Hope in Times of Darkness
Readings for First Sunday of Advent, Year B
- First Reading: Isaiah 63:16-17, 19
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19
- Second Reading: First Corinthians 1:3-9
- Gospel: Mark 13:33-37
When I was a child I used to long for Christmas so much that I promised myself that I’d never run away from home unless it was right after Christmas. (Congregation laughs.)
Also it seemed in those days that a child’s yearning makes the days longer, because it seemed like Christmas came every three years. But now that I’ve reached the ancient age of seventy six, it seems like Christmas comes about every other Thursday. (Congregation laughs.)
Advent has always been a happy time for most people, even in difficult times, because there is something about Christmas and the coming of the Messiah and the coming of the Lord, and the realization of all the promises that God has made to His people find their fulfillment in a stable, a little child, a poor young teenage mother and her gravely worried husband into whose care God had placed this most precious twosome.
I think there’s something that stirs great hope in us. And so Advent is really a time for hope. It’s a time when we put aside major worries in our life and realize that God is with us.
This year Pope Benedict wrote his second encyclical on hope. And it’s a beautiful, short but beautiful, document. And he says for a Christian to have hope means to know that we are definitely loved, and that, whatever happens to us, we are awaited by love.
In the First Reading today, we have words from the prophet Isaiah.
It’s written, this section of Isaiah is written, at the time when the Jewish people were up in Babylon and praying to God that they would be able to return to their own country and rebuild their temple and once again be at peace in their own homes.
It was a desperate time because they were enslaved. It was a time when many felt that God had abandoned them.
And that’s why Isaiah says, “Would that you would rend the heavens and come down as you did in the olden days with Moses and the people who were in slavery in Egypt and the wonders that you did.
“Why do you not see us? Yes, we have sinned, but you are a forgiving God, you care for us. Why do you hide from us? Is it that you’re angry with us?”
Of course, the thing that makes this a lovely passage is to know that, in the harshest and most difficult of times, the prophet is speaking like a man in terrible need of God Himself. Not just to know that God exists, but to feel His strength, to feel that He is once again manifesting Himself to His people.
And where do we find this hidden God?
Well, there’s an old story about Omar the candle maker.
Omar the candle maker is outside his house and he’s busy looking through the grass. He’s feverishly looking for something when his neighbour comes and he says, “Omar, what are you looking for?”
And he says, “I lost my wallet and I’m trying to find my wallet.”
And his friend says, “Well, where did you lose it?”
He says, “I lost it in my house, in my bedroom.”
And he says, “Well, why aren’t you in your house and bedroom searching for it?”
And he says, “Oh, it’s too dark in there. It’s much nicer to search out here in the sunshine.”
The meaning of this story is that we’re always looking for God in the wrong places.
We look for Him very often when there’s something lovely — like maybe we win the Mark 6 and it’s a sign of the presence of God and how blessed we all are for having this kind of opportunity.
And yet, it’s always looking in the wrong place.
Because, very often and for good reason, we find God not so much in the happy days of our lives, we find God when we’re alone and suddenly darkness closes in on our life and we begin to wonder and have doubts about not only the future but also the present. And then we begin very simply to pray.
And this is the right thing.
Because you see the Advent candles that we light up here, there’s four candles — three are violet coloured, meaning that the three prepare us for the coming of Christmas, and the pink one is one of joy that Christmas is with us.
But a candle only, only, shows its true nature and its true value in darkness. We don’t put candles around with all the lights on. It is when we turn the lights off that a candle begins to glow and give us hope.
And that is why at Christmas time we fill our homes with candles. But most of all because of the prophecy that says Jesus is the light of the world and he comes in a very special way at Christmas time.
This is an indication that the problems that face us and the difficulties that face us, and especially in these present times — the news of the last few weeks and it seems like not only the world is full of trepidation and fear because of the onset of perhaps a more bleak future and a difficult future and a future where there will be lots of pain — and at this time we begin to shirk and to shrink back from it, for we do not want anything to disturb perhaps the way we have been going. We wonder what will happen to us.
