John the Baptist announces the coming of the Lord: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” The call is repeated as we celebrate Advent. The time is now for us to prepare for the Lord’s coming. At this point in the season, we are focused on Jesus’ second coming. With longing hearts we await his return.
The desire we have to be with the Lord and to see him face to face finds a likeness to the times when a loved one is away. Just over a week ago we celebrated Thanksgiving, the busiest travel time in the calendar year. Many people traveled to be with family for the holiday. Families, with great hope and joy, await the return of their loved ones for the celebration.
During Advent we await the return of the Lord with the same kind of desire. While waiting for and expecting the return of family and friends for a visit, we prepare knowing when they will arrive. We know the travel plans, the transportation schedules, down to the arrival time.
The difference in waiting for the Lord’s coming is that we do not know the day or the hour when the Lord will come so the Baptist’s call rings in our ears encouraging us to be prepared. The Lord’s return will usher in the end time when the world will be transformed into the new and heavenly Jerusalem. Our imaginations try to envision the day but ultimately fall short because the joy, peace and life that he will bring is so far above our longing that we only have glimpses of it in the here and now.
The longing of Israel to be delivered from darkness to light is captured in the first reading for today’s liturgy that comes from the Prophet Isaiah. The familiar reading provides a message of hope. From a Christian perspective the “shoot” sprouting from the “stump of Jesse” is a reference to the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. His arrival will bring a transformation, a remarkable transformation.
The images used by Isaiah capture the significance of the Messiah’s arrival. The tree stump refers to the line of David, King of Israel. Historically the line was severed approximately 400 years after the reign of David when Israel was defeated by the Babylonians. The tree was cut down to its stump. Isaiah prophesies that a shoot shall sprout from that stump and restore the kingship.
The new king will be blessed by the Lord for the “spirit of the Lord will rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord.” He will be the greatest of kings for he shall not judge by appearance or hearsay but will bring justice for the poor and afflicted. The transformation that will occur with the advent of His reign shall be great.
It is as if the whole created order is renewed; all evil is banished and peace reigns. Isaiah describes it thus: “Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair. There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea.”
The passage is certainly fulfilled with the original advent of Christ. Jesus’ life was one of great wisdom, understanding and strength. He could read the hearts of people and understand them with compassion. He was the instrument of God’s mercy. He gave hope and consolation to the poor and needy, the sick and abandoned, the lost and forsaken.
The inauguration of his reign through the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection broke the bonds of sin and death that had held humanity bound. His resurrection from the dead destroyed the power of death and brought life for all. The transformation from death to life is accomplished in him.
Yet the Isaian passage can, at the same time, refer to the second coming of the Lord when the transformation will be complete. The hope-filled expectation of this transformation is what we celebrate in the beginning of Advent. The Baptist’s cry echos in our ears so as to remind us to live in this expectation: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
Repentance is part of our life of conversion. We are continually invited to go deeper into the mystery of God’s love and thereby experience newness of life. In the second reading for today’s Mass, a passage from the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul urges us to continue on this path. The terms “encouragement and endurance” are related to the journey especially in terms of traveling together. He urges harmony and peace for the followers of Christ. He says: “Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Living a life of conversion is living a life of longing — longing for the Lord’s return, being in a continual state of expectation and preparedness.
The longing for the Lord fills us with hope. The confidence we have in His return is based on the love he has for us, which we continue to experience in the here and now. Today as we focus on our relationship with the Lord, he rekindles our desire to be one with him in love. What flows from this desire is the conversion of heart to which he continually calls us; this conversion of heart is an invitation to love – to love God and our neighbor – with renewed vigor and strength.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.