The greatest gift

Imagine a motion picture that begins with a sweeping panorama of all the centers of power in our society: brokerage houses, banks, government offices, huge universities, skyscrapers, media studios and military bases. Then, it cuts away to a desert scene where one man shouts out words whose saving power is heard at first by only a few, but whose impact can transform even those mighty seats of power.

This is the setting of today's Gospel reading. We are given an overview of the corridors of power in Jesus' time, but the word of salvation is found not among them, but in the desert, in the voice of John the Baptist.

John's message is a call to repentance. But it is more than that. It is a message of hope.

The church is like John the Baptist. The church is called to speak to people of our time with a message of repentance and of hope. Condemnations are a dime a dozen. They have their place, but a more precious commodity that we all need is hope. A clear diagnosis is important, but we really need to know about the cure. People who run for office know that their effectiveness is based not only on a critique of what is, but on a vision of what can be.

People with hope live differently than people without hope. Without hope, life is flat, pointless, lacking in vision. There is nothing to look forward to. People who are mired in poverty see no way out. People drowning in excess see no exit. People who have made mistakes in their life see no redemption. What is the result? Despair, social combustion and a slow slide toward the bottom.

With hope, however, people can find a way out. They can have dignity restored, they can turn the page on the past. Hope says that a different future is possible.

This is the point of Advent. It is not just a countdown of shopping days until Christmas. It is a season of hope. However deep the darkness, there is still the light. Advent reminds us that societies can change. A culture of death can become a culture of life; divisions within a society can heal; justice can become a concrete reality rather than an abstraction; and charity a component of societal living rather than a hobby.

The Old Testament prophet Baruch, in today's first reading, speaks to the Jewish people scattered in exile. He speaks of a different future that awaits them. In a passage of splendid poetry brimming with hope, he writes, "Up, Jerusalem … look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west … rejoicing that they are remembered by God."

The message of Advent is that a different future awaits us as well. A different future awaits our world. That new future is always ready and waiting to be born, if we will take the concrete steps to bring it to birth.

The church is the carrier of this message of hope. Years ago, when Pope Benedict visited a halfway house for recovering drug addicts on one of his journeys, he told the residents of that facility that they are "ambassadors of hope" showing that freedom from addiction is possible. We too can be ambassadors of hope to show that fidelity in marriage is possible; to show that we can stand for the sacredness of human life and be compassionate as well; to show that we can disagree on public policy and still respect our institutions of government; to show that sexuality is a sacred power that makes us agents of the Creator God; and to give to those who are dying the hope of an eternal life that awaits them. We live in the real hope grounded in the Resurrection that, as St. Paul writes, the good that God began in us will be brought to completion throughout the world.

Are we willing to be Advent people not in the sense of decorating for Christmas but of being people of hope? Are we willing to be catalysts of a different future that begins in us?

The greatest gift we can give to a weary world and to the people we know is the gift of hope.

Fr. Krempa is pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Winchester.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015