Advent 3, 11 Dec 22
The phrase no parent wants to hear from the back of the car or from the little person sitting next to them on the bus: “Are we nearly there yet?” Especially when the journey has only just begun. There are times, brothers and sisters, it may surprise you to hear, that I am not very patient. I can’t cope with queuing at all. And yet with some things, might I say, the bigger things in life, I am indeed willing to wait, trustfully and confidently. For such waiting is this season of Advent. We hear all those prophecies from the Old Testament at this time of year, such as the on we heard in our first reading: “Look, your God is coming … He is coming to save you.”
And at one level such prophecies have already been fulfilled with the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Last Sunday we heard from a different bit of Isaiah proclaiming, “That day, the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.” Well, Jesus is the root of Jesse awaited for by Isaiah. Jesse was King David’s father and I anticipate saying something King David in my Christmas Sermon. Our Lord proclaims in the revelation given to St John as recorded in the last book of the Bible, “I am the root and the descendant of David,” (Revelation 22:16). For this reason one image in art associated with this season of the Church’s year is the Jesse Tree, recording the descendants of Jesse, beginning with David, and ending with our Lord Jesus Christ.
The people were waiting some six hundred years though for those prophecies of Isaiah to be fulfilled. Six hundred years is a long time! Six hundred years ago from today is even before Henry VIII was on the throne, before printing presses were invented which would so transform communication. Imagine someone saying something all the way back then and it only being fulfilled today. Unbelievable. Yet that’s how long it was between the prophecies of Isaiah being articulated and them being fulfilled. It’s for this reason we will sing in the Christmas Carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem:” “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Time itself skips a breath when Christ is born because for centuries these prophecies were made and suddenly there and then - in some ways very unexpected - they were fulfilled.
But the waiting was not over. We are still to be patient, hence we heard St James in our second reading, “Be patient, brothers, until the Lord’s coming.” He uses the analogy of the farmer waiting for precious fruit of the ground. Now, I quite like doing a bit of gardening but after about 20 minutes I’m bored of it. When it comes to cooking there are sauces where you just need to be patient and keep stirring until it’s ready. I struggle: I want results today! With seeds we’ve planted we need to wait and it might not turn out alright. During lockdown I planted some crocuses from seed. I bought the potting trays, got some soil and compost and planted them and watered them. Found a place near a window for them. Watched and waited. Watering as needed. Not a single bloomin’ seed sprouted.
We can find this in our spiritual disciplines. We might feel like God doesn’t hear us when we pray or that we’re not learning anything when we come to Mass or that anything from the Bible we read is going in. Well, my friends, we need to be patient. Partly we are probably looking for the wrong fruit. So often in these spiritual disciplines we want the wrong thing or for the wrong reason. Why do you want to learn more about God through the Bible or teaching at Mass? Is it so that you can show off or start quoting bits of the Scriptures looking all pious? Well, they’re unworthy aspirations which deserve not to work. These spiritual disciplines ought to mean we’re close to Jesus, but not necessarily any more popular nor our lives particularly more comfortable. Rather, these spiritual disciplines, the obligations of our faith are to be done because it is what we are called to do. We don’t offer the rites of the Church as some sort of insurance policy against eternal damnation, nor so we will be protected from whichever lurgy we’re worried about at the time, nor to get straight As in our exams, we fulfil the obligations of our life in Christ for we can conceive of doing no other.
Patience is articulated by St Thomas Aquinas as being part of the virtue of fortitude. There are seven virtues, you will recall: faith, hope, love, justice, temperance, fortitude and prudence. Fortitude is one of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives to us to be brave, to endure, that we might not be afraid. Fear paralyses. Fortitude fires us up for faithful and holy living. Fortitude means we are not daunted when we lose some earthly comfort, some bit of health, someone we love. We need never be afraid, even in such circumstances. The link between patience and fortitude for St Thomas Aquinas is that patience enables us to endure that which others inflict on us. We get the word “patience” from its Latin cognate for suffering. We will cope with that which is far from satisfactory for the pursuit of the greater good God longs for us to know.
We ought, my friends, be patient with ourselves. We will get cross with ourselves when we keep on making the same mistakes, the same failure to pray, the same failure to love. We may be enfeebled because of ill health or old age or pressures of work or family. We may wish it was otherwise and so we end up losing patience with ourselves. We can be tempted then to write ourselves off, to lose all confidence we have in our abilities to make decisions. As Padre Pio said a few decades ago, “Hate your faults, but hate them calmly.” When we lose patience with ourselves we are failing to love ourselves, to see ourselves made in the image of God and failing to trust in God who never tests us beyond our capabilities and with whose Holy Spirit we can always do what is needed. When we become impatient with ourselves we have lost the desire to preserve within us what is good, a point made by St Cyprian in his discourse on patience.
We ought also then be patient with others. This is part of the call to love those we find nearby, our neighbour. St Paul says, “Love is patient” in his first letter to the Corinthians (13:4). We must be patient with all those around us as part of our love for them. And, after all, we never know what others are going through; their trails and their forbearances. Even when we know their actions are wrong, we are not there to judge and to sentence them but to build up the community of humanity. Remembering that patience is part of love will also remind us that love sometimes drives us to help that leopard change his spots, to enable that beautiful person to flourish that they might be as God intended them to be. St Cyprian, the third century bishop of Carthage in North Africa, reminds us that if God and His Church had not been patient with sinners, we would not have St Paul as an Apostle and author of so much of the New Testament.
One misunderstanding about patience is that it must never be confused with apathy or being content with second best. We might think patience is when we think, “Oh, I’ll do it tomorrow,” and it might be but such sentiment is probably more likely to be sloth or avoidance of something important, especially if we find ourselves saying everyday, “Oh, I’ll do it tomorrow.” With patience being an expression of love and part of the gift of fortitude, we are reminded by the Church’s teachings that patience doesn’t mean giving up. Patience will mean we are content to work with what might seem at first unsatisfactory. Patience is a tonic to the throw away culture that disregards what looks irrelevant.
Let’s be patient with one another, my friends. As Jesus says elsewhere, “By your endurance you will gain your souls,” (St Luke 21:19). And here endurance is sometimes translated, indeed including in the Authorised Version or King James translation of the Scriptures, as patience. By our patience we will gain our souls. The priests and the altars look pretty in pink today, the colour of the Third Sunday of Advent. And the pink reminds us that the waiting is nearly over: the purple of penitence and expectation is diluted temporarily by the brightness of our forthcoming Christmas celebrations. But waiting is a continued part of our existence. How good are we at it?