Our attention these days is occupied with looking for signs, signs of an economic recovery for our nation, signs that things will get better for us. News programs are filled with reports about increases or decreases in our nation’s Gross National Product, in housing starts, in jobless claims, and in all manner of other economic benchmarks. Will our department stores have good sales in this Christmas season? What are people buying? We seek signs each and every day, signs that offer us hope for better days ahead.
We look for signs also in other areas of life. Young boys look for signs from girls they are interested in. Young girls search for signs of interest shown by boys they are infatuated with. More than ever college students pay close attention to their grades these days. And, needless to say, recent college graduates wait for the daily delivery of mail hoping for positive signs from the companies to which they have sent job applications.
Today’s readings from sacred scripture also speak of signs. In the first reading from the Old Testament’s prophet Baruch we find the Jewish people held in captivity in Babylon. Babylon, by the way, is located just a few miles north of Baghdad in Iraq, in the Euphrates River valley. The Chaldean king, Nebuchadnezzar, had destroyed Jerusalem and carried off the Jewish people to his capital, Babylon. For quite a number of generations the Jews had been held there in exile. The Jews referred to it as the Babylonian Captivity. They were looking for a sign from God, a sign that would tell them that their captivity was about to come to an end and they could return to Jerusalem.
The prophet Baruch cries out: “Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever: wrapped in the cloak of justice from God… Up, Jerusalem! stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God. Led away on foot by their enemies they left you: but God will bring them back to you… For God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God… for God is leading Israel in joy by the light of his glory, with his mercy and justice for company.”
We, in our own day, find ourselves, our children, and our friends held captive, so to speak, in a depressed economy, in joblessness…held captive in mortgages that are greater than the present market value of our mortgaged homes. The economic depression has, for many of us, spilled over into our own interior lives. We live captured in emotional depression as well. All of us are looking for signs of a better future, a future freed from all that holds us in our present bondage.
What, then, of our spiritual lives? Are we looking for God’s presence and love or have we perhaps given up and only go through the motions of a sort of pseudo spiritual life with routine prayers… our hearts not being in our prayers?
The testimony of the history of our human salvation is that God wants to be sought. That’s what the prophet Baruch was reminding the Israelites, held as they were in the Babylonian Captivity. That’s what John the Baptist was all about as we heard in today’s Gospel account. “John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Notice that John the Baptist echoed the words of the prophet Baruch, words about mountains being laid low, valleys filled, and ways made smooth.
God wants to be sought. God wants to make our lives smoother. He wants to help us move mountains of worry and anxiety. He wants to fill our depressed emotional valleys with the peace and happiness of His presence within us, a presence that is powerfully within us as we face life’s enormous challenges and trials. God does not want us to be held captive by all that would defeat us, especially by all of the powers and forces that would tear us away from Him in despairing loss of hope. God wants to be sought, but do we want to seek God? The Church gives us the season of Advent so that we might look for God and seek Him out.
The surrounding world around us tries to seduce us with trinkets, toys, and department store gifts that have no lasting value and that certainly don’t draw us closer together in God’s love. Christmas has been commercialized as a day of gift giving. But while giving gifts is a good and loving thing to do, Christmas is about something far deeper. It is about hope, hope that accompanies the birth of a child, hope that is found in love, hope that is rediscovered in renewed love.
So the question put in front of us this Advent is: Do we want to seek God? Are we serious about seeking Him or is drawing closer to him something that is only in our wishful thinking? Our Church’s season of Advent, after all, places in front of us echoes of times in human history when God appeared to be absent, when access to His love and His presence was seemingly denied to us.
The beauty and joy of Christmas is that even though our efforts at being close to God have not worked, God has, on His own initiative, come to us. He has come in search of our hearts and souls, hearts and souls held captive in the addictive sins that this world has drawn us into.
The images of Mary cradling her Son under the watchful protection of Joseph are images that evoke sentiments deep within us. They are images of promise, belief, and hope that the Child will bring to our hearts promises that have not been smothered by this world’s failures. We cannot, however, simply sit back and passively receive the life that they promise. We must activate ourselves. The voice of the prophet Baruch cries out: “Stand up! Look for the coming of God. Go to the heights and seek Him. Throw off the darkness that surrounds you. Seek the God who is coming to you to release you from whatever darkness holds you in captivity. The Day of your redemption is at hand. Hope can be reborn in you.”
About Charles Irvin
Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”