Salvation and Liberation
(Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36)
Introduction to Mass
Today is the beginning of Advent, the season in the Church's year that prepares us for Christmas and the celebration of God's entry into human history in the person of Jesus. During Advent we recall the events that led up to Jesus' appearance, and so the symbolism of Advent is the symbolism of moving from darkness into light, from a state of spiritual imprisonment into freedom. To recognise Christ as the Saviour and to follow the path of the gospel, is to be freed from the chains of our human sinfulness.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate the mystery of Christ's love...
(For Prayers over the Advent Wreath, see Homilies for Advent Years A & B)
The Season of Advent takes us back to the period of time before the coming of Christ and concentrates our attention on the mood of hope and anticipation felt by those who were alive before the time of Christ, who were still waiting for God to send a Redeemer.
In the first reading the prophet Jeremiah is looking forward hopefully to a future period in the history of Israel and Judah when God will send a sort of agent who will establish an ethos of "honesty and integrity in the land" as he puts it.
For Jeremiah this is mainly what salvation will consist of: individuals, or the community as a whole, giving up decadent, immoral, dishonest habits and starting to live truthfully, or with integrity. The psalm today conjures up a similar picture. The author addresses God as Saviour, and pleads with God to guide him towards spiritual and moral renewal.
Close union with God - keeping covenant with God, in the psalm writer's language - is necessary for anyone who wants to cultivate goodness and uprightness. Only God can keep people on the path of truth and right values.
These passages from the Old Testament illustrate two of the basic convictions that developed during centuries of spiritual reflection and the development of the Jewish faith.
First of all there was the conviction that human beings are flawed and imperfect - that we constantly give in to impulses that make us fall short of our calling as creatures made in God's image. We cause a spiral of misery for ourselves and other people precisely when we pursue our own happiness or advantage selfishly. That's the first conclusion the Bible presents about the state of human nature.
The second conclusion is that we're incapable, by ourselves, of bringing about any substantial reform or spiritual improvement. We're powerless to free ourselves from the coils that we tangle ourselves up in. And so what we find in the pages of the Bible is the strong conviction that only God can bring about our salvation and only the power of God's grace can restore our likeness to him: we can't bring it about from our own resources.
Looking over these readings and reflecting about the themes of today’s readings brought to mind some of the efforts that have been made at different periods in history to engineer improvements in human nature or at least in people's behaviour by changing their living conditions or their working conditions.
Social reformers, who were often men and women with paternalistic leanings and a rather naive belief in the basic goodness of human nature, were constantly disappointed to find that old habits die hard. Selfishness and dishonesty re-assert themselves even when the need to compete against other people to get what you want is removed.
And something similar is surely true today in all the chatter about "educating" young people against the dangers of drugs, alcohol, casual sex, obesity etc. etc. The truth is as St. Paul said about himself: we often know the right thing and the rational thing to do, but we actually choose to act irrationally, to act destructively - and self-destructively.
This was something that the holy men and the prophets of the Old Testament period were also convinced of: we can't place out hope in our own resources. Only the force of God's grace can liberate us and save us.
And that leads onto the final aspect of the readings today. Both St. Paul in the second reading and Christ in the gospel advise people to do everything they can to welcome God's saving and liberating influence in their lives.
Jesus tells his listeners to adopt an attitude of vigilance, to "pray at all times" and to avoid becoming spiritually coarsened through self-indulgence: "debauchery and drunkenness and the cares of life". These habits only slam the door in God’s face and cut us off from the uplifting and refining influence he has on us.
It’s part of God’s nature that although he is always ready to come into our life he never forces himself on us. We have to turn to him and welcome him. The advice Jesus gives in the gospel passage and the menacing images he uses to back up his advice are designed to persuade people to do that.
St. Paul for his part puts things in more positive and encouraging terms: appealing to people to be receptive to God so that, as he puts it, God will increase their love for one another and confirm their hearts in holiness.
Here St. Paul is giving the ground for a proper Christian optimism – that if we make a bit of effort and apply a bit of discipline regarding our spiritual life, there’s no question of God withholding his influence and his salvation from us. Once we open ourselves to God, our personality starts to take on the pattern of his love and holiness.
So the main message of the readings today isn’t by any means that we’re all hopelessly sunk in depravity.
The conclusion is the opposite: if we turn to God rather than depending on our own resources, he “increases our strength of will for doing good” as we said in today’s opening prayer, and we experience our relationship with him not as something that imposes sacrifices and restricts our freedom but as a liberation and the fulfilment of our true nature.