Advent is a season of waiting for the reign of God

A depiction of St. John the Baptist baptizing Jesus on the Jordan River is seen in a stained-glass window in late March at St. Paul Church in Wilmington, Del. (CNS photo/Octavio Duran)
A depiction of St. John the Baptist baptizing Jesus on the Jordan River is seen in a stained-glass window in late March at St. Paul Church in Wilmington, Del. (CNS photo/Octavio Duran)

by Thomas Gumbleton

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I hope we recall that, as we celebrate this season of Advent, we are celebrating a period of time that's dedicated to waiting, expectation. Advent means "a coming." What we are waiting for we discussed briefly last week: The coming of Jesus, of course at Christmas, entering into human history, the Son of God. We're waiting for a time to remember all of that and celebrate it once more, but also as we reflected last Sunday, the coming of Jesus at the end of time, the time of judgment.

First Sunday of Advent‚Äč
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalms 72: 1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17
Romans 15:4-9
Psalms 85:8
Matthew 3:1-12
Full text of the readings

And finally, the coming of Jesus in our everyday lives, through the Word of God as we listen to it each week, listen deeply, but through one another in our parish family or especially through those we meet who are in need of any kind. Today, our spirit of waiting for a coming is focused on the first way, the way that Jesus comes into our world as Son of God, but also one of us, Son of Mary. His coming is a turning point in all of human history. His coming is the beginning of God bringing about the fullness of God's reign.

That's anticipated actually in our first reading. The Jewish people at the time of Isaiah were being led by kings who were not faithful to God's words and God's ways. Isaiah spoke about an ideal king of the future. He described that king, as we heard in the first reading, as one filled with the Spirit of God. That king, he says, will be outstanding not because of political power or armed might, but because of gifts of mind and heart — wisdom, understanding, strength, knowledge and reverence for God.

But what's even more important is Isaiah looks forward and is speaking about the ideal king. He also talks about how this king will inaugurate the reign of God. He gives us a glimpse of that reign of God when he talks about how all of creation will be transformed into a relationship with God. That means all of creation is living under the saving power of God's love and that transforms our world. Peace and harmony will mark that reign of God.

Isaiah has a very poetic way of describing this. Even notoriously hostile creatures will coexist in non-violent accord like the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid. He goes so far as to say that even a little child will be able to lead them about and that little child can enter into the lair of a snake without being harmed. All of creation will be in harmony. That is how Isaiah pictures the reign of God in this very dramatic and beautiful way ... (I found it): "Like cattle, the lion will eat hay. By the cobra's den the infant will play, and the child will put his hand into the viper's lair. No one will harm or destroy over my holy mountain; for as water fills the sea, the Earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord."

The reign of God — an extraordinary vision that Isaiah offers us. If you noticed the Gospel lesson, as Matthew introduces John the Baptist, John the Baptist says, "Change your ways; the reign of God is now at hand!" We can enter into this reign of God, live according to the ways of God's reign, and it will transform our world. It's the very same thing Jesus says at the beginning of his public life. It's in Luke's Gospel. When he appears in the synagogue at Nazareth, he tells the people, "The reign of God is at hand; change your lives!"

In that passage we hear Jesus himself describe what the reign of God will be like: "God has sent me to proclaim good news to the poor, to give the blind new sight, set the downtrodden free, proclaim God's year of favor, a time when all of creation will come into the fullness of its development." All humankind will come into a fullness of development — every person — the reign of God. That's what we will be celebrating as we celebrate the Feast of Christmas — the God who so loved the world that God sent God's own son to bring God's saving love to spread over our whole world, our whole universe, and all of creation will live in the beauty of that love — every one of us.

But, of course, as John the Baptist says, "Change your lives;" as Jesus said at the beginning of his public life, "Change your lives." Today we get a little sample from John the Baptist himself how he changed his life — very austere, very penitential. It's not that we have to imitate him in every detail, but the idea of simplifying our lives, not being so committed to consumption and overabundance of material wealth and material goods, but that we would simplify and live according to the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, the humble, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, and so on.

We change our lives; and one of the most important ways that we change our lives is by giving up violence, force, killing, war, by making sure we don't live according to that idea that you must use violence or force in order to change the world. No, that's really an attempt to dominate; it's not an attempt to change the world so that we transform that world into the reign of God, the reign of God's love. There are many instances in our world where people are challenged to respond to Jesus by giving up violence.

Just two days ago I read a short article about the situation in the Holy Land, the very place where Jesus was born — Palestine, Bethlehem, where the Palestinian people are experiencing a cruel occupation. Settlements are being built throughout their land, taking away property that these people have lived where they've lived for over 1,000 years. It's almost like the situation when Jesus was born and the Holy Land, Palestine, was experiencing the cruel occupation of the Roman army. That's what's happening today.

What I read is an account of a person who lives in Hebron, one of the main cities in Palestine. This person, her name is Ghada, is a mother of three. She has to live this way — she shelters her children behind metal screens as a protection against glass bottles and trash that Israeli settlers often throw into their home. Each day when the kids go to school they have to pass through a military checkpoint, which can cause great inconvenience or sometimes harassment. Ghada warned another young woman about motherhood. She tells this young woman, "Kali, when you have a child you will think two things at once. First, you will think you are blessed with a wonderful life; but second, you are cursed with great danger."

Then Ghada explained what it means to raise children under military occupation. Here are her words, "Being a mother in Palestine is different. My job is not like other mothers. My job is not to protect because I cannot protect. My job is to teach my child how to walk with a straight back through the valley of violence." Teach her child how to maintain his or her own integrity — walk with a straight back, not acting with hostility toward anyone else, not responding to the violence that takes place in this valley of violence, not responding with violence, but to walk with dignity and with reverence for all of human life.

In other words, not to try to retaliate, not to return hate for hate, not to return violence for violence, but to maintain that spirit of love, in this case, even for your enemies — those who hurt you. On Christmas, we remember the song of the angels, that with the coming of Jesus, God brings peace to all people of good will. Yes, God brings that peace, but it's through the way of Jesus. Each one of us has to begin to try to live the way that Palestinian child is being taught to live — not to return violence for violence, hate for hate, killing for killing, war for war, but to try to transform our world through the dynamic power of love.

That's what Jesus came to show us, to teach us. That's why the angels could sing, "Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace to people of good will." As we prepare now for Christmas, we're beginning the second week of Advent, I hope we will keep in mind that it means, if we really want to bring Jesus into our lives, if we really want to share in transforming our world into the reign of God, it will mean changing our lives, beginning to act in the way of Jesus, the way of peace, forgiveness and love.

That's the only way that will transform our world. We must begin in our everyday life, in our interactions in our families, in our communities, in our cities, our country, and in our relationships on an international level. We must try to reject violence. It probably will begin only if we do it within our everyday life first, that we will begin to understand that we can change individual situations in our relationships through love and ultimately, we can change the world, but only through love.

I hope during the time that's left of Advent (three weeks yet), that we will deepen our spirit of prayer, and that we will reflect more deeply on who Jesus is, what he said, how he lived, so that we will be prepared by Christmas truly to welcome him as the one who ultimately, through his way of love, will bring about the fullness of God's reign. We can share in doing that with him if we listen deeply to what he says and learn to follow his way — again, glory to God in the highest and on Earth peace to people of good will.

[Homily given at St. Philomena, Detroit, Mich., Dec. 4, 2016 The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]

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