Sunday, December 10, 2006

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

(2nd Sunday of Advent-Year C;This homily was given 10 December, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Baruch 5:1-9 and Luke 3:1-6)

One of the themes we see in the liturgy all throughout the year, but one that is more pronounced in the season of Advent, is our spiritual connection to the people of Israel. Just as they were longing and yearning for the coming of the Messiah, for a Savior, a Redeemer, even so we wait for and long for the coming of Christ.

Every year at this time we sing anew that hauntingly beautiful 9th century hymn:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

Captive Israel . . . in lonely exile . . . Those words, of course, allude to the Babylonian Exile, one of the darkest and most traumatic events of the Old Testament. To Israel, brought into the Promised Land so long ago, to be taken away from that land was unthinkable.

Yet, because of their sins, their infidelity to God, their lack of faithfulness to His covenant and His commandments, they fell further and further away from Him. Time again God sent them the prophets, trying to draw them back to Himself. But they had not listened. Finally, He allowed the Babylonians to conquer Israel, and they carried them away captive. Only those who were too weak or unable to make the journey were left behind.

And along with them was left everything Israel cherished: the temple and everything that was so central to their worship and faith; their entire way of life. For years they were held captive in Babylon . . .

In our first reading today, from the Prophet Baruch, the Lord announces that Israel’s captivity is at an end; her time of exile is over. Speaking to the people of Jerusalem, the ones who were left behind, Baruch exclaims:

Look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God. Led away on foot by their enemies they left you: but God will bring them back to you born aloft in glory as on royal thrones. For God has commanded that every mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God.
—Baruch 5:5-7

God will create a direct route through the desert, a straight path for the people to return. He will level the mountains and fill in the valleys and make a level road for them to come back to Jerusalem. Baruch says “God is leading Israel in joy” (Baruch 5:9).

No longer is it Moses who leads the people through the desert and into the Promised Land. Now it is God Himself who enters into the desert and brings Israel back home, rejoicing.

The return from exile is a remarkable journey of hope; it speaks of the majestic and extravagant love of God, of His tender and merciful care for His people. And that is the very same message we celebrate each Advent.

Whether we realize it or not, we ourselves are in Exile. Even when things are going well for us, even when we experience relative peace and joy, even then we long for something more. We yearn for something beyond this place, a better life and a permanent home with God. We are in exile.

So often the sins of others, and the faults and failures of those around us cause us sorrow and pain; we realize all too well that this world we live in is far from home.

But never is that exile, that captivity, felt more than when we separate ourselves from God by our sins. Because of our own faults and failings, because of our own sins against God and against each other, we exile ourselves from God. We are held captive by our own words and actions, and we remain there, in exile.

The Good News of the gospel is that God doesn’t leave us there! God Himself becomes an exile from Heaven, in a certain sense. God becomes man, and enters directly into our captivity in order to set us free. Jesus Christ is captivated by His own love for us, and surrenders Himself into the hands of wicked men. He is bound and brought before Pontius Pilate, and badly mistreated. He is bound to the wood of the cross so that we might be set free from our own captivity to sin and death. This is the message of the gospel! This is the God who saves us and redeems us!

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

Advent is a time of celebrating the answer to that prayer, that cry of the heart. Jesus Christ is the Son of God who has come and will come again. This morning, St. Luke announces His arrival. He sets up quite beautifully the historical context.

Tiberius Caesar was the Emperor of Rome, the king of the world as it was know at that time. Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea; and then he names the local kings, Herod, Philip, and the other tetrarchs. These were the secular rulers. He goes on to name the religious leaders, the high priests, Annas and Caiaphas. And the word of God came to none of them! Instead, St. Luke tells us,

The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the desert (Luke 3:2).

In the desert! In the desert, where God had met the people of Israel to lead them back from exile. And the message of the Baptist is the same message we hear from the Prophet Baruch: that God wants to make a direct route and a straight path for His people to walk on. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, St. Luke relates the mission of John the Baptist with the deepest yearning of God Himself:

Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths;
every valley shall be filled, and
every mountain and hill shall be made low.

The Lord is coming, and He expects us to be ready for Him when He arrives. John came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). Our preparation this Advent cannot be anything else than that: repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

What are those sins that have placed us in exile from God? Where do we feel that exile the most at this time in our lives? Where is God calling us to turn away from sin and turn back again to Him? We ask for the grace of repentance in our lives, and a return from the exile of sin.

God wants to grant us the forgiveness of those very things that have separated us from others and separated us from Him. But He will never do that, He will never grant us His forgiveness, if we do not ask Him for it!

He has prepared a way in the desert, a place for the forgiveness of those sins, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. When is the last time we made a sacramental confession? When was the last time we heard the words:

God, the Father of Mercies,
through the death and resurrection of His Son,
has reconciled the world to Himself
and sent the Holy Spirit among us
for the forgiveness of sins;
through the ministry of the Church
may God grant you pardon and peace,
and I absolve you from your sins
in the name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit.

Christ is coming. Whether we are ready or not, He is coming. God comes to us in our exile, but we must be prepared. He comes to us today in the Eucharist. He will come into our bodies this Mass in the Blessed Sacrament. He will come into our lives this Advent. Are we ready for that?

The God who comes to us in the desert, and who makes a way for us to return home to Him, reminds us today that we are not made for exile. We are not made for captivity. We are made for God. We are made for Heaven. And that is something to rejoice in. As that 9th century hymn tells us:

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emanuel
Shall come to you O Israel.