Second Sunday of Advent A – 04 December 2016 – Hoping Against Hope!
How often have we heard someone say “it is all downhill from here” meaning things are looking good. Two weeks ago in the food pantry, however, a woman used the same words to mean things were not looking good for her and her family.
Last week after Mass a parishioner said to me his life is going up hill now. He was once at the bottom of the heap and now things are looking better but getting to the top is slow and hard work, he said.
Daunting as they are such challenging journeys are normal. They are the storylines for films, music, poetry and literature — our everyday lives. A person trying to overcome difficulties enters a land of possibilities where there may be unknown dangers. Only with perseverance and help from others will the person survive the journey and come out of it transformed.
In the biblical and religious imagination mountain tops are thought to be close to where God lives. If you could just reach that summit you would be OK. Last week the scriptures summoned us to that mountaintop, the eternal City of Jerusalem, a place where one could be safe, secure; living in harmony with other people.
In the first reading today Isaiah brims with enthusiasm with the hope that a commander will emerge to lead people up to that holy mountain. The larger context for this prophecy is helpful here.
The Israelites were being pummeled by a powerful Assyrian regime that would destroy the people and their cities. Isaiah prophesied that the people would bounce back thanks to a leader who has wisdom, strength and … fear of God; one who will maintain justice for poor and afflicted people. The “shoot of Jesse” rising up from the stump (the destroyed City of Jerusalem) is a reference to military victories.
We Christians have interpreted Isaiah’s prophecy to mean that Jesus will be the hero when actually Isaiah was referring to the liberator of the Israelites at that time — the boy king Josiah. Josiah, a descendant of David, did initiate a religious renaissance, rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple. Sadly, the peace lasted for only about 30 years when the Babylonians recaptured the Israelites and placed them into exile.
Much later John the Baptist also preached enthusiastically about a hero, the Coming One, who would be the liberator. John, the educated son of a priest, would be part of an elite class today. Feeling the need to change his life he retreated to the wilderness where he lived off the grid. Like mountains, the desert also has symbolic meaning in the bible. It is a place of transformation, a sacred space where one could go to the depths of one’s body, mind and soul, wrestle with the challenges of life, all with the hope of rising up again renewed.
Because of his desire to change, John identified with those living on the fringes of society. He condemned the elite class for paying attention to their own agendas at the expense of others. His message to repent, that is, to change our ways of living, challenged everyone within earshot.
The gospel of Matthew, which we will read all during this liturgical year, begins with an account of the birth of Jesus, the visit of the wise astronomers and the massacre of innocent children.
This sets the stage for the passages we heard last week and today. People were frightened. What would happen to them next? Many of them, rich and poor, powerful and weak, scrambled to the wilderness to hear what John the Baptizer had to say. The apostle Paul also addressed the tensions between classes and cultures. He called for endurance and harmony.
Today, there is great apprehension in our nation given the possibility that the laws of our land could run contrary to some of the values held by us. The passage in Isaiah calls for justice. In Hebrew the word is tzedakah which refers not merely to acts of charity but to a social obligation to defend people from the ills of humanity and oppressive leadership.
Our role is to assist people living on the edges of society in troubled times. Angela Warner  reminded me that the modern day prophet Dorothy Day put it this way. “The greatest challenge is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?”
Advent is a season to think about our journeys and those of others — both uphill and downhill journeys. It is a time of anticipation, preparation, and in the words of Pope Francis written just this past week, “a time of mercy.” Now is the season for you and me to rekindle our faith and our hope against all hope that night will turn to the light of day.”
- Angela Warner is the director of the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry where hundreds of families are given food every week.