Preparing in Hope: an Advent Reflection by Dr. Josephine Lombardi
Recently, I facilitated a few Advent reflections on the theme of “Preparing in Hope.” Many participants have asked for some of the content I shared during the retreats they attended. Below, I am happy to share a summary of my reflection.
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul advises us to “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer,” (Romans 12:12). This verse inspired me to prepare a definition for hope: Hope is the habit of waiting with joy, patience, and perseverance. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews describes hope as a “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…” (Hebrews 6:19), grounding us as we manage life’s many challenges and desires. This anchor, however, remains firmly planted with discipline and cooperation with God’s grace.
Hope is one of three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity (1 Corinthians 13:13). Virtues are good habits. Virtues, whether supernatural or natural, are acquired through practice and repetition, sustained with God’s grace.
In his First Letter to the Thessalonians (5:8), St. Paul says faith and love are like a breastplate and the hope of salvation is like a helmet. In other words, hope protects the mind, protecting it from discouragement and despair. As a Roman citizen, St. Paul used symbols that would be familiar to others, helping them to understand the gift of faith, making the gospel accessible to non-believers. Moreover, he had hope that our Lord would return (1 Thessalonians 5:23). He encouraged people to be aware and patient as they waited for Jesus’ Second Coming—he was one of the first Christians to prepare other Christians for the Second Coming.
His first two letters, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, were written sometime after 50 A.D. Writing before the evangelists, he urged fellow Christians to be awake and aware, actively preparing for the return of Jesus. We reflect on this theme in the first weeks of Advent when early liturgical readings speak of the signs of the times and the need to be awake, because we do not know the day or the hour when Jesus will return. Furthermore, we are reminded that various signs will accompany His return, inspiring those who are awake to be ready for an abrupt shift in spiritual seasons. The pondering of these themes accompanies the season of Advent.
The word “Advent” is from the Latin Adventus, meaning “going before or coming,” presence,” and “arrival.” Similarly, the Greek word Parousia refers to the Second Coming. John the Baptist prepared the way of the Lord during his First Coming, and we, in anticipation of the Second Coming, cooperate with the Holy Spirit, to welcome Jesus into our hearts and in our communities.
“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:13)
The above verse follows the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids. Like the bridesmaids, we are challenged to stay awake and be ready for Christ’s return.
During times of preparation and waiting, Christians are urged to examine their consciences and to be reconciled with God and one another. When it comes to the various seasons of our lives, we can learn to adopt this attitude of preparedness. The seasons of our lives can change over night: a new diagnosis, a car accident, a stroke or a sudden loss of a loved one. It’s not a matter of “if,”—it’s a matter of “when,” because we all experience seasons of drought and seasons of plenty. In seasons of emotional and physical drought, we build resilience through trust and hope. In seasons of plenty, we build resilience through building emotional and spiritual stamina. It is in seasons of plenty that we prepare for change. If we are strong and trusting, the abrupt shift of seasons will not overcome us. We will be prepared because we are anchored in hope and strengthened by God’s grace.
As we prepare to celebrate our Lord’s birth, we can transfer this discipline of preparedness to our personal lives, especially if we are waiting for a desire to be fulfilled. It’s challenging to wait, especially when the desired outcome is something that is truly life giving. Are you waiting for healing? Employment? Relationship? Pregnancy? Reconciliation? St. Paul advises us to wait with joy, patience, and perseverance. Below, I include a few reflections to help us wait with joy, patience, and perseverance.
Waiting with Joy
- Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). This implies that we enjoy this state of gladness or delight when we are connected to the Holy Spirit, the power of God’s love. Joy is not the absence of hardship. Rather, it is the spiritual and emotional state we acquire in an intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit. It is an attitude that must be cultivated. In Nehemiah 8:10, we read: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Joy can be understood as spiritual resilience. Have you ever encountered anyone who has carried a heavy cross, but possesses deep faith? Have you noticed a special resilience that carries them through their suffering? When it comes to your own pain and suffering, have you felt a sense of relief whenever you ask the Holy Spirit for help, for strengthening? That relief is deeply connected to joy. Joy, and her sister fruit, peace, come to us whenever we entrust our struggles to the power of the Holy Spirit. In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul says he is full or sorrow; yet he rejoices, (Philippians 1:25; 3:1). We are not alone—the power of God’s grace carries us during times of struggle.
- Ignatius of Loyola advised his companions to set aside time for restorative rest and leisurely activities. Take some time to engage in life giving activities. Pursue truth, goodness, and beauty, that is, transcendentals, or properties of God’s being. Go where there is truth, goodness, and beauty. We have been blessed with the Day of the Lord, Sunday. God commanded us to rest. Give yourself permission to rest.
- Teresa of Avila cautioned us to avoid comparison because it robs us of our joy. Don’t compare yourself to anyone. If you must compare, compare yourself with your younger self. Instead, strive for holiness, knowing we are all called to holiness. With God’s grace and our cooperation, it’s a real possibility. Ask yourself, Have you grown? Have you learned from your mistakes? A colleague of mine once said, “Don’t pay attention to what others think of you or are saying about you. Pay attention to what God is saying to you.” Remember, only love is rewarded in the afterlife. Strive to make love your only motivation in all you say and do, and this will keep you from comparing yourself to others.
