BEYOND VAGUE OPTIMISM

Catholic Homily/Reflection
1st Sunday of Advent - Year A

By Fr. Chito Dimaranan, SDB

Advent has come once again. The rhythm of the Church’s liturgical calendar once more reawakens us to a fresh start, a new beginning, a renewed sense of expectation. There is newness all around us. In temperate zones, the breathtaking sights of “Goldengroves” of once lush greeneries turned orange, crimson, ochre, red, yellow, and then brown, fade away gradually, and give way to an apparent starkness and barrenness of winter, giving way to images of life preparing to burrow under cover of cold, chilly snow. In the rest of the world gifted with more sunshine and warmth, cool, dry, refreshing breezes take the place of wet, wild, and windy storms, or scorching heat, as the sun withdraws a bit from the scene, causing longer nights and shorter days – and milder weather. All over the world, there is a reason that comes with the season, to start afresh, make new plans, and adapt oneself to the changing conditions of nature that remind one as much of endings as of beginnings; closings and openings; death, and the hope of rebirth; and images of the old giving way to the new.

This is the backdrop to what the whole Church is beginning today, the season of Advent. At a time when all we want to do is to stay in bed for as long as we want, Paul tells us that “it is now the hour for [us] to awake from sleep.” At a time when darkness lingers longer than earlier days, he tells us to “throw off the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” At a time when Israel could use a lot of encouragement, Isaiah spoke about “all nations streaming toward [Jerusalem].” At a time when people, like the Jews of old who were tried and tested to the core by exile, we are getting sick and tired of wars and terrorism, beheadings and gruesome murders, Isaiah awakens people’s flagging hopes with visions of nations “beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” At a time when most people are so taken up by the daily concerns that contemporary culture imposes on us all, the gospel’s apocalyptic language rouses us to also think about being prepared, “for an hour you do not expect, [when] the Son of Man will come.”

Without falling into the trap of accommodism, which is the tendency to read the Bible in terms of current historical events, and the concomitant tendency to show exact parallelisms between what happens now and what happened then, we should not fall into the opposite trap of reading Scriptures merely as a distant story of the Israelites, or of the early Christians, without seeing the underlying relevance, significance, and the power that its message has for us and our postmodern – even post-christian –society.

The Bible is historical in a precise way, as only a people of faith can understand. It is historical, whose underlying meaning counts as more important than the story it narrates. It is as much a record of the complex vicissitudes of a people’s history, as much as a record of their faith about a God intervening, working in, and speaking through the same shared history. But Scriptures transcend material history. Scriptures relate as much to the history of the Israelites and the early Church, as to the ongoing, unfolding history of God’s people all over the world.

We are part of this unfolding history. We are sharers and recipients of this same saving love and work of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaiah, the God of the prophets, and the God whom Jesus Christ revealed. We are a people in waiting like Jews waited for deliverance, like they waited for the restoration of the temple’s glory. We are a people of hope, and as we go through our own experiences of exile, of persecution, of trials and tribulations – our own “sweat and care and cumber; sorrows passing number,” we are also led by the same God who continues to save us in Jesus Christ, His Son. Our forgetful minds are refreshed by messages designed to sow hope and love, and not fear. Our story is reframed in, and rendered meaningful by His story.

Humankind’s contemporary story, like always, is a story of search. We are still in search for answers to problems that are bigger than life, bigger than the world, bigger than all of us put together. Our story is a story of waiting. We are awaiting the fulfillment of the brightest hopes and dreams of Abraham, of Moses, of Isaiah, of Paul, of Peter, of Jesus Christ. Today, Isaiah shares with us his dream – God’s dream ultimately – “In days to come … the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain … all nations shall stream toward it …one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again …” Today, too, Paul shares the partial – if, ongoing fulfillment – of this same dream: “Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is far advanced, the day is at hand.”

We are, indeed, a people in waiting. We are a people of hope, as we grapple with a world that lives life like as if everything it offers is the ultimate. Many postmodern people live like as if there were no tomorrow to wait for, no future worth investing in. People go through life “imagining there is no heaven.” (It’s easy, if you try!) Indeed, in this cynical post-christian world, all modes of absolutism, dogmatism, and unempirical bents of mind are held suspect. Faith, hope, love, and other unquantifiable, and scientifically unverifiable “cumquats” are thrown out the window. By and large, people’s take on things is characterized by a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” to use loosely a term popularized by Schussler-Fiorenza. All forms of dogmatism from people in power are held in utter suspicion. No wonder categorical pronouncements from men of the cloth are not paid attention to, or downright ignored. Descartes’ famous statement that started the Enlightenment “I think; therefore I am,” continues to hold sway over us. In this logically positivistic culture, hope is bound “to grow grey hairs.” Hope is often replaced by mere feverish dedication to human efforts designed to banish sickness, pain, disease, and other blights of the human condition.

