It’s a mistake that all of us make.
As we begin these four weeks leading up to Christmas, we tend to see them only as a time to commemorate something that happened two thousand years ago. We look back with nostalgia at what God did in the past by sending His Son to be born of the Virgin Mary. With manger scenes and Christmas ornaments, we try to get a feeling for what it must have been like all those centuries ago that first Christmas day.
But looking back into what God has done in the past is only a small part of what this Advent season is about. It is not just a time to look backward but to look forward. It is not just a time to remember but a time to anticipate. God has done great things in the past but He is also preparing great things for our future.
The people of Israel are our model for how we are to live the Advent season. They remembered all that God had done for them by choosing them from among the nations to be His special people. They remembered how He delivered them from slavery in Egypt and settled them in the Promised Land. But they knew that God had even greater things planned for them. All the glorious events of their past pointed forward to something wonderful that God was preparing for their future.
That future event would be the coming of the Messiah. In today’s first reading, the prophet Jeremiah speaks of this hope which drove the people of Israel. Speaking through the prophet, God says: “I will fulfill the promise....I will raise up for David a just shoot.” Because of all that God had done in the past, the people of Israel live with the confidence that God would be faithful in fulfilling His promises in the future.
Like the people of Israel, we look forward in hope to the fulfillment of God’s promise. However, we know that the Messiah has already come. It is precisely His birth that we celebrate. We understand as they could not that He would be born in humble circumstances. We understand that He would conquer not by force but by love.
However, there are more promises that have yet to be fulfilled. Christ has come, but He will also come again. The first time, He came as a child born in a stable. When He comes again, it will be in glory on the clouds of heaven. The first time, He was hidden. When He comes again, all people will see it. On that day, there will be no doubt that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God and Saviour of the World.
Today’s readings speak to us about just what promises we as a people of faith and hope are looking forward with expectation to being fulfilled.
First, God promises to bring us the fullness of redemption. Jesus tells us in the gospel that when He comes again in glory we are not to be afraid or run away. Rather, He says “stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” The word, “redemption” harkens back to a time in the past when slavery was common. For a slave to be freed, someone would have to redeem him or her. That is, they would have to pay the slave owner to let them go. Just so, by His death on the cross, Jesus has redeemed us from the slavery of sin and death. He has paid the price for us. And when He comes in glory, our redemption will be complete. There will be no more sin and we will die no more. We will be free to live only for Him.
Secondly, God promises to establish justice on the earth. As the prophet Jeremiah puts it in the first reading, “...they shall call her: ‘The Lord our justice.” God promises through His word to create a new heavens and a new earth where justice will reign supreme. On that day, the powerful will bow down to the lowly. The wealthy will envy the poor. The strong will be lead by the weak. It will be a time when the vulnerable are protected, the hungry will be fed and the sorrowful will be comforted. There will be no one who has too much and no one who has too little for God Himself will provide for all our needs.
Now there is another mistake we can make. Just as we can see Advent only as a time to look backward, we can also see it only as a time to look forward. We can forget that the redemption and justice God promises are meant not only for the future but for today. Through us, God wants to make justice a reality on earth. Through us, God wants to free the world from sin and death. Though it will only be in the future that we will see it in all its fullness, it is a promise He wants to fulfill even today.
However, He needs us to cooperate with Him through our good works and acts of charity. In our lives, God’s promises must be a reality so that others can share our hope. It is up to us through the Holy Spirit to see to it that the hungry are fed, the vulnerable are defended and the poor are given the opportunity to contribute to society.
That is ultimately what this Advent season is about. Not only looking backward at what God has done, not only waiting with hope for what He will do in the future but working here and now to make all His promises a reality in our world today.