Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 24; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28,34-36
Advent begins this year with many of the signs spoken about in today's gospel actually happening. There are nations in agony and there is fear about the state of the world. There is anxiety about the possibility of a more serious war between the nations. Pope Francis has spoken more than once about a third world war which has, he says, effectively begun in the violence that is already happening.
The clamour of the ocean and its waves is heard in the concerns about changes in the world's climate. Some passionately dismiss any suggestion that human activity contributes to this but what is beyond doubt is that changes are happening, whatever their cause, and that these changes are set to bring significant problems for many parts of the world as the temperature increases and the oceans rise.
People are dying of fear, taking their own lives for many reasons, because of economic collapse or unbearable loneliness, because of depression which leaves them paralysed and unable to see any good future, to see how they might establish good relationships or once again be able to support their families.
Into this maelstrom of historical tension, cosmological change and social unrest, comes a figure called the Son of Man, in the gospel reading today described as a human being coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Advent invites us to lift up our heads, to look above and beyond our moment in history and our present concerns, to look towards the coming of Christ when all these difficulties will be resolved and a kingdom of peace, justice and love will be comprehensively established for human beings.
But what the situation asks of us is not just a passive waiting. What is asked of us personally can seem feeble, almost irrelevant, when placed alongside the great historical and cosmological threats that there are. We are to keep our hearts strong, live moral lives, try to grow in holiness, and persevere in prayer, so that we will be alert and prepared for what is to come. For some this might seem like a luxury, it might seem like an invitation to cultivate a personal spirituality, when the world is wracked by poverty, war, cruelty, fear and all the other things already mentioned. It can seem as if there is no connection between my little sins, my lack of holiness, my petty selfishness, my private struggle, and the great things that threaten the world: terrorism, climate change, war between the nations.
Two things to remember about this, drawing on the other readings of today's Mass. The love Christ brings to the world is not a private and personal thing. It is a love that will, yes, unite individuals in bonds of communion and friendship, but it is a love for the whole human race such as God himself has for his creation. It is always a social and a political love, not just a personal and private affair. This is what it means to be holy, to love in the way in which God loves, because to love in that way is to love all humanity and to be engaged, in whatever ways we can be, on behalf of suffering humanity. That's a thought from Paul writing to the Thessalonians, the second reading.
Jeremiah then reminds us that a righteous branch is all that is needed to transform the life of the forest. The righteous branch of which he speaks springs from the house of David, someone who will live with honesty and integrity, and in that way bring fresh confidence and salvation to the nation. He also then reminds us of the power of divine love, even a seed of it, even a bud, to transform human relationships. We may not be people who have sway in the corridors of power or in the chambers of decision-making but every holy person, every honest person, every man or woman of integrity, everybody who prays sincerely: all these people are constructing the kingdom which Christ will come to reveal.
And all of these people also know something else which Jeremiah sums up in the final words of the passage we read today: 'the Lord is our integrity'. Many people, fearing religion, feel it is wiser to exclude God from human affairs. It seems simpler that way, to exclude religion completely because it is a cause of division, of irresolvable argument, then of hatred, violence and great evil. On the other hand it is clear that the city or the nation that seeks to build itself without God builds only monuments of pride that eventually collapse on themselves. The world's empires come and go, causing untold suffering as they do so.
The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh hoped that Advent would charm back the luxury of a child's soul. The readings today and the situation of the world tell us that the child's soul is not a luxury, it is an absolute necessity if the world is to be saved. Hearts that are strong in love and prayer, souls of honesty and integrity - this is our hope. At the centre of the apocalyptic visions of the New Testament stands the Lamb, the most vulnerable and purest of creatures. The Son of Man who comes in a cloud with power and great glory is this Lamb of God. This Son of Man, this Lamb, takes away the sins of the world even as those sins continue to do their worst in the world. Against them we have only the weapons of love and prayer, of honesty and integrity. Advent calls us to renew our conviction that the way to the world's salvation cannot be through the oppression and humiliation of others but can only be through lifting our heads high, all of us, together, seeing that our liberation must come from beyond ourselves, from the one who is coming, the Lord who is our integrity.