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Here in the early 21st century we’re still a good deal more inclined to think in terms of “Progress” rather than in terms of “Advent.”  Despite the terrible experiences of the 20th century that ought to have sobered us up a bit, we still want to see ourselves as engaged in the great civilizational project of making the world “better”… by which we mean making ourselves more secure and comfortable as we build, restlessly, the vast social and technological systems we rely on now for just about everything.  John Locke, the English political thinker said it a long time ago:  our goal would be “comfortable self-preservation.”  It’s a low goal but one about which most people can agree and make “progress” toward it more or less, on into the future…so long as we don’t pause to think too much about it.

But the fact is, when we do think about it, deep down we know better.  Progress makes life easier but gives no clue as to life’s meaning, and when we have no sense of meaning, even an easy life doesn’t seem worth the living.

It’s a story older than John Locke.  All the nations of the world are and always have been first and foremost about the business of preserving themselves:  fighting off foreign enemies, restraining evil-doers, dealing with the constraints and exigencies of nature…  We build our world to fend off death—that’s how what Scripture calls “the nations” spend their lives.  They use up their lives desperately delaying death.

The Jesse Tree: Old Testament Figures preparing the Messiah's wayIt all makes for a great meaninglessness, a thick darkness, and deep down if we let ourselves think about it, feel it there within us, it’s a kind of terror.

But in today’s Gospel, we see Jesus turn our terror inside out.  He warns of the day coming, a day we cannot know, when the Son of Man will come like a thief in the night, to break into our homes, pierce our defenses, and “it will be like the days of Noah” when people ate and drank and worked and married, and had no notion that the flood was coming to sweep them all away!

It sounds terrifying to us who so want to be warm in our darkness and secure behind our walls.

And the Word of God does surely intend to break down the walls, undo the enclosures of our comfort and safety, our futile efforts at comfort and safety, but this to rescue us precisely from those fatal defenses.  From beyond the horizons of our nations and systems and armies and empty hopes, a light shines.

It’s not our progress that matters but His advent.

John the Baptist entering the wildernessGod is breaking into our world.  It may scare us to the core but He’s breaking in with light and a hope for life altogether beyond the horizons of darkness where we otherwise feel ourselves condemned to live.

He began with His People, the Children of Israel, planting their nation-unlike-any-nation in the midst of all the other nations of the earth, and, just as Isaiah promises in today’s first reading, those nations came ”to stream toward the Lord’s Mountain,” seeking instruction from His People, as the Word went forth from Jerusalem, into the heart of the Roman Empire, and Rome itself gave up its idols and pretensions and came instead to bow before the image of God made Man.  Rome had fought wars against the Jews, and Rome struggled against Christianity as against the terrors of the night, but it was light that came to Rome and to the West.

In the strange, new darkness of the Modern world, humming day and night on the web, there is new terror and new struggle against the light of the Gospel.  In our own time we feel a kind of apocalyptic tremor.

Rightly so.

The Lord’s Advent is not to be put off.

And so we wait.  Advent is a season of waiting.  We wait until God again breaks into our world and we see Him, the babe in a manger, and all the darkness and terror of the world is swallowed up in hope and in light, and our not-so-comfortable self-preservation dissolves in hope and gives way at last to nothing less than eternal life itself.

By Fr. Barry Bercier, AA
Professor of Theology
Assumption College
Worcester, MA

Last Updated on Monday, 29 November 2010 15:41
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