the commandments. Turn, look east! Turn, look for the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, look for the fulfillment of your hope! Jesus is coming soon! Let these weeks of Advent enkindle hope, refocus our gaze, and turn us back to the God of peace.