2016 - Advent Reflection: The Kingdom of God is at Hand
Reflection by Bill Mattison - Senior Advisor, Theological Formation
“What’s with the pink robes?” my second-grade son asks. As one of our ACE colleagues reminded me, “We say ‘rose!’” As you know, today is Gaudete Sunday, and the rose-colored robes signify a pause in the preparatory spirit of Advent.
The more old school among us may describe it as a needed break in the penitential spirit of Advent, a brief release of a pressure valve before the second-half “push” of Advent. But something deeper is afoot, and we see it in this Sunday’s readings and Gospel. What if Gaudete Sunday is a reminder of God’s presence even during our waiting and anticipation, an assurance of the presence of God’s joy even as we long for its full arrival?
This Sunday’s Gospel begins with dark times. John the Baptist is in prison. He hears word of “the works of the Christ,” and sends his disciples to ask if Jesus is “the one who is to come.” Jesus responds by pointing to the life that he brings to those captive to suffering, sickness, poverty, and even death. In doing so he makes direct reference to the coming of God’s reign as described in Isaiah (Is 35:1-6a,10; cf. Is 61:1-2; 58:6; 42:1). We imagine John receiving this news from his disciples and breathing a sigh of relief, that despite his imprisonment the “one who is to come” has indeed arrived.
John’s imprisonment and relief signifies to us more than simply the assurance that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the Messiah, Emmanuel or “God with us.” John’s imprisonment symbolically represents the captivity we all experience as we groan for the “everlasting joy” described by Isaiah.
Waiting is hard. This is why Paul in our second reading enjoins us to be patient, make our hearts firm, and not complain about one another. This is why in the first Sunday of Advent’s reading Paul counsels us against the “works of darkness” to which we are all so prone as we wait, and which sadly reflect a lack of hope in God’s coming.
Jesus proclaims, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” And of course on Christmas we celebrate the arrival of the Messiah who inaugurates that Kingdom. But even after John knows Jesus is “the one to come” and hears of his works that signify the inauguration of the Kingdom, dark times remain. John is soon beheaded in a gross travesty of justice. Jesus is crucified in a still grosser injustice. And despite the healings, resuscitations, and beautiful transformations in the lives of men and women who follow Jesus, the fullness of the Kingdom as so beautifully portrayed by Isaiah is not yet.
And so we live in hope, that theological virtue for people in times of waiting. We hope for what is not yet, and in the meantime try to keep “our eyes on the prize” and not be sidetracked by “works of darkness” that signify implicit despair. But while we hope we also recognize the real albeit incomplete presence even now of that for which we long. “Go and tell what you hear and see. Children are loved and taught. School communities become beacons of hope. Communities of teachers support and celebrate one another. Young adults find themselves caught up and captivated in God’s story as they make life decisions.” The Kingdom of God is indeed at hand.
This is why we have Gaudete Sunday. This is why we celebrate even as we continue to wait. The Kingdom for which we long is truly present now, in real and life-changing ways even if not in its fullness. Hope does not simply look to the future as a time of complete fulfillment. It equips us to live now in a manner fitting for the Kingdom. Let us celebrate that real presence on Gaudete Sunday and always. For it is in living lives that proclaim “the works of the Christ” that we are “disciples with hope to bring.”