I’ve mentioned to you before in other connections a Polish Franciscan priest I came to know a half-century ago. He had been imprisoned by the Nazis in the concentration camp at Dachau during World War II. Over the years of our association, he told me much about his hellish ordeal. One part of his story has stood out in my mind and occurs to me frequently.
After more than two years of cruel incarceration, he was emaciated and starving to death. One day, he was clinging to the wire fence at the edge of the camp, staring aimlessly out into the surrounding woods, praying and preparing himself to die, when suddenly a young American soldier stepped out from behind a tree. One arm carried his rifle; the other lifted a finger to his lips signaling for silence. My friend realized that the hour of liberation had come. The youthful GI, he said, appeared to him like a god, a savior sent from on high, and his heart and mind were so filled with relief and eager expectation and inexpressible gratitude, that he had to take care lest the emotional excitement itself kill him!
That whole image has helped me over the past long years to understand the phenomenon of longing in suffering, of expectation and its ultimate fulfillment. I associate it always with the theme of Advent, a time of waiting for the Savior.
The words of Scripture just can’t do it on their own. They need to be received against the background of something we’ve experienced ourselves or the true life stories of persons that we know. 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 had the shame of being able to pass on to their children and grandchildren only the same misery that they themselves had so long endured. (Think of Syria today.) With no resources of their own, they cried out to the God they still believed in to do for them what they could not do for themselves. And the answer kept coming back, in the words of the prophets, “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 — you and me and millions of others whose situations are so much worse than ours.
Think back, please, to a time, a period, 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!
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 hands 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!