Sunday, 5 December 2010
2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A, Shaftesbury
I want to say a few words today about hope. Hope is one of the defining characteristics of the season of Advent: in Advent we look forward hopefully to Christmas, and, in particular, in this first part of Advent we look forward, in hope, to the Second Coming of Christ.
It may be that you've never thought that much about what "hope" is, but it’s something that has been greatly analysed by the saints and theologians of the Church, and it is important because it concerns what moves us ONWARD in our activity.
Many people today, if they think of hope at all, think of hope as being just sort of ‘feeling’, however, the saints speak of hope as being something much more definite, and much more important.
St Thomas Aquinas defines hope has that movement of the will (ST I-II q62 a3) by which we direct ourselves towards “a future good, difficult but possible to attain”(ST II-II q17 a1). As such, hope is something we can have on both a natural level and on a supernatural level.
For example, with natural hope: someone who buys a house and gets a mortgage has "hope" that he will pay off the mortgage, not today not tomorrow but as a “difficult but possible” future good. And he measures and directs his present activity towards that possible, difficult, but important future good.
Supernatural hope directs us to the ultimate good of heaven, “by means of the Divine assistance”(ST II II q17 a1).
In our second reading today we heard St Paul writing to the Romans about hope, he said, "Everything that was written long ago in the Scriptures was meant to teach us something about hope from the examples Scripture gives of how people who did not give up were helped by God”(Rom 15:4).
So, in the Old Testament, we read about how the people of Israel wandered for 40 years in the desert, 40 years before they finally entered the Promised Land. And they serve as an example to us because they "did not give up". Further, they serve as an example to us because they were "helped by God" as they struggled on: God gave them manna from heaven, quails to eat, cures for the bite of a fiery serpents, and help in battle. Finally, because they "did not give up" they achieved that “difficult but possible” good because they were finally allowed to enter the Promise Land. They “did not give up” and they “were helped by God” to that goal.
For ourselves, St Paul gives a much more immediate and concrete example of how we must apply this to our lives. He notes that it is possible for us to "give up" in the struggle to be good to our neighbour, to be "tolerant with each other". But he encourages us by urging us to set our hope on the good that is both present and future, namely, the mercy of the Lord. The mercy of the Lord that is tolerant with us in our weakness and sin and inadequacy. And the mercy of the Lord that continues to give us His grace and strength in order that we might do good. Yes, it can be difficult to be tolerant and loving and giving to friends, family, to those we daily live with a brush up against, but he urges us to "to treat each other in the same friendly way is Christ treated you”(Rom 15:7).
This aspect of hope has a simple but twofold application to our lives. On one level it orients us towards the Second Coming and towards that ultimate "difficult but possible" good of heaven: if we persevere in being loving to others then God will be loving to us and give us the reward of heaven. And, in the much shorter term, thinking of Christmas coming: if we persevere in being loving to others then Christmas will be a more loving, pleasant, joyful experience; and Christ will find a place to come to us this Christmas.
To come back to where I began, the nature of hope: hope is what sets us towards that difficult but possible ultimate good, relying on God’s help. Let us prepare ourselves in this Advent season by deepening our hope, by deepening our focus on that good which is beyond ourselves, that good which is possible to attain because we, like the examples given to us in the Scriptures, will be "helped by God”(Rom 15:4).