Back in the 1960’s, when I was a recently ordained priest assigned to full-time hospital chaplaincy, I came to know a Polish Franciscan priest who had been imprisoned by the Nazis in the concentration camp at Dachau during World War II. He told me that after more than two years of cruel incarceration, he was emaciated and literally starving to death. One day – the day he was certain would be his last – he was clinging to the cyclone fence at the edge of the camp, staring aimlessly out into the surrounding woods, praying and preparing himself to die, when a young American soldier stepped out halfway from behind a tree. One arm carried his rifle; the other lifted a finger to his lips signaling for silence, since he was afraid to be seen by others.
The youthful GI, Father Karas said, appeared to him like a god sent from on high to save him. He had to take care that he not cause his own death by unbridled excitement at the thought of imminent liberation. Over the years of our association, he told me much about his hellish 2-year ordeal.
That whole image, that I have carried with me for more than 50 years, has helped me to understand the phenomenon of longing in suffering, of expectation and its ultimate fulfillment. I associate it always with the theme of Advent. It’s difficult for us to get into the skin of those who have been ruthlessly stripped of their human dignity and are powerless to regain it. But to live vicariously what they have endured, as my Franciscan friend enabled me to do, we can appreciate so much more what it means to long for a savior.
The promises we heard again in today’s first reading were made originally to a people who had for generations suffered poverty, homelessness, and political oppression. They knew that all they could pass on to their children was the same misery. They prayed, and the answer kept coming back: “Rejoice! God loves you. God is just and merciful. Do not despair. Live in anticipation of the great day of your salvation, the Day of the Lord.” And to this day, that faith has sustained the People of God.
Think back, please, to a time, or a moment, in your life when you were virtually without hope, when you were fully aware that you could do nothing to reverse or erase the terrible thing that had befallen you or someone you loved. You remember what you did: you prayed! I can attest to such a scene I witnessed several years ago, when the 4-year-old son of friends of mine sustained a badly fractured skull and was rushed to the hospital, where it appeared that he was dying. All the technical armory of that excellent hospital and the tender care of its competent and caring staff were not enough to sustain the frantic parents. They were, as never before in their young lives, face to face with the frailty of human life, its smallness and vulnerability. They prayed constantly for days as the best medical care available brought recovery to their little one in three weeks’ time.
But this is what Advent is about. In the end, as we are breathing our last, what will we do, what can we do, but place ourselves in the care of the One who created us? At that point, we will have no doubt about the limits of our human powers! Advent is meant to stoke that awareness now so that for the rest of our journey we will daily be more conscious that we are merely creatures — and then live joyfully, peacefully, in good times and in bad, knowing that God is love and that we are created to bask in that love for all eternity!