Expectancy… If any word captures the feel of the season, that might be it. Expectancy is wide – it includes both joyful anticipation and dread, acquittal and indictment, pregnancy and death, and a lot more. Dawn offers the hope of a new day after a stormy night. Latent in the dark days of winter is the promise of spring. And in the midst of our cares and fears, hope and fulfillment await. It’s Advent!
Trolling around the Internet, I found that according to the Collins on-line dictionary: “Expectancy is the feeling or hope that something exciting, interesting, or good is about to happen.” But right after it, I read from The Economist, “Why life expectancy in America is down again – Death and despair…” Still, my great go-to Authority (the Oxford English Dictionary) prefers optimism: “expectancy – the state of thinking or hoping that something, especially something good, will happen.”
Both senses can be found abundantly in Scripture, especially in the writings of the Prophets. But overall, as reflected in today’s readings, the promise of fulfillment, of divine vindication, of deliverance from oppression and tribulation tends to prevail over dread anticipation of judgment.
Today’s first reading is from the prophet Baruch, who was Jeremiah’s secretary and is perhaps better known for lamenting than the rhapsody we hear today, even though his name
means “blessed.” It’s largely a quotation from Isaiah 40:4, which we know especially from the musical setting in Handel’s Messiah, and is cited in the gospel reading. The more familiar and older verse that both Baruch and St. Luke are in fact citing goes like this: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill brought low….”
I again thought of this passage as I read an account the other day of the expected resumption of mountain top removal in West Virginia and Kentucky, where valleys will again be filled in by the hundreds with the rubble under new administration de-regulations.
This leveling and filling is not done to prepare a highway so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. It is done for coal extraction, a cheaper and more violent process than mining, both of which have already inflicted serious harm on the society and culture of many of the people of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky who have lived in those once-beautiful mountains and hills for over two hundred years. Most of them are now living in poverty and environmental illness. Mountain Top Removal is, in fact, the very opposite of what Baruch and Isaiah were describing. It is a great injustice to the poor, and to the land… all in the name of expected profit.
So what does this have to do with us as we contemplate the second Sunday of Advent? It’s a reminder that as Christians we should always be mindful of the needs of the poor and that we are commissioned to do something about it. You might even want to look into what’s happening in West Virginia and Kentucky and what our renewed dependence on cheap energy has done to the people there and is doing to the environment there and around the planet.
Returning to today’s first reading, like Isaiah, Baruch focuses on justice, which he mentions three times in this passage, along with mercy. It also figures in the reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, where he wishes that they will be found rich in the harvest of justice which Jesus has ripened in them. And it’s pretty hard to miss the point in Luke’s gospel about what John the Baptist was doing out in the wilderness of Judea along the banks of the Jordan river – preaching a baptism of repentance which led to the forgiveness of sins — to make ready the way of the Lord. To make ready the way of the Lord. The watchword is joyful anticipation.
Although the green hues of summer are now muted to violet, Advent is about Promise and Hope, the expectation of deliverance and salvation. It also looks ahead to surprise and fulfillment, which is the real reason we give gifts at this time of year, not to shore up the economy. Add an element of suspense, a young mother about to give birth, a longing for freedom even more than for reduced taxes and lower gas prices, and you have the recipe for an Advent observance that makes some sense. Like St. Paul, let our prayer be that “love may more and more abound, both in understanding and wealth of experience, so that with a clear conscience and blameless conduct we may learn to value the things that really matter” – justice, peace, and mercy.