Dear Brothers and Sisters,
With these vespers we begin the itinerary of a new liturgical year, entering into the first of the seasons that constitute that year: Advent. In the biblical reading that we just heard, taken from the First Letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul uses precisely this word: “coming,” which in Greek is “parousia” and in Latin, “adventus” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). According to the common translation of this text, Paul exhorts the Christians of Thessalonica to keep themselves irreprehensible “for” the coming of the Lord. But in the original text we read “in” the coming (“en te parousia”), as if the coming of the Lord were, more than a future event, a spiritual place in which we already walk in the present, during the wait, and in which we are perfectly vigilant in every personal dimension. In effect, this is exactly what we live in the liturgy: celebrating the liturgical seasons, we actualize the mystery — in this case the coming of the Lord — in such a way as to be able, so to speak, to “walk in it” toward its full realization, at the end of time, but already drawing sanctifying virtue from it from the moment that the last times have already begun with the death and resurrection of Christ.
The word that sums up this particular state in which we await something that is supposed to manifest itself but which we also already have a glimpse and foretaste of, is “hope.” Advent is the spiritual season of hope par excellence, and in this season the whole Church is called to be hope, for itself and for the world. The whole spiritual organism of the mystical body assumes, as it were, the “color” of hope. The whole people of God begins the journey, drawn by this mystery: that our God is “the God who comes” and who calls us to come to meet him. In what way? Above all in that universal form of hope and expectation that is prayer, which finds its eminent expression in the Psalms, human words by which God himself has placed and continually places the invocation of his coming on the lips and hearts of believers. Let us pause for a moment, then, on the two Psalms that we prayed a short while ago and that follow each other in the biblical text itself: 141 and 142, according to the Hebrew numbering.
“O Lord, I cry to you, hasten to help me; / give ear to my voice when I cry to you. / Let my prayer rise up to you as incense, / the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:1-2). This is how the first Psalm of first vespers of the First Week of the Psalter begins: words that at the beginning of Advent acquire a new “color” because the Holy Spirit always makes them sound in a new way in us, in the Church on its way between the time of God and the time of men. “Lord … hasten to help me” (141:1). It is the cry of a person who feels himself to be in grave danger, but it is also the cry of the Church in the midst of the many snares that surround her, that threaten her holiness, that irreprehensible integrity of which the Apostle Paul speaks, that must be maintained for the coming of the Lord. And in this invocation there also resounds the cry of all the just, of all those who want to resist evil, the seductions of an iniquitous well-being, of pleasures that are offensive to human dignity and the condition of the poor. At the beginning of Advent the Church’s liturgy again cries out with these words and addresses them to God “as incense” (141:2). In the Church material sacrifices are no longer offered as they were in the temple of Jerusalem. Instead the spiritual offering of prayer is lifted up, in union with Christ’s, who is both sacrifice and priest of the new and eternal covenant. In the cry of the mystical body we recognize the very voice of the Head: the Son of God who took our trials and temptations upon himself to give us the grace of his victory.
This identification of Christ with the Psalmist is particularly evident in the next Psalm, Psalm 142. Here every word, every invocation makes us think of Jesus in the passion; in particular we think of his prayer to the Father in Gethsemane. In his first coming, in the incarnation, the Son of God wanted fully to share our human condition. Naturally, he did not share in sin, but for our salvation he suffered its consequences. Every time she prays Psalm 142 the Church experiences again the grace of this com-passion, this “coming” of the Son of God into human anguish, his descent into its deepest depths. Advent’s cry of hope expresses, then, from the beginning and in the most forceful way, the whole gravity of our condition, our extreme need of salvation. It says: We await the Lord’s coming not like a beautiful decoration added to an already saved world but as the only way to freedom from mortal danger. And we know that he himself, the Liberator, had to suffer and die to bring us out of this prison (cf. 142:8).
In sum, these two Psalms protect us against any temptation of evasion and flight from reality; they preserve us from a false hope, one that would like to enter into Advent and set off for Christmas forgetting the dramatic nature of our personal and collective existence. In effect, it is a trustworthy hope, not deceptive, it cannot but be an “Easter” hope, as we are reminded every Saturday evening by the canticle from the Letter to the Philippians, with which we praise Christ incarnate, crucified, risen and universal Lord. We turn our gaze and heart to him, in spiritual union with the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Advent. Let us place our hand in hers and enter with joy into this new season of grace that God grants his Church for the good of the whole of humanity. Like Mary and with her maternal assistance, let us make ourselves docile to the action of the Holy Spirit, so that the God of Peace might completely sanctify us, and the Church might become a sign and an instrument of hope for all men.
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]
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