The other evening I was on a flight from Ottawa to Edmonton. It took off exactly on time, but very early into the flight, about one half hour after takeoff, the pilot announced that he was not at ease with the performance of one of the engines, so we would have to return to Ottawa. Once we were safely on the ground and back into the airport we were told we would have to wait until another plane was found, as well as another crew. And so we waited, and we waited, and we waited, until finally we were able to leave again and arrive home safely. Passengers were not complaining – well, not much, anyway - because we knew the pilot had made the right decision to land the plane. But we just wanted to get home, and because it was out of our control, we knew that we would have to wait and rely on others to get us home.
Wanting to get home; reliance upon another; waiting. This pretty well sums up all that we hear from the Sacred Scriptures throughout this Advent season. “Home” is to be with God forever. It was for this, in fact, that God created us in the first place. And yet, very early on, humanity was diverted by the tragic failure we call sin, the refusal to trust God and his wisdom, the preference for self-reliance over dependence upon the Lord. This left us grounded, able to go nowhere, and needing to wait for one to come who could restore us on the right path that would, indeed, lead us home to our heavenly Father. And humanity waited, and waited and waited.
Yet this long waiting of humanity for a saviour was of an entirely different quality than that experienced in the airport. Ours on Thursday night was filled with anxiety. As numerous departure times were promised and not fulfilled, we began to worry that the airline would not be able to fulfill its promise to get us home that night. In contrast, the waiting of our ancestors for a saviour was filled with hope, because they knew that God would, indeed, be faithful to his word. A specific time was never promised. Occasionally this would give rise to great cries of longing from the people, calling on God to act soon, especially as they endured periods of suffering. At moments like these the prophets would call them back to trust in God’s wisdom and to remain steadfast in hope. An example is given in the first reading from the Sunday Mass of yesterday, where Isaiah, the great prophet of salvation, spoke words of comfort and hope to those who were waiting (cf. Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11). The Lord is coming soon, he said, and he will come as a shepherd to gather his sheep and lead them. Trust, have hope, be at peace. And, of course, God was faithful. He sent his Son, Jesus, to be our shepherd and lead us home to the Father.
As we waited at the airport, we had been told that a new crew would soon arrive to operate the plane and take care of passengers. Therefore, when we saw pilots and stewards arrive, that was a sign to us that what was promised would soon be fulfilled. Isaiah foretold that the arrival of the awaited Messiah would be heralded by a voice in the wilderness that called people to prepare the way of the Lord. That voice would be a sign of the imminent coming of the saviour. The Gospel of Sunday (Mark 1:1-8) identified that voice as John the Baptist, who did live in the wilderness and who did, in fact, call people to prepare by changing their lives, by repentance.
This message of John the Baptist remains relevant for us even today, because we remain in a time of waiting and expectation. We are no longer waiting for God to send the saviour. He has done so in his Son, Jesus Christ. We are waiting for Jesus to come again in glory at the end of time, as he promised. It remains true that we must be prepared by repentance for his arrival. We do not know when it will be, only that his day “will come like a thief”, as St. Peter told us in yesterday’s second reading, that is to say, suddenly and unexpectedly, so the time to repent and be ready is always now.
As we waited at the airport, time seemed to drag on as we waited for the airline to fulfill its promise. Everything was closed and there was little to do. Some might be tempted to think that the Lord is rather slow in fulfilling his promise. It has been more than two thousand years, after all! The teaching of St. Peter (cf. 2Peter 3:8-14) is very much to this point. God is beyond time. To him a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow; he is patient, patient with us, because he wants us to share in his gift of salvation and not to perish. Therefore, in this time of expectation and waiting, there is much to do: examine ourselves and make the necessary changes so that we lead lives of “holiness and godliness.”
This is the message of Advent: wait with patience and hope in the expectation of the Lord’s coming, be aware of our need for the Lord to take us to our destination, and prepare for him by an honest and thorough examination of our lives. In this way we open our lives to welcome the Lord, the shepherd who leads us home.