The Church, like always, like she has always ever been, goes counter-cultural today. We are told, not to imagine there is no heaven. No… we are precisely reminded there is a heaven to hope for, a heaven to work for, and the fullness of salvation to wait for. The good Lord, in and through the Church, issues a “wake-up call” for us. “Now is the time for you to wake from your sleep.” Now is the time of salvation. Now is the time for hope … more than ever … more than before.

But I am one with Brueggemann (1997) who suggests that there is a need for us to do a “re-imagination of hope” to be able to transform what he calls the Enlightenment “scripting of reality.” Isaiah did his part, by taking part through his prophetic imagination in the rescripting of Israel’s history. Through him and the other prophets of old, Israel’s history of subjugation, exile, and banishment became a story of God’s love, God’s compassion, and God’s faithful covenantal love. Above and beyond their experiences of sin and forgiveness, unfaithfulness and conversion, the story of God’s fidelity to His people became the grounding of Israel’s conviction, Israel’s faith in a God who fulfills His promises to His people.

Our current history is one of difficult waiting. We wait for wars to end, and for weapons of mass destruction to be banished from the face of the earth. We hope for better things to come, for a better and less frightening future for our children. In the Philippines, for far too long, a people shackled by so much graft and corruption in and out of government, bondaged by a progressively worsening lack of collective self-esteem and self-respect, wearied by so much lack of a sense of nationhood, healthy patriotism, and concern for the common good, for justice and solidarity, finds reason to continue on believing, to continue on hoping – even against hope itself – that “the days to come” will be an unfolding history, not of a forlorn and forsaken nation, but of a God who comes to the help of His people.

However, here is where there is a need for a re-imagination of our hopes. And Advent can help us in this quest for a needed re-imagination. Hope is not a type of resigned and passive waiting, we are told. Isaiah’s vision speaks of a “mountain” to which “all nations shall stream towards.” But he ends with something for people to do: “Let us walk in the light of the Lord.” The responsorial psalm extols the same “house of the Lord” as envisioned by Isaiah. But we all respond: “Let us GO rejoicing to the house of the Lord!” A re-imagined hope is a hope that is awake, a hope that is ready to pay the price for hoping. A re-imagined hope is a reframed story – a story not of people in bondage, but a story of God saving, God forgiving, God loving, and GOD BEING LOVED IN RETURN. A re-imagined hope is one that waits, not in vain, but waits actively, working for the very fulfillment of its hopes.

Advent is waiting time. We wait for the definitive coming of Him who has already entered into our human history. By his coming as man, He started the rewriting of our life script. Whilst before, we wallowed in the narrative of sin that was deathly and destructive, we now glory in the greatest story of reversals humankind has ever known, the greatest story ever told – our salvation in Christ. But Advent is also working time. We work together to write an alternative life script. Our new, common Christian narrative is no longer a story of hopelessness and despair, but a life-enhancing, and life-fulfilling narrative of a new life in Christ, the narrative of the life-giving Kingdom of God.

We are now back to where this reflection started – on Scripture. Scripture is one such alternative narrative we are speaking about. It speaks of hope in every chapter, in every book, in every page – the kind of hope that, in the words of Brueggemann, is “not a vague optimism or a generic good idea about the future but a precise and concrete confidence in and expectation for the future that is rooted explicitly in Yahweh’s promises to Israel.”

We who live in a postmodern, postindustrial world of technological marvels and gizmos, also live in an atmosphere of despair. Despair belongs to those who cannot appropriate an alternative narrative of the great storyteller, who once uttered “let there be … and there was life.” This ongoing story always ends with the truth – God’s truth: “And He saw that it was good.” God’s promises, God’s deeds, God’s marvels – the so-called magnalia Dei – all have to do with life-giving truths for us His beloved people.

It is time we listened to God’s wake-up call. It is time we realized that, amidst the falling leaves, the changing season, the lingering, longer darkness, God’s promises triumph, and will continue to triumph, for those who believe, for those who love, and for those whose hope goes beyond vague optimism.

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