The Christian life is a life of growing in virtue. Virtues do not get much mention these days. People more readily speak about values – family values, Australian values. But the Church prefers to speak about virtues.
St Paul reminded us in his letter to the Philippians, (4:8): "Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." The Christians strives to grow in virtue.
A virtue is described as “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good” (CCC 1803). It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good. The virtuous person seeks the good and chooses it in concrete actions. St Gregory of Nyssa commented, “The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God”. (De beatitudinibus, 1)
Now there are natural human virtues which are our natural efforts to lead a good life. Thus, we seek to be honest, thoughtful, considerate, patient and so on.
The Church speaks also of what it calls the “theological virtues”. You are very familiar with them and they recur often in our prayers. They are faith, hope and love.
I would like to focus on the one that receives the least emphasis. That is, the virtue of hope. This virtue has special meaning during the season of Advent as we join the Jewish people in their wait for the Messiah. The Old Testament, especially in the prophets, spoke of the intention of God to send the people a Messiah, a saviour. The people lived in hope and expectation that this promise would be fulfilled. They waited for centuries.
Hope is such an important quality to human life. Hope is a sense that things will be well. Hope is an inspiration to strive for a better future. Hope protects us from its opposite – despair. Even when things are most desperate hope is what keeps us going. To lose hope is to give up. To lose hope is to become paralysed. To lose hope is ultimately to lose even the will to live.
We Christians have a special blessing in that our hope is not just that things might get better. For the Christian hope is placed not in ourselves or in some vague optimism but in God who is good and merciful.
During this Advent season each year we are reminded of our Christian hope that God will come again and restore all things. The second coming of the Lord will be in glory and splendour and He will come to judge the living and the dead. All things will be finally put aright.
St Teresa of Avila said, “Hope, O my soul, hope. You know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain, and turns a very short time into a long one. Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end”. (Excl. 15:3)
On this second Sunday of Advent each year we are presented with the figure of St John the Baptist. His mission was to announce the immanent coming of the Messiah. Thus he cries out – “Someone is coming”. He alerts the people to be ready. He warns them that they must be prepared to receive him. His preaching filled the people with hope and expectation.
His voice crying out from the wilderness declares: “Someone is coming, someone who is more powerful than I, and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals”.
The message of John the Baptist resonates with us today. We so readily become preoccupied with the issues of daily life. We so easily lose a sense of what God is doing and wants to do. We live our lives so readily on the horizontal plane and we forget to direct our thoughts towards Almighty God. Indeed Christmas itself can so engage us as we plan and organise that we forget that it is a spiritual event, first and foremost. Christmas is about what God has wondrously done in entering human history. We can find ourselves at Christmas not in tune with the wondrous mystery of God becoming man.
John the Baptist stirs us to place our hope and our expectation in the work of God amongst us. The Catholic Catechism speaks of hope in these words, words very appropriate for the season of Advent, “The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men's activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity”. (CCC 1818)
The Christian lives in hope and this hope is not just a sunny disposition or a vague optimism. It is a virtue grounded in a profound truth – God has sent his own Son as our saviour. God has not abandoned humanity but has acted to save humanity. Our hope is always in God.
And our hope is that there will be a final consummation of all things when all will be put right and God will be all in all.
Archbishop Julian Porteous
Friday, 2 December 2016