Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the prophet Baruch (a book that Catholics accept but Protestants and Jews do not). Here he tells the people to stop mourning because God will deliver them from their suffering. Luke’s Gospel tells us about the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist. The Word of God came to John and he preached the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
We’ve often heard that it’s darkest just before the dawn. From a physics perspective it’s actually not true: it’s darkest in the middle of the night, midnight. Just before dawn we can see the sun brightening the horizon.
But there is something to this adage. Darkness is hard on us. Many of us are familiar with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) where some of us report increased depression during times of the year with long nights and the longer the darkness, the worse it gets. Sometimes we can fall into a type of despair where we wonder if it will ever be light again. The “darkest before the dawn” can describe this despair.
We live in an era where events big and small come to us at the speed of light. Whether it’s 24 hour news stations or social media, we hear about suffering and violence as they happen. And it’s become popular and even fashionable to see these events through the lens of despair, believing that our world is getting worse and worse.
As believers that God created us, Jesus redeemed us, and the Holy Spirit sanctified us, how do we respond? Well, we can respond with optimism. We all like to think of ourselves as optimists and it’s a good thing. Optimism allows us to look at the cup as half full instead of half empty and it’s not a bad way to go through life.
But optimism has limits. Even the most optimistic among us knows that a long series of bad events can wear us down. For all that we want to think good things about our future, even the best of us can weary.
Instead I think Advent calls us not to optimism, but to hope. Hope differs from optimism because hope calls us to faith. Hope allows us to see suffering and darkness but not stop there. Hope allows us to see our path not through human eyes, but through God’s eyes.
When Luke wrote our Gospel reading today he recognized the need for hope. The earliest followers of Jesus never had it easy, but their community, and the larger Jewish community, saw the Romans destroy their Temple. Their existence as a community, as a people chosen by God, was in great peril. Even the best optimists feared the worst.
And in the midst of this we find ourselves meeting an odd figure: John the Baptist. Clearly this was a time called for hope over optimism. Of the people of the time, nobody would have chosen John. There is reason to believe that he belonged to a splinter group called the “Essenes.” They separated themselves and today some thought of them as members of a cult.
But we revere John for a good reason. He proclaimed something we should hear: repent and return to the true path. Years ago I was able to watch the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean. There was a point where the sun was just below the horizon but there were low clouds just above the horizon which turned orange. I could see the clouds but not the sun, but the clouds could see the sun. I immediately thought of the clouds as John. They couldn’t make me see the sun but they could point to where I should look and be patient.
As followers of Jesus we all look at our lives in terms of a journey to salvation. We who journey know that, from time to time, we wander from the path we are called to follow. But what do we do when we recognize that we have strayed from our path?
I spoke earlier that it’s become popular and fashionable to believe that we’ve strayed far enough that we can’t resume our path and instead we need to go back to where we were safe.
This nostalgia, however much it may make us feel safe, does not serve us. Discipleship is progressive and we don’t have the choice to go back. Advent tells us that no matter how well or badly the future looks, there is light ahead of us. But Advent also tells us that while our past may look better in the rear view mirror it isn’t.
And while our 24 hour news cycle and social media may alert us to suffering it doesn’t mean that suffering didn’t happen back then. The fact that we are saddened or outraged shows our progress. In the years since Baruch and Luke we’ve come to understand that slavery is not OK and the color of a person’s skin bears no relation to his intelligence or standing before God.
We’ve come to understand that people of other faiths are not our enemies but people on much the same journey as us. We’ve come to appreciate Gandhi’s belief that the world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.
While we can agree on these beliefs, we’re far from completely acting as if we believed them. And that’s Advent. We are journeying toward the light we can’t see but the light we can imagine.