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The Advent Journey

Fr Dennis Smith, Advent Sunday, November 29th, 2015

This weekend  only the proverbial ostrich  could have failed  to notice that  TV and radio news reports,  as well as  newspaper front pages,  have given  much attention  to what’s  being described  as a leadership  crisis in the  party of  Her Majesty’s loyal opposition. How this crisis is resolved in its unfolding we wait to see.

On this first Sunday of Advent our readings in this mass also focus on a crisis of one sort or another. Let’s first have a quick look at the crisis experienced by our ancestors in the faith over the period of about 600 years that separates the readings. By the time of Jeremiah the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had split. The kingdom of Judah and its capital city, Jerusalem, had been invaded and occupied by the might of the Babylonians. Some leaders of the community had been taken into exile where they wept by the waters of Babylon in bitter anguish.

Those remaining in Jerusalem and the country around the holy city had seen destruction, including the destruction of the Temple and the Holy of Holies at its centre. Lands and homes were stolen. In the mind of Jeremiah the broken people were suffering for the ways of their country.

Prophets like Amos had, years previously, warned of God’s abhorrence of injustices and the exploitation of the poor and marginalised in their society. Jeremiah sees the crisis, he knows the sense of hopelessness.

In Thessalonica there is a different crisis. It’s the crisis of persecution. We don’t know much of the detail: prejudice, or eviction or censorship. We can forget that these early congregations were a tiny minority of their communities.  

It’s the experience of Christians in some countries today, not just people of other faiths. Sectarianism in some parts of these islands is an example. Some Muslims in this country feel that they are blamed for the violence of Islamic State.

Persecution takes many forms: it’s abusive and it’s dehumanising. The passage we heard from Luke, as today’s Gospel, is set in the closing days of the ministry and life of Jesus. The clash between him and the authorities is reaching a climax. The religious and civic establishment was very nervous about how people were warming to Jesus. Jesus was freeing people from religious shackles. He’d spoken against these shackles too often and too clearly.

Jesus welcomed people who were outside the neat rules of official religion, those labelled as unclean. Already in this chapter He had compared the widow’s offering very favourably to the offering of the rich. He’d spoken about the destruction and warned of destructive things happening. He spoke of the threat of prison and punishment for following him. His language had become apocalyptic. He warned his followers to be very alert.

Crisis is in the air in each of these readings. Yet it’s not just the theme of crisis that they have in common. Each also has the sense of these being defining moments, turning points. The Hebrew people suffered defeat at the hands of the Babylonians, the Thessalonian Christians persecuted because they’d done the scary thing of standing up for Jesus.

Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel, is at a clear watershed in his ministry; there was no going back to the life of carpentry and being unnoticed. As the tension between Jesus and the authorities deepened he speaks of an inevitable clash in which he would be the victim.

The biblical witness in these passages is an essential element of the Advent season beginning today. It is the new year of speaking for the marginalised, of giving hope to many near and far. It is the new year of speaking and living good news for our nearest and dearest and those sisters and brothers whom we only know at a distance.

Consider the word of God spoken by Jeremiah. In all the devastation, Jeremiah, who knew of the misery of those exiled and of those occupied, this Jeremiah who has often been dubbed the prophet of doom, also knows God’s ways. He remembers how God heard the cries of the Hebrews in the slave camps of the pharaohs. Jeremiah talks of a person bringing hope and dignity to the people, a descendant of the great King David: ‘a branch from the root f David’. For Jeremiah the crisis didn’t mean an end to God’s creative imagination.

What Jeremiah saw as the branch from the root of David isn’t clear. Was it a particular person? Jesus? To tell a people not to be despondent, because in 500 years or so there was to be a saviour isn’t helpful! It’s not likely he’s thinking of the Persian leader, Cyrus, who in a generation’s time would allow the exiles home.

Jeremiah’s letter to those exiled in Babylon is full of purpose, which always gives hope. In his letter to the Thessalonians Paul is very encouraging. He thanks them for their faith. He thanks God for the congregation in Thessalonica. He prays that they grow in faith and that they might love each other and asks them to strive for holiness. He identifies with them by speaking of his experience of persecution and other troubles. These things are part of the pattern of life, but these aren’t the whole story. He affirms their vocation and their purpose. He tells them they are a living example of purpose and faith.

Jesus speaks not only of the inevitability of the consequences of his life and ministry for him. He also speaks to his followers, to whoever was listening and moved by him.

The passage of today’s Gospel speaks of great calamities, the arrest and persecution of his followers. He says, ‘now when these things take place, stand up and raise your heads. Because your redemption is drawing near.’

He takes a tip from the natural world: the leaves on the fig tree mean that summer is coming. Just as the farmer is attentive to the passing seasons, so too must we always be alert to the dangers of that harshness of life, lest that binds us to the God of life. The disciples must have had that call to being alert echoing in their ears as holy week unfolded.

We begin Advent with this call to be alert! Christmas is a moving and inspiring season. Despite the associated tensions and busyness, there’s a sense of warmth, a sense of hope for many. Some of this mat be mere sentimentality. At the heart of Christmas is a young woman considered unclean despite Joseph’s willingness to marry her; a birth in worse conditions than would have been normal.

This is the incarnation, the presence of God in human form identifying with, at one with, Jeremiah’s Jerusalem, at one with the persecuted Thessalonians. The harsh realities do not hide the presence of God born in human form. In life, in death and in new life, undefeated, the creating God is there. Jesus is there, the Spirit is there.

Advent is the journey to marking Christmas; celebrating, feeling and announcing the Good News. Light the lights, adorn the trees, gather round the tables of hospitality, for Immanuel, God-with-us and with each in humankind downtrodden by force, or persecution, or the shackles of religion.

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