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December 17, 2017 - Advent: An Exilic Perspective

Third Sunday of Advent

Scripture Readings

For Advent this year, my focus has been almost entirely on the first readings of the last three weeks, more specifically, the Babylonian exile. In the first week of Advent, I focused on the people of God desperately yearning God’s redeeming intervention. In the second week of Advent, I reflected on Isaiah’s announcement the exile was coming to an end. I remember preaching that while the exile could be attributed to God’s justice, the people newfound freedom was an act of God’s mercy. This week, we continue with our reflection on the exile. Only thing is that today’s first reading is directed toward the people who are finally back in their homeland. 

When the people returned from the exile, they found their homeland in ruins. Their long and arduous task of building the temple and nation would have to begin. The nation had mixed emotions - sadness for the ruin yet the hope of rebuilding. In the midst of all this, the people hear promising words proclaimed by the prophet - The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God” (Is 61:1-10). Although, today’s gospel reading is not the parallel of this passage in the New Testament, we cannot help but recall the passage from Luke, where Jesus entered the synagogue, opened the scroll and read the scriptures. The words he read were the same words “The spirit of the Lord is upon me… he has sent me… to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God” (Luke 4: 18-19). On that day, Jesus added radical words to that passage from Isaiah. He said, “Today, this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). 

As we enter the third week of Advent, and as we are only a week away from Christmas, let me propose three things for us to reflect upon: 

  1. The Ever Present God. Often, just like the people of Israel upon their return from exile, our life too is a mixed bag. Life is a combination of ruins and hopes. Illness, misfortune, death, tragedies can weigh us down. But the birth of a child, a healing, some success, friendship, or a spiritual experience can also bring hope. Reflection on an exile that took place almost two thousand seven hundred years ago makes us realize that God never abandons us. No matter how bleak life may seem, God is present in our midst. This awareness is the reason for the joy that the second half of today’s first reading expresses. Isaiah says, “I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul" (Is 61:10). Perhaps, we remember that today is Gaudate or Rejoice Sunday! Joy comes from our knowing that God is present in our midst. Joy is not the absence of struggles. Joy is the quiet contentment that comes from knowing that God is ever present. Joy also comes when we make God present to those who feel abandoned! This week, let us become more aware of God’s presence where we can and bring this presence to others as well. Let our Gaudate week be a time for joy!
  1. In Our Exile. Christians are invited to live life from an exilic perspective. The exile helps us to remember that our life on earth is a form of exile. In a very real sense, we are all on the way. Unlike the people of Israel, however, our exile is not utterly godless, inhuman, or devoid of joy and happiness. In fact, we think of our life on earth as a gift from God. The good things of life, the pleasures that we cherish, our family, the contentment and success that might come from our earthly pursuits, the goodness and humanity that we experience, the beauty we see and touch in our world makes our exile not so loathsome. Here precisely is also the danger - that we might think of this exile as the ultimate end; the we strike our roots here a little too deep; that we lose perspective of eternity; that, thinking of our exile as the end of the journey, we become selfish, uncaring, and put our trust in that which is transient. Advent is a reminder to us that the best is yet to come. Advent reminds us to live life with faith, to live our life here on earth with one eye on eternity, to treat each other righteously because one day we will be with each other again in God’s presence.
  1. Exilic Virtues. Besides, Isaiah’s prophecy in today first reading, the second reading and the gospel reading give us directions to live in an exilic world. In today’s second reading, Pauls tells us, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks… Do not quench the Spirit. Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil” (1 Thes 5:16-22). This is very good advice, I think. Isaiah’s prophecy also gives us virtues to live by: that we always keep the poor in perspective; that we bring healing to the broken-hearted, the we set captives free.  The gospel reading also gives us an important point to reflect upon - that like John the Baptist, our life constantly testifies to Jesus Christ, the light. In fact, this is the ultimate vision and mission of our life - to point to Him who is the light. 

Unlike the people during the original, we have Christ in the Eucharist to guide us through our exile. As we receive Christ, may our lives point Him who is also our freedom from exile. I end the homily with these words of St. Paul: "May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it (1 Thes 5:23).   

- Fr. Satish Joseph