Our return and the return of God
Second Sunday of Advent (C) | Fr Simon Gaine considers the manifold ways in which God has returned to mankind through his grace so that we might return to God through a journey of faith.
Advent is, among other things, about returning. In our first reading we witnessed the return of exiles to Jerusalem, to God’s city. From east and west, at God’s command, they return, carried back like royalty. God has removed every obstacle to their return, as though he had flattened mountains and hills and filled in the valleys, so Israel can return in safety, saved by the Lord.
But more important is the fact that the people are accompanied by God in their return. He is present with them, escorting them, just as they had been escorted away into exile by their enemies. So when they return home, the Lord’s special presence among his people is also returning home. This is as much about the return of God as it is about the return of Israel.
In today’s Gospel, we see how these prophecies are more deeply fulfilled in the New Covenant. John the Baptist is that voice foretold by the prophets which calls for a straight road to be prepared for God, with valleys filled in and hills laid low. That return takes place definitively in Jesus, when he comes amongst us, and the salvation of God is made plain for all. He is God returning to be present in the most special way of all among his people, when God becomes human. And all this is done so that we too can return to him and be part of the city of God.
Scripture teaches us how we human beings turned away from God in our first ancestors, at the very beginning of human history. Now, as soon as we come into existence, each one of us, we share in that turning away from God. This is the mystery of original sin. But in baptism that sin is taken away: we are turned back to God by grace, and our return to him is underway.
We read also in the prophets how the Lord declares, ‘Return to me, and I will return to you.’ But we can only return to God because he first returns in his grace to us. We were reminded of this yesterday in the Church’s celebration of the Immaculate Conception of our Lady in her mother’s womb.
God returned to Mary at the very moment of her conception, and prevented her from becoming turned away from him through original sin. The sanctifying grace we receive at baptism, Mary received at the first moment of her existence. John the Baptist, another figure of Advent, was made holy in the womb and so leapt for joy at the presence of Jesus, when Mary visited her cousin, Elizabeth. God was returning in Mary, returning in John, and has come among us in Christ.
But when God returns to us, he enables us to return to him. This is as much about our returning to God as God’s returning to us. We see the fruit of God’s return to us laid out in our second reading. Paul speaks of how God, who began a good work in us, will bring it to completion of the Day of Christ Jesus.
This good work has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Our returning to God has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is begun by the grace of God and becomes a stable reality in us through baptism. It is completed at Christ’s Second Coming when we are raised from the dead in glory. But in the meantime, that return is an ongoing journey of faith.
Paul speaks of that journey in terms of an increase in mutual love among us. It increases in knowledge and discernment, as we come to know the mystery of God’s return within us more and more. And all this changes us: we come to approve what is excellent, and become more pure and more blameless, filled with the righteousness that comes as a gift through Christ. If we are to be preparing for Christ’s return at the end of time, this path of Christian growth must be our way of return to him now.
Of course this is part of our Christian faith all year around. Perhaps in Lent we concentrate a great deal on our returning to God, on manifesting our repentance in prayer, fasting, almsgiving and other forms of penance. Perhaps in Advent we can turn our thoughts first to God’s return to us, that he has returned to us in Christ, that he has begun our return within us, and that we wait for the return of Christ at the end of time and in the celebration of Christmas.
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Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a 17th-century statue from Seville by Juan Martínez Montañés, that is now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
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