In nomine Jesu!
Given the state of the Church, the city and the world and given each of our individual states, it seems to me that this is the year we should return to a basic Advent theme, the theme of hope. You recognize hope as one of the three theological virtues Saint Paul extols in 1 Corinthians 13: "And now faith, hope and love abide, these threeβ¦"; and while we talk a great deal about faith and love from this pulpit, we have not said much about the virtue sandwiched-in-between faith and love: hope. Unfortunately, hope has lost some of its power because we have often confused hope with optimism and even more often reduced its meaning to cover inconsequential and often trivial things.
Singing the Litany in procession is an ideal way of setting the stage for hope. The Litany is probably the best prayer we have for holding up to God the totality of our broken creation and rehearsing God's response to our fervent pleas for mercy and help. With the exception of specifics, like the naming the names of those who are in need or of specific places in conflict, the Litany covers just about every matter that bedevils us. In my mind's eye a picture forms
with each and very petition. The cumulative effect is staggering. Probably "staggering" is not sufficiently strong to describe our predicament. What is our point of reference in a world so filled with chaos? What else can go wrong in the days ahead? How can we move forward with any hope? If all the Litany can do is spell out our human predicament, we would have to agree with Saint Paul, "β¦we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:19) because the only thing left is despair, or, equally deadening, a kind of self-enforced ignorance and "party-on, dude" attitude by which we try to convince ourselves that there's nothing we can about anything. Despair? Drop out? I, for one, would prefer some other options. I, for one, would prefer to meet the days ahead with hope.
Our ancestors in the faith point us toward hope. They urge us not to despair but to hope, and they ground our hope in God's covenant promise. Today we hear it from Jeremiah: the Lord "β¦shall execute justice and righteousness in the land" (15b). Notice where the prophet puts hope's accent: not on some super-power or corporate giant but on the Lord. How we need to hear that good news and embrace it: the God of our ancestors is still in charge of this world and
its ultimate destiny! That's why today's psalmist can pray: "Let not my enemies triumph over me. Let none who look to you be put to shame; let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes" (1b, 2).
Why do we hear that as a word of hope? Because on that first Advent, God, whom even the heavens cannot contain, broke into our hopeless world and gave hope flesh and blood. There in Bethlehem's stable, we see God's imprint of hope on our humanity. In the manger, God's vision of hope begins to take shape in the child who comes to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:15-19). How can this happen? Because the Lord is our righteousness (33:16b). And who is this Lord? In the Litany we name the name: Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; who grants us peace.
Jesus comes to put us right with God and right with our neighbor; and in Saint Luke's telling of Jesus' story, "our neighbor" is described as every other human being in the world. Whether we like them or not. Whether we fear them, or not. As though to dramatically set that up so we can see
it, Jesus, the righteous Branch of David (33:15) is lifted up on a tree. On that tree Jesus saves us "from the threatening dangers" including those "of our sins." Grafted into that Tree, we are delivered from the power of anything that would prevent us from faithfully loving God and faithfully loving the neighbor. It is at the foot of that "tree of beauty" β as our one Hungarian hymn puts it β that the radical power of hope starts working in us. Hope maintains the dynamic tension between the vertical and the horizontal. Fueled by the power of faith, hope fires us up for the works of love.
Hope encourages us by pulling ourselves back into our true baptismal identity, an identity that is both peculiar and distinct. Peculiar because we are now alive with Christ's risen life. Distinct because our chief vocation is to serve others. Our baptism opens us up to the possibilities of a new heaven and a new earth and motivates us to devise new and creative strategies for living and working with hope. Hope infuses our Advent prayer with even greater intensity: "Stir up your power, O Lord, and come." God responds to our Advent petition by stirring up fresh energies in us that make it possible for us to devote ourselves anew to the work of restoring creation,
tearing down walls, and living in peace with the neighbor.
Hope has the power to arouse within us, as nothing else can, a passion for the impossible, a passion to "creatively shape life in the city" and in our homes, and among our friends and colleagues and in our nation so close to surrendering everything we value on account of fear. That's why we're here today. That's why we pray that God the Holy Spirit would "stir up" that passion β passion for the impossible β within us. That's what God does by encouraging us with these biblical stories of our ancestors and nourishing us with the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Today, as in each of our liturgies, with our faith fortified and our hope revived and renewed, we reverse the order of our entrance procession and begin our procession out into a world that desperately needs us. We pause for a moment at the baptismal font to get our bearings once more and we respond with enthusiastic and unbridled hope to the clarion call of our deacon, who encourages us as we move out into the world: "The mass is ended. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord." The response we give sets the standard for the way we will live. "Thanks be to God." Given the state
of the Church, the city, the world and the state of our individual lives, "thanks be to God" is more than hopeful enough.