1st Sunday in Advent, Year A

Advent: the Season of Hope
(Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44.)
Introduction to Mass:
Today is the beginning of the four weeks of the Advent Season. It's the beginning of the Church's year, a period of preparation for Christmas, and a time for reflection on the subject of hope: not only the hope which is a facet of human life in general, but more especially our Christian hope that God will be active in our lives in this world, and that he will offer us eternal life with him in the next.
Prayer over the Advent Wreath
Father, all powerful Lord of Light, bless our Advent wreath and its candles. May this Season be a time of preparation. Help us to reflect on the power of light to dispel darkness in our world and in our lives. May the increasing light of these candles brighten our minds and hearts to be steadfast in faith, joyful in hope, and untiring in love, so that we are ready to receive again in true peace, our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. We make this prayer through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Origins of the Advent Season
Before commenting on the readings for today's Mass I thought I'd say something about the origins of the Advent Season and how it got started.
For the first four hundred years of the Church's existence there was no feast day to celebrate Christ's birth. Christmas wasn't 'invented' until round about the middle of the fifth century, and the date of 25th of December was chosen for Christmas Day because it had been the date of a pagan festival dedicated to the Sun - the winter solstice. It was nothing to do with the actual date of Jesus' birthday, which of course we don't know.
The real reason for picking the winter solstice as the date to celebrate Christ's birth was to cover a pagan festival with a Christian meaning and so to help eradicate pagan beliefs and practices. After the date of Christmas was fixed, it wasn't long before the Season of Advent was instituted as a period of preparation for Christmas.
We can see from the historical background why one of the main images of Advent is the gradual coming of more and more light into the wintery darkness. That image is present in a lot of the prayers in the Advent liturgy, and of course it's symbolised by the lighting of the candles in the Advent wreath.
Themes of Advent: Christ's First and Second Coming
So much for the history of Advent. What about the content, or the themes, of the Season?
During the four weeks before Christmas, in one sense we look back in time, and in another sense we look forward. We look back to the events leading up to Jesus' birth - the expectation and the hope and the longing for the Messiah that we hear about in the Old Testament readings, especially in the readings from the prophet Isaiah.
And then we also look forward in time - we look ahead to the second coming of Christ, to the final realisation of God's Kingdom and the fullness of life in God's company after death. That's what the second reading and the gospel are about in this Sunday's Mass.
So if there's a dominant theme running through the whole of the Advent liturgy, between now and Christmas Day, it's the theme of hope. Every year the Advent Season is an invitation to us to ask ourselves the question: what exactly do we mean when we talk about hope? What do we mean especially when we talk about our distinctive Christian hope?
Hope: A Necessary Dimension of Human Life
The first thing we'd want to say by way of an answer to those questions is that even before we start bringing in any religious notions, a sense of hope is part of a healthy attitude to life, emotionally and psychologically. Without some sense of positive expectation about the future, or even just an absence of major worries about the future, most people would quickly lose their bearings. They would quickly lose their will and their motivation to get on with their normal activities.
And I think we can see how true that is by looking at the opposite of a hopeful attitude. When people suffer from anxiety or feelings of dread about the future, when they suffer from depression or fall victim to a sense of despair, they feel as if they've been robbed of a vital aspect of human life.
Part of the tragedy, it seems to me, in cases where people have taken their own lives, is that they have completely lost any conviction that things in their life are going to improve in the future - in short, they've lost hope. Oblivion seems preferable to a continuation of their present circumstances. So from the point of view of ordinary human emotions it does seem that hope is something that's very necessary for us.
Hope and Salvation
But having said that, in many ways what we mean by hope - by our Christian hope - is very different, and more specific. For one thing, as all the readings today testify, the object of our hope - the thing that we hope for lies beyond this life, not within it.
What we hope for as Christians, says St Paul, is salvation. We hope for liberation from the various kinds of sin that affect us and affect our relationships. We hope for the restoration of our relationship with God, which has been damaged or impaired by sin. We hope for eternal life, life after death.
And - thinking particularly of the images in the Gospel today - we hope for the final coming of God's Kingdom, which, according to the Bible, means the end of all forms of oppression and injustice and hatred.
It would be strange if we went around thinking about those sorts of things the whole time. But if they don't make some impact on us - if we don't measure our activities here and now against that background of what we hope for in terms of our final destiny - then isn't it questionable to what extent we can claim to have been won over by the gospel message at all?
The 'Theological Virtue' of Hope
Before finishing, there's one more point that's worth mentioning on the subject of Christian hope.
Traditionally - in the old Catechism for example - hope was described as a 'theological virtue', alongside the other two virtues, faith and charity, or faith and love. What those terms meant was that when someone has a genuine relationship with God, it has an effect on them - God alters their character and their attitudes in a certain way.
One way our relationship with God changes us is that our faith gets stronger: God becomes more and more real to us, the commanding influence in our lives. Another way that God changes us is that we become less assertive and less self-absorbed, more considerate and more giving towards other people - more loving in other words.
But the other way that we're changed by God is that we take on this virtue of hope. Rather than feeling as if we (or anyone else for that matter) are stuck in our bad habits and our selfish attitudes, we know that if we allow God to be active, we can change, and situations can change. Holiness is possible, and it's possible for anyone.
Again, hope is the opposite of despair - despair this time in the sense of a feeling that we're somehow beyond redemption, or too fossilized in certain patterns of thinking and behaviour to change or improve. The conviction that under God's influence we can change radically, and the motivation which that gives us in our lives as Christians, seems to me to be the essence of what we mean when we talk about hope as a 'virtue'.
So as I say, to my mind this is the main theme of the Advent Season, and over the next three Sundays I'll try to say something more about the different ways that hope plays a role in our lives:- personally or individually, first of all; then communally, in the fellowship of believers, the Church; and finally, by way of the Church's mission in society as a whole.