You and I, I’m sure, can count at least one or two persons, maybe more, among our friends and acquaintances, perhaps even within our own families, who know from personal experience what it’s like to be helpless, very close to hopeless, and to wait for someone to save them. They were like persons trapped in the bottom of a well, facing certain death unless someone became aware of their plight and lowered a rope or a ladder to get them out.
Among such persons who have entered my life was a Polish Franciscan priest, whom I have mentioned to you before in other connections. He had been imprisoned by the Nazis for 27 months in the concentration camp at Dachau during World War II.
After those years of cruel incarceration, he was emaciated and literally 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, since he knew that he had been seen. My priest friend realized that the hour of liberation had come. The youthful GI, he said, appeared to him like a god, or 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 kill him!
That whole image, that I have carried with me for 60 years, has helped me to understand the phenomenon of longing in suffering, of expectation and its ultimate fulfillment. I have always associated it with Advent.
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. Generation after generation, they were able to pass on to their children and grandchildren only the same misery. 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! In this too, God loves you. God is just and merciful. Don’t despair. Live in anticipation of the great day of your salvation, the Day of the Lord.”
Think back, please, to a time 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!
And 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!
Amen — so be it!