Looking forward in hope

Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :- These readings for Advent may come as rather a surprise, and an uncomfortable one at that, for they are all about trouble and distress. Surely, we want to say, Advent is about looking forward to Christmas and they should be jolly, just as our shops and TV are full of bright things and consumerism. But Christian ‘looking forward to the future’ is not like that. It starts from where we are, and for many Christians throughout the world the present may be fraught with anxiety whether one lives in Egypt, or Palestine, or Syria; for the Greeks and the Spanish life is a daily and depressing economic struggle, and even for many in this country lack of finances or more personal worries may make this a time of difficulty and fear. Christians, following our Jewish origins, have always looked out from moments of pain and crisis towards God and a better future; one rooted and founded in him.

For Jeremiah, (Jer 33:14-16), besieged in Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s army, under a vassal king who had revolted and turned to Egypt for support, things were just about as bad as they could be. But, under divine inspiration, Jeremiah chose this time to buy a plot of land as a sign of God’s promise of care for his people. God promised them through the prophet that reform and hope would come, even though through deportation and enslavement in Babylon. Ultimately their salvation lay not with futile alliances with warring superpowers but in ‘honesty and integrity’.

It was something of the same case with the early Thessalonian Christians. In 1 Thessalonians, (3:12-4:2), Paul wrote to encourage one of his favourite convert communities but one under duress. His letters,dating from around 50 AD, are to an imperial city and port at the top Greece. Founded in honour of Thessalonike, wife of the general Cassander in 316 BC, an heir of Alexander, it had become a Roman province in 146 BC after the final Punic War. It enjoyed magnificent communications both by sea and by land over the Via Egnatia west to the coast and over to Italy. Because of this Thessalonika was a veritable emporium of different religions, with at least 30 different cults, both Greek and imported from the east and Egypt. As an imperial city it also worshipped the emperors, so we see that there would have been a myriad of other religions competing with Christianity, and these would have been acceptable to the Roman state, unlike Christianity which was under constant threat of extinction by the ruling council of the city. Almost certainly the Christian community developed from the strong Jewish settler community there and they too would have petitioned the authorities against this ‘renegade’ sect.

Paul, sure of their faith writes to encourage them in these difficult times, praying that “The Lord be generous in increasing your love and make you love one another and the whole human race as much as we love you.” We see then, that it is not so much about the efforts of the Thessalonians he is speaking as the work of God himself in their community that Paul relies upon.

Luke wrote his gospel in the 80’s AD, possibly from Antioch in Syria, another imperial capital with a port on the Mediterranean, in terms very similar to Mark’s apocalyptic of last weeks gospel, so that we can see the carry over from the end of one Church year to the next. One can well imagine how these great port cities with their large military garrisons and naval power would have responded to the descriptions of the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius which the navy would have watched from over the Bay of Naples in Misenum where the fleet was based. They would have been involved in rescue attempts of the stranded inhabitants for whom there would truly have been “On earth nations in agony”, and the message would have spread like wildfire throughout the Mediterranean. For pagans it truly was like the end of the world, but Christians, who had lived with hundreds of years of apocalyptic, this was merely the prelude to the revealing of the Christ so long expected, confirming them in their belief. So, the news they were receiving in Luke’s gospel was not just one of earthly terror, but of a future full of hope and in which they fully expected to stand with confidence before the Son of Man. Those who remained faithful, despite suffering could rest assured that they would find the strength and the courage to cope with everything that nature and the imperial powers threw at them and we too, two thousand years later can and will also rely on this promise.


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