In Advent, as we prepare for the annual celebration of a past event - Christ's birth - we are also preparing for a future event - Christ's return in glory. As the days grow shorter we reflect that earthly time is slipping away, but the day of the Lord advances. As the days darken we light the first Advent candle as a beacon of hope in the one who rose again, triumphant over sin and death, who will return to reveal the kingdom of his eternal love.
It is his unconditional love for each one of us that gives us the confidence to make every day of our lives a day to turn away from sin and back to the Lord, to allow the Holy Spirit to liberate us from that deadly indifference to God's will for us. And so in this season we reflect on those passages of scripture that renew our hope, our trust in the power of God to change us.
Our faith in God is often challenged by the sheer magnitude of human evil in the world which leaves us feeling quite helpless in the face of human greed and violence. The prophets of the Old Testament were made of sterner stuff and never lost sight of the advance of God's reign. Isaiah's words today ring out with a defiant message of hope. The Assyrian war machine was about to descend on Israel and Isaiah knew it. He also knew that the sins of those in power were inviting retribution. But he gives us a vision of a new world, the end of war and a time when all nations will acknowledge the True God and live 'in the light of the Lord'.
If the advent of God's reign is certain, there are no grounds for complacency. St Paul reminds us that the night of human history is almost over, 'the time' has come for us to make a final decisive break with all that is dark within us. If we truly long for God's reign our conversion to Christ cannot be half-hearted. We are too easily discouraged from tackling our sins.
The season of Advent provides us with a concrete timetable for change and renewal. Like those stark health warnings on packets of cigarettes, the gospel today gives us a much needed jolt. The Lord will come like a thief in the night, when we least expect it.
From one perspective, that has been the story of humanity all along. The fall of man in the garden of Eden reads like a bad dream. And people have been sleepwalking into sin ever since. But God has all along been shaking us awake. He came in the words of his prophets and he came most dramatically of all, in person, not occupying centre stage, but taking the role of a minor character. That first advent certainly changed everything; it brought God as close to us as our neighbour. From that moment on it has always seemed that we only have to reach out to touch God. From God's perspective, no doubt, it has always been an eternal advent - the divine Word has never stopped proceeding from the Father and accomplishing his task. So we talk about the second coming in Advent but really it is our own receptivity to God's coming which is the heart of the matter.
In every generation the Father finds his children 'asleep'. Some have given up on God, some have never even known him. And even those who do claim to believe in God are very easily distracted by the cares of this world. Advent is another opportunity for change; but we will fail to grasp it if we start thinking that Advent comes round every year. This may be our last Advent. It certainly will be for millions. God is giving us another chance to respond to his amazing love for us before death steals up on us and we slip away, scarcely noticed, into divine judgment.
A contrite heart and a renewed hope is the visitation from on high that we need now. So that, in the words of today's psalm, we can truly rejoice when we hear it said 'Let us go to God's house'.