Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
May the peace of the Lord be with you!
Today is the first Sunday of the Advent Season, the beginning of the new liturgical year. I would like to explore the significance and teaching of the season from three perspectives: hope; challenges, and the redemption of Christ.
First, Advent is like an evergreen wreath representing growth, life and hope. It is the start of the new liturgical year. Its theme, focus and message are undisputable and beyond human imagination, that is “redemption”, and more importantly, it is “the redemption of God through Incarnation”.
The liturgies of the season are derived from the 2500-year old prophesy foretold by the prophet Isaiah and the history of the captivity of Israelites. We can imagine the state of mind of the Israelites who eagerly anticipated the day of their redemption. At the time of their captivity, Jerusalem and the Holy Temple were destroyed by the Babylonians and tens of thousands of Israelites were ordered to go into exile in Babylon and live in a society full of false gods. They were deprived of political rights and banned from worshiping in public and making sacrifices. Yet, the captured Israelites persisted in their faith, hope, identity and traditions. Their determination became stronger and firmer than their kinsmen who remained in Jerusalem, and they were convinced that God would lead them back to the Holy Land.Half a century later, God led them back to their home in Jerusalem, but they discovered that the Israelites who stayed behind had changed. They worshipped pagan gods, made sacrifices to idols, consulted the dead about their fortunes, and ate pork, a forbidden meat. Moreover, the Temple remained in ruin.
Under such circumstances, the prophet Isaiah continued to preach a message of hope. He pointed out that life was full of disappointments and that hope was not based on human beings but on God who was faithful to his people. Therefore we have to repent and stride toward the glorious future with faith. The prophet Isaiah said, “The Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory” Isaiah (60:19). Redemption of Zion has now reached the whole world.
The liturgies of the Advent Season take us from Judah in the Old Testament to Nazareth, a small town in Galilee, where we can experience the feelings of the Virgin Mary who was expecting the coming of the “promised one” with hope. Unlike other Jews, although she did not know when salvation would come, she firmly believed that it would come eventually. For Mary, the salvation that she was waiting for was already growing in her womb. Her hope was to give birth to this salvation, wrap him in swaddling clothes, and present him to you and I as a gift.
The liturgies of the Advent Season also bring us to a prison in Palestine, where we would share the experience of hope of John the Baptist. John the Baptist was also living in hope, but his hope was slightly confused. Although he heard about “what the Messiah was doing” (Matthew 11:2), he could not be certain whether Jesus was the saviour whom he was waiting for. His judgment was clouded by the harsh living conditions of the Jews under the rule of the Romans; the poor, like Lazarus, waited for alms outside the houses of the wealthy; and the number of the sick and deaths continued to rise.
Determined to find out whether “he” was the one “who is to come”, John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3). To help John the Baptist realize the truth, Jesus told the disciples to tell John the Baptist what they heard and saw and to compare them to the prophecies of Isaiah. Jesus said, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me” (Matthew 11:5-6). And so John the Baptist did not have to search for another, because the “hope” was here. Jesus is hope.
This great hope is the hope of the Advent Season. God redeems his people. In the next four weeks, we will revisit the experience of the anxious waiting by the Israelites, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist. However, our experiences will differ somewhat from theirs because as we revisit their stories, we already know that hope arrived and was born in Bethlehem. Christ who was born in a manger, is now present in our hearts and is telling us that he may come again tomorrow, or perhaps in a thousand years, to lead us to live in a new world for eternity.
While the Season of Advent is the hope of humankind, we are currently facing deeper anxiety, fear, and risk, than ever before. The animosity and conflicts between nations have grown increasingly intense. This brings us to the second significant teaching of the season: challenges. Many people live in suffering, helplessness and despair because of ethnic division, distrust between government and the governed, disagreements among family members and among friends, polarization of opinions, dualism, and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic rages across the world, according to recent news reports, some sixty million people have contracted the virus, which has killed 1.4 million. Since the pandemic is not completely controlled, people are living in fear, confusion and anxiety. The predicament caused by the pandemic has dealt a blow to our hearts and minds. Some have even fallen into the depths of despair, feeling as if all hope is gone.
Although the world is currently in a state of chaos and hopelessness, people are living in anxiety, human relationships are wrought with conflict, and everyone is focused on their immediate concerns and troubles, the Season of Advent brings us the third aspect of its significance: it reminds us that Christ alone is the hope of humankind. Like a verse in O Little Town of Bethlehem, a carol we sing at Christmas, “the hopes and fears of all the years; are met in thee tonight” Jesus Christ is the victor who conquered fear, hatred, divisions, animosity, and the powers of evil, therefore Jesus Christ is the hope in the Season of Advent.
Dear brothers and sisters, are you willing to live out the significance of the Advent Season? If yes, please become the symbol of hope for the helpless this Season. The Gospel reading of the Season reminds us that we have to be alert and ready for the coming of the Messiah. However, we must not search for him in the Christmas manger, for he left there two thousand years ago. Now, we can only find him in the hopeless and the helpless.
I hope that each brother and sister may embrace faith and be alert as you prepare to make the most out of the Advent Season by caring for those who suffer and are helpless so that they may rediscover their hope in life.
+ Paul Kwong