Happy New Year, the first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new Church year. This year we’ll be reading from the Gospel of Mark. Advent is a season that directs the mind and heart to await our Lord’s coming at Christmas but also our Lord’s Second coming at the end of time. It’s supposed to be a period to heighten our devout and joyful expectation. Now during this season of Advent we sing one of the most beautiful hymns, “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” The word Emmanuel means God with us. The next two lines of this hymn are, “And ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here.”
Centuries ago, travel was very dangerous, especially if you were wealthy. Criminals preyed upon the rich. If they could the criminals would capture them and hold them for ransom, usually holding them and hiding them away in a foreign country. And there they were, in this foreign country, captive, and exiled, and waiting and watching, and hoping, hoping that someone might pay for their release.
“O Come O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here.”
We too, like Israel, are in exile; we live in a foreign country, we are on a pilgrimage through a foreign land, because Heaven is our true homeland. Heaven is the place where we belong. We were made for it. And we too are held captive, captive to sin and captive to powers alien to God. And so, in our captive exile we hope and we wait, and we watch.
“Until the Son of God Appear.”
I have a story. In Scotland in the 1600s Catholics were persecuted, both priests and laity had to flee the country or go into hiding to avoid imprisonment or even death. One day a Bishop wanted to explore his diocese to see who was left of his flock, and to see how they were faring. And so there he was walking from village to village in the mountains, dressed like a poor farmer to escape capture. It was winter, and as the sun went down, he became lost among the snow-covered hills. Almost exhausted with wandering, he finally saw a dim light in the distance, and made his way towards it. It was a poor cottage on the edge of the woods; he knocked on the door. The family welcomed him, warmed him at their fire, and prepared him some food. He didn’t see any crucifix or image of Mary in the house, so he concluded they weren’t Catholic. They were extremely kind and hospitable, and as he ate their delicious food, they conversed politely and pleasantly. He didn’t bring up the topic of religion.
As the Bishop sat there he noticed that the family seemed sad underneath their good-natured hospitality. And so he asked about this, and the mother explained that in the back room, on a bed of straw her father lay dying, but he refused to admit it, and so he was not preparing himself well for death. The visitor offered to speak with him, and he was led to the back room. Sure enough, the old man lay there, feeble and clearly dying. The bishop offered words of sympathy, but the old man seemed to regain strength and said, “No sir, I am not yet going to die. That is impossible.” The disguised bishop asked why he was so sure, and after hemming and hawing, the old man asked quietly if the visitor was Catholic.
Assured that he was, the dying man gave this explanation. “I also am a Catholic. From the day of my first Communion until now I have never failed even for a single day to pray to Our Blessed Lady for the grace of not dying without first having a priest at my bedside to hear my confession and give me the Last Sacraments.” “Now sir, do you think that my heavenly Mother will not hear me? Impossible! So I am not going to die till some priest comes to visit me.” Tears rolled down the bishop’s face as he realized that he was God’s faithful answer to this man’s humble and confident prayer. The old man, in a faithful Advent spirit, hoped and waited, and watched. And our God was faithful to him and ransomed him from his captivity. Sending him his longed-for priest to give him the sacraments.
Our God is a faithful God. He fulfills his promises. God didn’t abandon the human race after the Original Sin. He promised to send a Savior, and he fulfilled his promise on the very first Christmas. And God has also promised that this Savior, Jesus Christ, will come again to bring our earthly exile to its completion, just as he brought his Chosen people out of their exile. God is faithful, he will keep his promises. And with his grace we too can be faithful. Just like that old man in Scotland.
St. Paul from our second reading writes, “He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
And now for the last line of our hymn’s first verse, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley