What is heaven like? At one time or another, most of us have thought seriously about this question. Our imaginations about heaven vary depending on age, circumstances and life experiences. For some, heaven promises an end to pain, struggle and every human limitation. For others, heaven holds hope of reuniting with loved ones out of sight for a time. If we were to reword this question in a manner more in line with Advent, we might ask ‘what will it be like to meet Christ?’ For Isaiah and James and Matthew, the question was messianic in character.
For a people whose history had been shaped by foreign oppression from Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome, the expectation was political where the coming of God’s Anointed would not only bring salvation but victory battle for freedom, rights, land, political power and economic stability. There are some among us today who still long for the same even today.
First reading: Isaiah 35:1-6, 10
The first reading is the third in a series of four visions by Isaiah. Each of these visions is replete with possibilities articulating what will happen when God comes and is welcome. Isaiah describes those possibilities in terms of a transformation of creation and with it, humankind. The transformation described here refers to the return home of the Israelites exiled in Babylon and to the new beginning with which God would bless their repentance. Notice that the redeemed move through the desert as if on a pilgrimage. As they journey, the terrain is also transformed, as if reflecting a new creation God had done in paradise.
Long before Greenpeace was founded 1971; Isaiah had already understood the close connection between humanity and creation and the necessity of preserving harmony between the two. Isaiah also understood that this harmony depended on a right relationship with God that spills over and is revealed in the beauties of the created universe. It is important for us to recognize the chiastic structure with which Isaiah articulates this echo: 1-transformation of creation, 1-transformation of disabled humanity and 3- assertion of God’s coming intervention and rescue. In fact it is best to read this text from its center Isaiah 35: 4 wherein an oracle of salvation is proclaimed. Everything else hangs on this word; without God’s powerful word and effective presence, creation and humanity would be lost. But God’s intention is to save opens up a world of endless possibilities for reconciliation, redemption and renewal. Ah, but there is a light slap. Do we actually believe in God’s saving objective? We must dare to trust that God is truly coming. If we do not believe, then Advent is an assignment in futility.
Second reading: James 5:7-10
Reading James’ example of the farmer who waits trustingly for his efforts to come to fruition may seem out of place. Yet, as it stands between today’s first reading and the Gospel, the message of James is very much in keeping with the overall theme of today’s liturgy. James reminds us that the process of transformation is gradual. For that reason, patience, a virtue to which James refers three times in these four verses, is the order of the day. Clearly there is a marked difference between James’ advice and earlier admonitions that were characterized by urgency and imminence. Unlike the imagery of the “thief in the night” 1Thessalonians 5:2 or the “stars falling from heaven” Mark 13:35, which conjured up the sudden and the unexpected, this description invokes the farmer who has no choice but to await the seasons and the rains. James insists that the parousia ‘second coming’ of Jesus has less to do with God’s invasion of the world than it does with the absolute reliability of God to keep a promise. Like the farmer who relies on the God, who perennially keeps promises and sends the rains cf. Deuteronomy 11:14, so must the faithful who wait rely on God. The patience of the faithful is a virtue that does not originate in them, but in the certainty of God’s promises. In any case James does not advocate being passive and resigned, sitting back and awaiting God to work. We should not advise the poor, the sick, the hungry, the homeless and all other victims of injustice to grin and bear it until God acts on their behalf; a bit of personal effort should be seen. James’ reference to the coming of the Lord as a time of judgment should prevent such inaction and prompt us to be aware of our accountability that this world’s needs.
Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11
One reason why Matthew undertook the responsibility of formulating a Gospel was to help people of the way in his time to identify themselves as Church well rooted and yet distinct from Judaism. This is what we call being truly Christian and fully Catholic in every age and nation. Some believers at that time thought that the institutional Judaism, with its emphasis on laws, hierarchy and centuries-old traditions was an appealing structure for their new faith to adopt. However, just as Jesus had exercised his messianic ministry ‘outside the box’ of popular political and militaristic expectations of his day, so as was the Church to find its identity elsewhere. That identity would be found and expressed in service, healing, deliverance and in the preaching good news to the poor. The blind, the lame, lepers and the deaf who had formerly been regarded as outcasts by society because their physical challenges due suspicion attributed to sin; would no longer be outcasts from the reign that Jesus had come to establish.
The nature and scope of God’s salvation would be revealed in the healing and redemption of those underprivileged. This new institution would find its true identity in its defense for the rights and dignity of the poor and underprivileged of this world. As the question of John the Baptist is repeated in our hearing today, we are challenged to make it our own asking “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Matthew 11:3. We need to hear the response which Jesus gives the misplaced expectations of the emissaries. Indeed now the blind see, the deaf hear and the lame are walking. If we accept Jesus’ answer as did the Apostles Peter and companions, we shall find out that we are privileged to continue the legacy. Jesus himself called “blessed” Matthew 11:6 those who do not lose faith because him. That blessing reaches out with grace and power to embrace believers who today attempt to live and love as Jesus did. In order to be true to Gospel values; we need today to maintain four non-negotiable essentials of Christian spirituality: a- honesty and integrity; b- concern for the poor; c- reverence and support of community and d- a mature spirit that can continue to grow without becoming angry, bitter or indifferent. These non-negotiables have always inspired the Church to thrust toward authentic following of Jesus.
The Church is not alone in its responsibility for justice, it nonetheless has proper and specific responsibility which is the mission of giving witness before the world of the need for the love and justice contained in the Gospel message as witnessed in the ministry of Jesus Christ. His was the face of a healer, a giver, a friend, a brother, a servant, a lover. This has still to be the face of the Church both in temporal, spiritual, political and economic arena. Like Isaiah, James and John the Baptist we need to be convinced of this message and be sure that we have got right the call: ‘prepare the way of the Lord’. While John the Baptist’s face is hard and decisive showing Jesus how to lay the axe to the root of the tree of evil; on contrary the face of Jesus is calm and hesitant; his eyes are full of compassion insisting that ‘Isn’t love enough?’ John answers angrily: ‘No! The tree is rotten. God called me and gave me the axe, which I placed at the roots of the tree. I did my duty; now you do yours. Take the axe and strike!’ Jesus sighs: If I were fire I would burn; if I were a woodcutter I would strike. But I am a heart, so I love.
The coming of God is meant to transform us and we need to comply, then all will be better for all of us. Life is a journey that calls for patience, we need to have that virtue and we shall bear fruit. Whatever challenge we have let us present it to Jesus and he will rectify it. The story of John’s disillusionment can be ours also; but blessed are those who do not let the tough Messiah they want overshadow the merciful Messiah that the world needs. Blessed are they who name the things that God is doing instead of the things yet to be done. Blessed are they who are not afraid to change their plans, to adjust their hopes, to bend their will to God’s will. Blessed are they who trade their private illusions for God’s saving truth. May this be our way for Advent.