- Engage in positive, life giving relationships. Love gives meaning to all relationships. Ask God for the grace to avoid negativity, gossip, and worry. Worry cannot change anything, but prayer can.
Waiting with Patience
- The Oxford Dictionary defines patience as the “capacity to suffer without complaint.” Some biblical translations include “long suffering” in the place of patience. St. Paul tells us that love is patient, (1 Corinthians 13:1). Where there is patience, there is love. Although patience, like joy, is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, it’s hard to be patient when we are waiting for an outcome, for God’s will to unfold in our lives. Moreover, we experience time differently when we suffer; it seems to drag on and on. Compare this to a time of rejoicing—time seems to pass quickly; you feel a sense of timelessness, like a foretaste of heaven. If you are waiting for an outcome, especially if it is compatible with God’s will, consider the following insights I’ve pondered over the many years of discerning God’s will:
- There’s a saying attributed to Robert H. Schuller “God’s delays are not God’s denials.” I came across this saying over 25 years ago when I was praying for a desire to be fulfilled. This saying gave me great comfort and peace, knowing God was calling me to be patient. God works in these delays, preparing our hearts and minds for his special blessings. As a fruit of the Holy Spirit, patience is a sign you’re in tune with the activity of the Spirit in your life.
- Another possible reason why you may endure long periods of waiting is God has something better in mind for you. You may desire a certain object, but God knows the best outcome that matches your disposition and vocation.
- Sadly, sometimes the answer to our request is “no.” This is a tough pill to swallow. We may not know God’s reasons until we are on the other side of the veil. In order to avoid despair and discouragement, pray for the grace to stay anchored in heroic trust. Trust and patience are sister virtues. It’s hard to be patient without trust. If you are looking for a patron saint to intercede on your behalf, St. Paul is a great intercessor for these types of crosses. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians (12:7), he speaks of a “thorn” in his flesh and a “messenger of Satan” who torments him. Three times he asks God to deliver him from these afflictions. In response, our Lord tells him that His grace “is sufficient,” that His power will work through St. Paul’s weakness. This means God’s grace will strengthen us during times of affliction, making sure the affliction does not dominate all of our thinking. God’s grace gives us the relief we need to appreciate the many blessings we already enjoy.
Waiting with Perseverance
- Perseverance can been defined as persistence in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving something, (Oxford Dictionary). Perseverance applies to all life giving activity, especially our prayer life: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you,” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). In this passage, St. Paul connects three key actions: to rejoice, to pray, and to offer thanksgiving. Joy helps us to keep praying, and prayer helps us to be mindful of the many material and spiritual blessings in our lives. It’s hard to persevere when we lack joy, stop praying, and neglect the importance of gratitude. On the Third Sunday of Advent, known as Guadete Sunday, Rose Sunday or Sunday of Joy (guadiumin Latin), we rejoice because the Lord is near.
- The parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) is a wonderful account that inspires hope for desired outcomes. The persistent widow experiences justice because she did not give up. Resist the temptation to quit praying, or to quit believing altogether. Don’t stop praying through the struggle. Although we may not experience the outcome we desire, God will give us the outcome we need to flourish and grow.
- Howard Storm, a Christian pastor, who experienced a conversion due to a near-death experience, knows the power of perseverance. He, like St. Paul, was obnoxious and arrogant before his conversion. He was a professor at the time of his experience, and he shares that, before his near death experience, he was quite abrupt and rude to a nun who was a student in his art history class. He made it clear to her that he did not want her to share anything about faith and religion in class: “There’ll be none of that here!” Many years after his conversion, he ran into her; after telling her about his conversion, he apologized for his behavior. She said something like “It’s about time. I have not stopped praying for you!” She persevered in prayer and God gave her the grace and satisfaction to see the fruits of her efforts. She, like St. Monica who prayed for the conversion of her son, St. Augustine, knew the power of intentional prayer.
- Larry Dossey, a medical doctor and researcher, has studied the power of intentional prayer. When our prayers are motivated by love, “willing the good of the other for the sake of the other,” (St. Thomas Aquinas) we will see the best fruit. Be persistent; be consistent; and persevere in prayer.
As we continue to prepare our hearts and minds for Jesus’ coming into the world, may we be joyful; may we be patient; and may we persevere.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) because…
“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6
Dr. Josephine Lombardi
Dr. Lombardi is an award-winning author and documentary film maker who has worked as a parish minister, university campus minister, high school chaplaincy leader, teacher educator through O.E.C.T.A., professor of Religious Education, Brock University, retreat facilitator, faith formation consultant, and program coordinator in the Diocese of Hamilton. Presently, she is Associate Professor of Pastoral and Systematic Theology, and Director of Lay Formation for St. Augustine’s Seminary in Scarborough, Ontario. She has done media work in radio and television and has been an advisor to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in the area of doctrine and Catholic-Muslim relations. Her books On Earth as it is in Heaven and Experts in Humanity have been featured on Salt and Light TV. Experts in Humanity was awarded first place in the category of Family Life by the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada in 2017.
She is the Series Theologian for the new Religious Education resource for grades 1 through 8, “Growing in Faith, Growing in Christ” for Catholic School Boards in Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan.