Emmanuel; God-is-with-us – that’s what we celebrate through Christmas and that’s what we’ve been preparing for during Advent. We celebrate God-with-us in a particular time and place through our celebration of the birth of Jesus. But we remember it every year because we also use the Christmas celebration to remind ourselves that God continues to be with us. That is what is so remarkable about the Christmas season: that God-is-with-us now, not just in a stable in Palestine so many years ago, but now! Advent is the time to remind ourselves of this incredible truth and prepare ourselves to acknowledge it once again.
Half way through Advent we pause for a moment to celebrate Gaudete Sunday, a Sunday for rejoicing. Isaiah paints a picture of regeneration. The desert that once seemed to be dead is now bursting with life; eyes that lacked sight, ears incapable of capturing and holding sound, limbs without strength, and tongues devoid of speech are all given new life. There will be no death in that age of fulfilment, no limitations, no mourning. As we move deeper and deeper into the reality of God’s presence in our midst, we will discover the meaning of true fulfilment. Advent invites us to be more perceptive, and to take time out to see the presence of God with us. Like the people mentioned in the gospel, we may need to step aside, to ‘go out into the wilderness’ in order to see these signs. Look within your own life, your family, your workplace, your neighbourhood and recognise the sure signs of God’s presence in our midst.
What is essential and truly preparatory to Jesus’ proclamation of good news is John’s summons to conversion of heart. The “way” that Isaiah wanted prepared in the wilderness is one that must be prepared in the wilderness of the human heart. The good news will then find a hearing when at last it is proclaimed. The greatest obstacle to conversion of heart is complacency – a complacency that especially stems from privileged status and a sense that one is different from the despised outsiders and so can rest secure. Jesus will “baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire”. That is, he will seek to catch up human lives into the fire that is God’s love, communicated through the Spirit. But only hearts that are truly repentant and converted will be able to be grasped within a “baptism” of this kind. John’s baptism with water is a preparatory rite of conversion, readying human hearts for the entrance of this message about God’s love, the true “knowledge of the Lord” that Jesus will impart.
The first Sunday of Advent sees the commencement of the new liturgical year. This new liturgical cycle is referred to as Year A and features the gospel of Matthew. Advent comes from the Latin word Adventus which literally means ‘coming’; it is also reflected in the Greek word Parousia, which is used to describe the second coming of Jesus. So Advent is a time of preparation and anticipation of the coming of Christ into the world that is celebrated in the Nativity at Christmas. The gospel passage chosen for today’s reading richly expresses that anticipation and need for preparation. In the Nativity, we celebrate God become human; God present in the world in a physical way. Advent is a time to remember the many and varied ways that God continues to be present in the world.
Luke’s Gospel has been loaded with surprises: the poor are rich, sinners find salvation, the Kingdom of God is found in our midst. Here we see the greatest surprise of all. We are confronted with the crucified Jesus, whom faith tells us is King and Saviour of all. The irony is that the inscription placed on the cross, perhaps in mockery, contains the profoundest of truth. As the leaders jeer, the thief crucified by his side recognizes Jesus as Messiah and King, and finds salvation. Jesus is King, but not the kind of king we might have imagined or expected. His kingship was hidden from many of his contemporaries, but those who had the eyes of faith were able to see. As modern disciples of Jesus, we, too, struggle at times to recognize Jesus as King. Today’s Gospel invites us to make our own judgment. With eyes of faith, we, too, recognize that Jesus, the crucified One, is indeed King and Saviour of all.
Although the narrative readings for today concentrate on the disruptions that will accompany the coming of God, they also contain hints of the salvation that will finally arrive. Malachi speaks of the sun of justice that comes with healing rays; Luke promises that the faithful disciples will escape without a hair of their heads being destroyed. Just as the descriptions of the upheavals should not be understood literally, neither should these descriptions. It may be that the faithful followers of Jesus will suffer terrible agonies. The point here is that even in the midst of their pain, they will be protected. The healing rays of justice and the rescue of the lives of the upright are references to salvation. God does not come at the end to condemn, but to save. Furthermore, the suffering that precedes the end is intended for purification and refinement, not punishment. Christians are exhorted to live in this end time with patient endurance of difficulties.
Belief in resurrection is not the same as the conviction of the immortality of the soul. The latter is based on the makeup of the human person; the former rests on the fidelity of God. The doctrine of resurrection is grounded in the concept of covenant, which claims that God has established a relationship with human beings. Jesus assures us that death is not powerful enough to break the ties that bind us in covenant with God. This is the hope in which we live by the grace given us from God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Our future is already present and, therefore, we are called to live lives that have been radically transformed. However, the future has not yet completely dawned, and so we find ourselves living both in this age and in the age to come. Thus we live future lives, but we live them in the present. As difficult as this may be, we have the promise that the Lord will strengthen us and guard us. We have the instruction of our religious tradition that directs our minds and hearts. When we live lives of the future, we truly enable that future to dawn in the present.
Zacchaeus’ short defence has usually been taken as an expression of a conversion he has just undergone, a statement of intent to amend his sinful ways and adopt in the future a new pattern of life. The problem with this is that in the Greek text the verb is in the present, not the future. Zacchaeus does not say, ‘… I will give to the poor and, …, I will restore‘, but ‘I give …., I restore’. He seems to be stating present policy. Maybe he is not such a bad tax collector after all. Maybe he is not the one who has to undergo conversion – or at least not the only one.
Jesus extols the humility of the one who admits being a sinner, and can accept the implications of that admission. This is the kind of prayer that is described in the reading from Sirach and the Psalm response. It is those who can admit that they are needy who turn to God in that need. It is those who trust that God will be their strength in the face of their weaknesses who are strengthened. Paul’s own prayer demonstrates the attitudes that should be ours as we pray. Like the Pharisee, he acknowledges his success. He has competed well; he has finished the course; he has kept the faith. However, unlike the Pharisee, he acknowledges that God is the source of any good he has been able to accomplish. The Lord stood by him and gave him strength. If there is any glory, it belongs to God. Paul’s confident prayer springs from a humble heart.
The idea of prayer changing us, changes our prayer – giving it greater dynamism and urgency. While we may not know the mind or will of God, we often know our own thoughts and desires. We can usually pinpoint what needs recrafting or reshaping in us so that we may live out the goodness and love of God more clearly. Confronting and converting these obstacles, with God, can see our prayer at its boldest and bravest. At these times we can enjoy God’s healing and forgiveness. And because conversion is a lifetime process, Jesus encourages us not to lose heart but to pray always and hold on to faith even when the going gets tough. May this Eucharist help us to move away from demanding that God change his mind or will, to allowing his love to keep converting and changing us.