Isa 40:1-5; 9-11; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mk 1:1-8
“Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace” (2Pet 3:13).
One of the more notorious incidents in radio broadcasting is the 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds, narrated by Orson Welles. The producers of the program repackaged the H.G. Wells novel about alien invasion as a series of “newsflashes,” which they then played without commercial interruption. The effect of this heightened realism was that a certain number of the radio audience became convinced that the end of the world was truly at hand. Panic ensued. Newspapers reported that a few even despaired—taking their own lives, it would seem, so as not to have to die. Pope Benedict once alluded to this bizarre panic as evidence of an important rule about humanity: “We live much more on the future than on the present. A man violently robbed of his future is already a man robbed of life itself” (Introduction to Christianity, 247 fn 39). Our strength to live today, in other words, depends very much on what we expect from tomorrow.
Keenly aware of this link between present and future, the second reading today from 2 Peter exhorts us to present holiness precisely by recalling the sort of future that we await “according to his promise.” 2 Peter gives us 3 characteristics of this future:
1) It will be supremely good: The old world and its elements will yield to a “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
2) It will be difficult to attain: The letter mentions that we must prepare for “that day” through repentance. And since that day will “come like a thief,” the future will be inherited only by the vigilant. The imagery, moreover, suggests that the Old World will not transition smoothly into the New World; the “heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire.” We too can pass from the Old to the New only after being tried by fire.
3) It will be nonetheless be possible to attain—with God’s help. If it were not, what point would there be to God’s patience, to His desire that none “should perish”?
2 Peter then relates this future to our present: “Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be…”? If our future in Christ is in fact good, difficult, but possible through God’s help, how should we live in the present? He answers: “Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.” This waiting in both eagerness and peace is what Christians call hope.
According to Scripture, then, hope is a delicate balance. On the one hand, since the future is good and attainable, hope encourages an attitude of “waiting” and keeps us “at peace.” On the other hand, since this good is difficult and unattainable by our efforts alone, hope keeps us vigilant and “eager to be found without sport or blemish before him.” The hopeful man lives in a sort of creative tension, neither allowing himself to be crushed by the obstacles that lie between him and his glorious destiny, nor allowing himself to be lulled into a false sense of security.
So what about ourselves—do we live in hope? Perhaps the easiest way to take our own temperature is to contemplate the two chief sins against hope: presumption and despair. Presumption relaxes the tension of Christian hope in the direction of false security, of forgetfulness that the good is difficult, attainable only through God’s grace. Presumption leads people to think of God’s mercy as a sort of soft indulgence, to see entrance into heaven as a given for everybody except perhaps a few cruel dictators, and to identify Christian discipleship with the less challenging values of the age: being “nice” and “tolerant,” obeying the law, keeping up a middle-class work-ethic. Presumption sees pretty much everyone as just another “nice guy”—including God. The result is that the presumptuous cease to be “eager to be found without spot or blemish before him.”
Despair, by contrast, relaxes the tension of Christian hope in the other direction: it sees only the difficulties of the Christian life and forgets that heaven and holiness are attainable with God’s help. The truly despairing are like the radio audience of War of the Worlds: they lose their energy for life because they have lost sight of their future. But the first onset of despair often looks very different. Spiritual masters have pointed out that despair often first manifests itself not in sluggishness, but in “busyness” and hyperactivity. In the soul there first develops a secret sadness at the effort required to be holy and to inherit heaven. Since no one can remain long in sadness, the despairing man starts looking for distractions in anything and everything—endless amusements, personal success, consuming projects. He might even wander from one stylish religion to another—New Age, Kabbalah, etc. The one thing that the person on the way to despair cannot be is “at peace.” Under the energetic facade of the “work-hard-play-hard” lifestyle often lies the spiritual fatigue of despair. This is perhaps something to ponder as we try to navigate the holiday “busyness” that tends to invade the expectant peace of Advent.
If we find ourselves weak in hope, tending toward either presumption or despair, let’s begin to seek it in both eagerness and peace. Let’s ask for it from the Lord in prayer here at Mass; let’s soak our imaginations in the images of comfort and challenge that fill the lectionary readings from Advent. For both our future and our present depend on it.