Light in the darkness

By: By Msgr. Stuart Swetland

First Sunday of Advent, Nov. 30

Isaiah 63:16b-17,19b and 64:2-7; Psalm 80:2-3,15-16,18-19; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37

Happy New Year! This November’s end is a time of new beginnings. A new liturgical year is upon us as we begin the beautiful season of Advent in preparation for the Christmas season.

This year our Advent preparations are in danger of being overshadowed by economic and social concerns. Darkness and light are obvious Advent themes but this year, for many, the seasonal darkness is made deeper by the threat of economic ruin.

This is not the only Advent shadowed by darkness, however. Nor is the darkness as bad as it has been in other places and times. This is obvious to anyone familiar with the magnificent book of Advent meditations by Father Alfred Delp, SJ, “Advent of the Heart — Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings 1941-1944.” Father Delp was a German Jesuit who was executed in 1945 for his anti-Nazi efforts.

Father Delp and his parishioners in Munich were challenged by the worst of darkness. In those dire circumstances, he preached a message of great hope: that all of life is an Advent — a preparation for a deeper and more fulfilling encounter with the God who has become one with us in Jesus and through him a more authentic encounter with our neighbor.

Father Delp began his Advent preaching during those years with the simple message that “Advent is a time of being deeply shaken, so that man will wake up to himself.” Advent calls us to be wide awake and alert to Christ who reveals us to ourselves. This is the main theme of Mark’s Gospel today: “Be watchful! Be alert!” Four times Jesus repeats the term “watch.”

But for what are we watching? An authentic encounter with the Master is one answer. But Father Delp talks of waking up to discover ourselves. These two answers do not contradict each other, but complement each other. This is a central theme of the last document of the Second Vatican Council, “Gaudium et Spes”: It is only in Christ that we can discover who we really are.

What we discover in our watchfulness is that we are not “miserable wretches” but God’s dearly beloved children. Here is how Father Delp preached: “Man needs to know that we live from grace; we live from God’s merciful commitment to mankind, from his mercy. Not as miserable wretches, however, but renewed in spirit; so that we know our intrinsic dignity, know that we are raised up above and beyond all else, because we mean so much to God.”

We mean so much to God! He loves each and every one of us as his dear children. And, so we are (cf. 1 John 3:1-2). How else can we respond to this merciful love than to celebrate in joy our great dignity and to reach out with the same merciful love to others, especially those who others may see as “miserable wretches”? For Christians, we look out at others — especially those most in need — and we see (as John Paul II would put it) our God’s brothers and sisters.

The days may be short. The times may be dark. But Jesus is the light of the world who illumines the fact of our great dignity — we all mean so much to God.

Share this good news during this Advent season with those who may be tempted to focus too much on the darkness: The light is coming and the one who is the light of the world loves us with an unfathomable mercy. Embrace this Light!

A priest of the Diocese of Peoria, Msgr. Stuart Swetland is vice president for Catholic identity and mission at Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.

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