The last in a series of Advent reflections.
By Sr. Elizabeth M. Reis, S.S.J.
Special to The Catholic Weekly
The three readings that encompass Sunday’s (Dec. 12) message — Isaiah 35:1-6a. 10, James 5:7-10, and Matthew 11:2-11 — invite us to reflect on the unfolding of our own journey with the Lord.
Our first reading, from Isaiah, was written at the time of the Babylonian exile, during the long and painful years waiting for the prophetic promise of return to Jerusalem. Sorrow and mourning had been heavy; the doubt, fear and uncertainty of the Jews then probably felt much like our own times as we try to dig our way out of war, financial losses and the crumbling of marriage and family relationships.
The choice of Isaiah for a reading in the middle of Advent invites us to the kind of joy and hope that were essential then for the people of Israel and today for us: the desert will bloom, the eyes of the blind will be opened, the deaf will hear, glory will burst forth, our own strength will increase. The promise of the Messiah seems the only solution to the question: “When, O God? When?”
At one time in my life that was my question too and I discovered a beautiful 18-inch sculpted statue of the pregnant Mary. I bought it and put it on the bookcase in my bedroom. Every morning I would hold my hand over Mary’s womb and pray these hopeful words: “She already has what she is waiting for!” That reality still keeps me centered on the same hope, joy and trust that Isaiah and our early Christian disciples clung to when dark days surrounded them.
Our second reading, from James’ letter, tells us what to do during those “waiting years.” The farmers among us have been doing it for years: “See how the farmers wait for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and late rains. You, too, must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not complain, brothers and sisters, about one another.”
I never read James’ letter without remembering my first year at Nazareth when I entered the Sisters of St. Joseph. The entrance to our motherhouse was flanked by two rows of stately spruce trees that seemed to be 10 stories high! Those early years of preparation and study seemed unending and I would daily walk between that road of majestic trees wondering if I would ever develop the strength, stature and beauty they had. When I learned that they were 100 years old, I realized what the trees themselves already had promised me: “When you are as old as we are, have welcomed and survived storms and tornadoes, you too will be tall, strong and beautiful.”
The Gospel reminds us that even John the Baptist, about whom Jesus said: “Among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist…” struggled with uncertainty. He sent his own disciples to Jesus to ask a question something like the ones we often ask during the doubts and fears in our own life: “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?” John already had heard about the wonders Jesus wrought. This question came out of John’s prison pain just as our questions, confusions and uncertain choices come during our own dark days. And like John the Baptist we need to hear Jesus’ final words in today’s Gospel: “Yet the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Once again, I found an answer to “How do we trust those promises?” The insight came in a gift one of my nieces recently gave me for my diamond jubilee. It was a marble candleholder with the following words engraved on it: “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s learning to dance in the rain.”
During these waiting days of Advent, we, too, might want to reflect on the moments in our life when our journey with our God held darkness and promise, hope and fear, failure and glory. And as the years stretch on, and God’s love becomes ever more clear, we, too, can learn to dance in the rain.
Sr. Elizabeth Reis is the author of “A Deeper Kind of Truth” (Paulist Press), “Listening: An Essential Ingredient in Communication” (a textbook for facilitators), newsletters (1975-2001) and magazine articles. She is a Sister of St. Joseph whose past ministries include teaching, religious education administration and retreats. Her educational background includes master’s degrees in religious studies, Scripture and spiritual counseling, and a doctorate in pastoral counseling. Three summers of study in the Middle East and frequent visits to Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and Greece as teacher and study group leader have given her an extensive understanding of Biblical thought and culture. Spiritual direction training at Notre Dame University, under the direction of Fr. Paul Robb (1971), prepared her for spiritual direction and retreat work in both parishes and retreat centers. For more than 20 years, she has been a professional counselor in private practice and a communication consultant both nationally and internationally for businesses, churches, hospitals and educational groups. She is presently the director of SSJ Consultant Services. In this role she gives retreats, does spiritual direction and teaches Scripture; the Enneagram theory of personality and the Art of Listening Seminar.