And so we sound like Isaiah in the First Reading, the beginning when Isaiah is saying, “You must show your face. Why haven’t you come down and delivered us? We are in very difficult times.”
And what Isaiah gives them is the word of God.
And the word of God is, “I have never left you. I am with you.
“I am more bright as a candle that shines in the darkness in your life now than perhaps I was when you were following other lights and other ways, when you thought that, perhaps, that life was a matter of controlling it, instead of forgetting that you do not control anything important in life, that you are vulnerable and needy.
“Because only when you realize that you are not in control of things and you recognize your own vulnerability and your own need, is love possible.”
And what kind of life is worthwhile without love, true love, the love that Jesus comes — poor, rejected, alone, but the light for the whole world to understand that God comes to share the darkness and share the pain that we might have new life and new strength to it.
Many people are slightly in tears in the last few days and they say, “What happened? How can God do this to us?”
God isn’t what brought on this crisis. God is the solution, the response to this crisis, when no matter what happens we must remember, as the Pope says, to have hope is to know that we are definitely loved and cherished and cared for — definitely loved and cherished and cared for — and that whatever happens to us, whatever path we are asked to walk to another part of our lives, what awaits us is God and His love. And with this we make each other strong.
The second thing about difficult times is perhaps a realisation that maybe we have been preoccupied by a lot of false gods around us. Maybe we have invested our hope in success, our hope in riches, our hope in never seeing pain.
Maybe these are the gods that have to come crashing down before we once again realize that we are here to share love, compassion, perfection.
We are here to make a new world. Each generation must build a new world so that we come closer and closer to the final coming of the Lord.
And that is the Second Coming, the coming at the end of time.
But the one that comes at the end of time must be brought to us by our own good selves.
Jewish mothers, praying for the Messiah, used to say to their children, “Every good deed that you do, brings the Messiah one step closer.”
And that, perhaps, is the challenge of difficulty.
Two things can happen.
Number one is we shirk and fear and each day we worry more and more about what is going to happen — and we live in the future. And those who live in the future, die in the present.
Or perhaps we have so many regrets of what brought this on or what brought that on — and we live in the past. And the past is already gone and we’ll always be chasing shadows that breed only guilt.
What Advent is saying is we must live now with faith. We must live now with love. And what drives you on to live with faith and to share love is hope. Hope is the great virtue.
I’d like to read to you a poem by Charles Péguy. He wrote a poem. I’m told that it is seventy-six pages long. And it’s probably the greatest masterpiece of any poet in the 20th century. He died in the First World War on the battlefield, but he left this beautiful poem. And I will just read you one small bit.
“I am, says God, master of the three virtues: Faith, Charity and Hope.
Faith is like a faithful wife.
Charity is the ardent mother.
But Hope is a little girl.
I am, says God, the master of virtues.
Faith is she who remains steadfast through centuries and centuries.
Love is she who gives herself during centuries and centuries.
But my little Hope is she who rises every morning.
I am, says God, the Lord of virtues.
Faith is she who remains firm and strong.
Charity is she who unbends during centuries and centuries.
But my little Hope is she who every morning wishes me good day.”
It is true that the most important of all things that hold us close to God is not faith — men can live without faith. It is not love — men can live without love. But no-one can live without hope.
And so difficult times make us aware that of these three virtues, the least known, the least talked about, the one that we always feel is like a little child, is the one who feeds Faith, and the one who gives joy to Love.
And so it is the little girl that we ask God to grace us with — the humble little girl who says every morning is a new day. She calls Faith good morning and calls Love to the morning.
And this is what it means to prepare for Christmas:
To help each other as we go through these difficult times, but with hope in our hearts. A hope that feeds the deep faith that we must recommit ourselves to our friends and to people and to the world in which God is.
And, also, that we commit ourselves to reaching out in love and caring and compassion.
And, most of all, with a joyful, light heart, because Hope is a little girl who gets up every morning and wishes us good day.