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Advent Reflection: Remembering the Promise

By Jerry Creedon, Faith Animator

Speaking to a large group of Catholic teachers in Hamilton some years ago, Fr. Armand Nigro, a saintly American Jesuit, posed this challenging question: “Do we really believe the promises God makes to us in the Bible?” Well, do we? Advent is a good time to ponder this question. The Advent readings, after all, are full of God’s promises, and this Advent reflection will call some of them to mind. I will focus on the Old Testament Readings for the four Sundays of Advent, three of which are taken from the great Advent prophet, Isaiah, the fourth from the Second Book of Samuel. The reading from the first Sunday of Advent, the “Messianic Prayer” as it is called, is a cry of distress from the heart of a guilt-ridden people who are utterly without hope. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy rag. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, sweep us away.” Not a very positive self-image to be sure! It gets worse: “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us.” Like Shirley Valentine, they feel they are talking to the wall. The problem of course is that, not only is their self-image skewed, so is their image of God. True, the people call God “Father,” a title oddly enough given to God in the Old Testament only here and in David’s farewell speech in First Chronicles. But they have forgotten God’s promise of tenderness. So, in the first reading for the Second Sunday of Advent, God reminds them, and us too, of that promise. For we, like the Israelites of old, can let guilt and the tyranny of life’s experiences blind us to the tenderness of God. To the cry of distress of the Messianic Prayer God responds with words of comfort. He bids his prophet: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” “Comfort” is an interesting and a very beautiful word. In the Bible it means to encourage. That, of course, means to give heart. Remember the reading for the First Sunday of Advent and its awful charge against God: “Why, O Lord, do you harden your heart?” On the Second Sunday of Advent, God responds: “Maybe you left your hearts out in the cold by setting them on things instead of people. My heart is as warm as ever.” And Isaiah is further bidden: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her… that her penalty has been paid.” What a beautiful piece of sheer lyrical poetry! Doesn’t it call to mind the father in that lovely parable of the Prodigal Son with his caution not to let guilt pop its head over the parapet to cast shadows on our feasting.

A voice speaks on to promise us that doors will open in our lives. Whether it is by the parting of the sea to let people out of slavery, or the clearing of the desert to let people out of exile, all people will make it through to see and feel God’s healing presence in their lives. God is, indeed, a “God who comes with might,” but he comes not only as father, but as mother. “She will feed her flock like a shepherd: she will gather the lambs in her arms, and carry them in her bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” I honestly think that this is the most beautiful promise God has ever made to us. The question I am posing, like my dear friend, Fr. Armand, is: “Do you and I believe it?” As if further to reassure us, the reading for the Third Sunday of Advent has God not only promising, but delivering. God’s tenderness knows no restrictions, no bounds. He comes tenderly to the poor, the sick, the dying, the prisoners, the lonely, the disabled, and the rejected. Not only that, but he makes us feel good and beautiful “as a bridegroom decks himself with garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” Wow! Even the good earth that God has created is given dignity and tenderness: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause uprightness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” As the Entrance Antiphon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent reminds us, the good old maggoty earth is where our salvation finds its source: “Let the earth be opened and bring forth a Saviour.”

I write these words for those in Catholic education, a community dear to my heart, every one of whom brings God’s tenderness each day to many who may not believe in or have experienced a tender God. The reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent is a fitting epilogue to my message to you. Like the reading for the First Sunday of Advent, it is an expression of guilt. King David is guilty because he is living in a palace when God is living in a tent. But God puts his mind at ease, an exercise, it seems to me, which is dear to God’s heart. God promises that all will be well, that we will in the midst of life’s turmoil rest secure. Security is ensured for people, for community, not for buildings or institutions. But security is ensured only if people remember that they are, before all else, people, human beings with human hearts, called to love tenderly, to see the face of God in the heart of a loving mother, a caring father, and a helpless baby in a lowly crib.

Advent Reflection: Remembering the Promise