Scripture in Advent
Bishop Martin Drennan, Bishop of Galway
What Pope John Paul said of the Jubilee Year applies perfectly to what we do at Christmas. He said, May the Great Jubilee be a canticle of praise and thanksgiving for the wonder of the Incarnation.
Christmas remembers the birth of Jesus who is called Saviour (Lk 2:11). It is more than that because what it celebrates is the gift of salvation. Many are present at the manger but all the focus is on Jesus. In the manger he shows us how the gospel is about receiving and giving. He receives tenderness, wonder, praise. He also gives as he reaches out and evokes wonder in the shepherds and Magi. He is little, poor, born in a stable. In his kingdom, people are called to the greatness of being little. He comes to live solidarity with those ho are insignificant in the eyes of the world. As he is the centre, he makes them the centre with him in his kingdom.
The gift becomes gift when it is received. In his gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles Luke spells out what this gift involves:
a) Deliverance from evil. Salvation is victory, it is peace, wholeness, integrity.
b) Forgiveness of sins (Lk 24:27; Acts 2:38; 5:31). Forgiveness enables the sinner to unlive sinful ways, e.g. Zaccheus unlives greed through generosity, Jesus came to bring release from what oppresses (Lk 4:18), cf. Lk 23:43 Today you will be with me in paradise.
Salvation is a process, In returning and in rest you will be saved (Is. 30:15). Advent continually refers to the transforming presence of God. Is 30:1-3 (seeking salvation in political alliances which has led to betrayed trust when the Egyptians did not even turn up for battle) is in sharp contrast with the joy of salvation described in Is 12:1-6 9 (here God’s saving presence inspires trust, confidence, gratitude). If that change God wants to bring about is to be effective there has to be a readiness to allow God to act as potter. The truth we see can blind us to the truth we don’t see, cf. Is.1:4-6 which portrays Judah as sick of heart (blind to the generosity of God). What is needed in his people is space for his gifts, availability for his call.
1. Need for salvation. (Sin can take the form of resistance or blindness)
The starting place for a fruitful Advent is a felt need for salvation, Redeem Israel, o God, from all its distress (Ps 25:22). God of hosts bring us back; let your face shine on us and we shall be saved (Ps 80:4). I will make a virtuous branch grow for David, who shall practice honestly and integrity in the land (Jer 33:15). The readings and psalms in the opening days of Advent express this intense desire for God’s saving presence. Isaiah outlines a situation of pride, superficiality in worship, social and political corruption injustice. A change of heart is necessary and God will take the initiative here. God teaches his way to the poor (Ps 25:9). A sense of poverty opens hearts to hear and receive from the Lord. The gospel of the first Sunday stresses that when Jesus comes in glory it is to save, to give eternal life. Advent encourages a spirituality of responsibility – let God’s kingdom come, remove whatever hinders us from receiving Christ with joy. Arab saying: It is easier to see a black beetle on a black stone on a black night than to see pride in our own hearts.
2. The gift of salvation.
God’s response to a world of crying out for salvation is the gift of a child. A child is the guarantee of continuity, of stability. Is 9 says that the child is the key to the changes he describes – darkness replaced by light, oppression replaced by freedom, an end to way, the gift of joy, justice.
Is. 6 describes his personal experience of God’s intervention. An intense presence of God as holy stirs us a sense of unworthiness in his presence. This is followed by an awareness of being purified, of healing from sin. That healing results in an availability for mission. God comes to transform his people. The readings in Advent call attention to many aspects of the potter (Is. 29:16) at work. Salvation has many facets:
– peace (Is. 11)/ Jesus is our peace (Eph 2:14).
– unity of Jew and Gentile (Is 2:2-5).
– consolation, strength for the weak (Is 40:1-11)
– forgiveness of sins (Is 1:16-17; Ps 103; Lk 5:17-26). Freedom from the sentence that sin brings (Zeph 3:14-18).
– healing (prayer for Wednesday of the 2nd week). The blind will see, the deaf will hear (Is 35:5)
– purification (Sir 48:1-4, 9-11).
– the lifting of burdens (Mt 11:28-30)
– joy in God’s word (Ps1). The joy of salvation is rooted in hope (Is 12; prayer of 3rd Sunday). Joy will translate into serenity. God is with us.
– God seeks out the lost (Mt 18:12-14).
– He provides a banquet, abundance, (Is 26:1-9).
– the desert ( a place of intimacy with God, Jr 2:2-3) will flourish (Is 35:1-6). Isaiah calls for a living encounter with God, for acceptance of God as Lord in all areas of life. The choice is between faith (focus on God) and fear (focus on problems).
– Salvation is an ongoing liberation (Is 2:2-5; 7:10-14; 9:1-7; 11:1-9) – the child who is God-with-is changes all, bringing about the ideal, harmony and peace. Is. Sets out to show how essentially religious Judah’s social problem is and how essentially social true religion is.
God comes as redeemer (go’el). The go’el defends the interests of a person or group, especially the poorest members of a family. He pays the debts of a relative fallen into poverty, redeems one who has been sold as a slave (Lev 25:23-28, 47-49). God is our kinsman, our go’el. He turns his face towards us that we may be saved (Ps 80:2-3). Your redemption is at hand is the Advent message. The coming of Jesus set in motion a dramatic battle between good and evil. We are drawn into that combat.
The Incarnation is but the first step to Easter. Advent is doted with figures of hope – Isaiah, the Baptist, Mary. Hope needs to be embodied in people (Pope Paul II). Those who have been transformed by God are witnesses to what God ahs done and is doing. Saints are the best signs of hope in our world. For all of us the experience of goodness gives rise to hope, for God is ever more (Von Balthasar). Those in tune with God notice his presence shaping and reshaping them and their world. Their hope knows where their staying power lies, namely in God. IT overflows into taking responsibility for the world around them. People of hope are not victims of the bad behaviour of others. They know they are shaped by their past but not imprisoned there, so they take on the responsibility of making society a better place. In that way the past is changed into the present. We do not know what is coming but we do know that we shall conquer (Cardinal Newman).