One could be forgiven for finding it hard to be hopeful this Advent given the state of the world and the Middle East in particular. That part of the world where Jesus was born, lived and died, has descended into a hell of chaos, violence and unimaginable suffering.
And yet in Advent – the first season in the liturgical calendar, which began yesterday – we dare to wait in hope and expectation as we always do. When confronted with such political and social chaos, I invariably turn to the scriptures for understanding and solace.
The late Fr Daniel Berrigan SJ once said that one could find all one needed by way of understanding and remedy in the scriptures. And he was right.
One scriptural text worth reading in this season is the little known Old Testament book of Nahum. It’s not used in the Lectionary for Mass, maybe because the description of the fall of the empire of evil is too strong to take. It is one of the more ‘political’ books in the Bible and consequently speaks directly to our murderous world.
The prophet Nahum lived close to the height of the Assyrian empire (about 800BC). As a Jew, he was part of a conquered nation, although he spoke to the Assyrians as well as to his own people. For the Assyrians, he predicted the bloody end of a bloody tyranny; to his own people, he brought a message of hope, the reassurance of God’s justice and their own future freedom.
Nahum’s name means ‘comfort’. And his message was simple: the powers of this world stand under the judgement of God who hears the cry of the poor and afflicted and sees all that is done in his name.
Like Nahum and many of the Hebrew prophets before him, Jesus lived among a suffering people. He would have seen up close how the violence of Pax Romana was used to keep a semblance of order in that far-flung part of the empire, for life under the Romans was no picnic.
However, the miracle of the Incarnation is that God took on human flesh in Jesus in this lovely but murderous world and showed us that he cares profoundly about what happens to every human being. Jesus, Emmanuel, ‘God with us’ is always with the wailing crowds, healing, comforting and challenging. And he is our hope.
But hope is not the same as optimism. Advent hope is that all evil empires with their idolatry, their intrigue, their weapons and war machines, live under the judgement of the God of love, peace and justice.
- A harsh and dreadful love: The Catholic Worker Movement at 90
- Saint Columbanus: The first European, from Bangor to Bobbio
- Archbishop Eamon Martin: The Advent season points to Christ
Our world today often seems hell-bent on destruction with its brains being used to devise new ways of torturing, oppressing and exploiting people and even creating weapons capable of global destruction.
It’s a world in which national power counts for more than the common good. And as with the Assyrians and the Romans, it’s all done in the name of keeping order in the world.
But Advent leads to Christmas when we celebrate the birth of a child who became a political refugee, grew up to preach God’s kingdom of love and was executed on a charge of subversion. His life was a failure, his followers scattered, his hope for a new community left in dust.
And yet, more than 2,000 years later, especially at Advent, we keep going back to him because we desperately want to believe that somewhere in what he said and did lies the key to a life that offers hope and meaning.
In a sense, we are always living in Advent. As people of faith, we are continually waiting and watching for the signs of God.
That’s why we dare to hope at Advent. And in Jesus, the marginal Jew who lived in Palestine, we have all the hope we need.
:: Fr Gerry McFlynn is a Down and Connor priest and project manager for the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas. He is based in London with the Irish Chaplaincy.