The season of Advent awakens the hope at the heart of humanity, a hope frequently obscured by the monotony and disappointment of daily life. We long for a better world: a world in which generosity triumphs over selfishness, a world in which integrity drives out corruption, in which peace safeguards heart and home. It is all too easy to dismiss such hopes as daydreaming, to resign ourselves to the world as it is.
St Paul addressed the disappointments that dampen Advent hope. He exalted the Old Testament figures who had refused to abandon hope in the face of disappointment, who had continued to hope that there could be a new beginning, a hope founded in God rather than the frailty of human endeavour.
Isaiah’s confident proclamation that a shoot would spring from the stock of Jesse, that a scion would thrust from his roots, illustrates this hope. Jesse, the father of David, had been the beginning of a royal line that would represent God’s presence amongst his people. The establishment of David’s line had been a high point in the relationship between God and his people. This dream, so promising in its beginning, had been rapidly undermined by subsequent events. David’s golden age did not survive its encounter with selfishness, greed and self- seeking ambition. Many, whilst they longed for the past, had reluctantly resigned themselves to disappointed hopes.
The prophet Isaiah had refused to abandon the promises made to Israel. Whilst acknowledging the transgressions of David and his successors. He confidently looked to the fulfilment of those same promises in a new David. This new beginning would succeed where others had failed precisely because its Messiah would come in the strength of God’s Spirit. Through this Messiah a divine wisdom would displace the foolishness of sin. A divine integrity would triumph over the corruption of sinful hearts.
The peace for which we long, yet cannot achieve in our divided world, was foreshadowed in Isaiah’s images of the wolf dwelling with the lamb, the panther with the kid. Christ, the promised David, would come as the fulfilment of our longing to be at peace with God, at peace with ourselves and with each other.
Advent summons us to the joyful hope that Isaiah had refused to abandon. Advent can, and must be, a new beginning. John the Baptist appeared in the gospel as the herald of renewed hope. “ A voice cries in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths new.”
John appeared as a stark figure, literally stripped of the superficialities that blind a sinful society. The simplicity of his appearance, a man clothed in camel hair, was an invitation to divest ourselves of the sin that hampers Christ’s coming.
The gospel records that the whole of Jerusalem flocked to John’s proclamation of the God revealed in the wilderness of human despair. The first step in this renewed hope was the acknowledgment of sin. This change of heart was expressed at the River Jordan in a baptism of repentance. Advent is an invitation not only to acknowledge our sins, but, like the crowds that flocked to the Jordan, to express that repentance in the sacrament of reconciliation. Such reconciliation opens our lives to the Christ whose baptism is in the Holy Spirit. It is in that Spirit that our lives are renewed and made ready to welcome Christ.