This weekend the Church begins the liturgical season of Advent. While the world enters the final countdown of shopping days until the "Happy Holiday," Catholics enter the final leg of longing and waiting for the Messiah's birth in Bethlehem on Dec. 25.
One of the important virtues at the heart of the Advent season is hope. What does it mean to be an instrument of hope today in the Church and in society? Many well meaning Christians and Catholics spend their days assessing the human condition and world situation and come to the conclusion that we are doomed and hopeless.
Many of us feel like we are caught in a flash flood that is unexpected, powerful, destructive and filled with much despair. For us in the Church, the refrain sounds something like this: "Vocations are down, scandals are up and churches are empty. Problems are more complex, and demands are increasing. Complaints are more frequent and more strident. No one is listening to us anymore. The Church is becoming more and more marginalized..." And the list goes on and on.
In the midst of such dismal music, do we not experience a strong desire "to run to extremes." There is a temptation to become fundamentalist and so rigid in doctrine and life that we become enclosed, like a hidden garden, or walled castle, so that nobody hears the word we preach except those within the safe and protective confines of our dream world.
There's also the temptation to run to the other extreme and become so conformed to the ways and values of the world that the sound teaching, the truth of the gospel that has been entrusted to us, will be diluted, distorted, or completely lose its savour.
Media exerts a powerful influence on the thinking, the attitudes and the faith of people. Some view our present situation with great pessimism and grow disheartened, depressed, and even cynical. Some don't want to admit what is happening and go whistling in the dark, clinging to the illusion that things definitively past can be recovered and the claims of the present ignored. Still others look at it all from the data of sociology, from polls and predictions, and foresee an inevitable, almost deterministic future designed more or less by social and economic forces, a future which is dismal and dark.
For the world of sound bites, hope usually means that we make ourselves believe that everything is going to turn out all right. We use the word hope lightly and cheaply. This is not the Advent and Easter hope of Christians. We cannot weigh the life of faith and judge the vitality of our church communities chiefly on the basis of sociological indicators, numbers, polls, and sound bites.
Because we live in this graced moment of history, we cannot speak of the future of the Church, the future of our parish community, the future of our religious orders, the future of our programs, efforts and activities of evangelization, indeed the future of anything! The only real issue for us Christians is Jesus and the future of the Church, Jesus and the future of our parish communities, Jesus and the future of our religious communities, Jesus and the future of our programs and activities, Jesus and the future of everything! Too often our look at the future is purely scientific or sociological, with no reference to Jesus, the gospel or the action of the Spirit in history and in the church.
During Advent we cry out: Come, Lord Jesus, God, Saviour, Mighty One, Dawn, More Powerful One, Lord of the present, Lord of the future, Lord of the Church. Be light for our eyes, consolation for our hearts, and clarity in the midst of our ambiguity, healing in the midst of pain and suffering, joy in the midst of sadness. Just come! Form us and fashion us into icons of hope for a waiting world.