This is a time of year when magazines and newspapers look back at the big events of the year—scandals, political upheavals, natural disasters. And in that last category, most of us here this morning would include on that list the tornado of 2010.
The night it happened, I told my family in Maryland that it looked like Godzilla had come through. Streets were blocked off, massive trees completely pulled up by the roots, cars crushed. It took weeks to clean up. When it was over, the whole neighborhood had been changed.
I remember coming out of my apartment on Yellowstone Boulevard and discovering, with a shock, that I could actually see the synagogue down by the post office. Most of the trees in McDonald Park were down. And all along Queens Boulevard, it was the same story: some of the biggest, oldest trees, sycamores and oaks, many that had been there for decades, were gone.
Well, over the last few weeks, that’s begun to change. Workers have started showing up in trucks, with bushes and trees and sod and mulch. In freezing temperatures, they’ve been digging up the earth and planting new trees up and down Queens Boulevard.
I was curious about this, so I did a little research. In fact, the experts say that this is the best time of year for planting trees, when the roots will take hold. And so now, around the neighborhood, you see all these barren, young trees up and down our streets.
It’s been said that the most optimistic person in the world is a gardener – someone who plants a seed and has faith that it will grow.
I think of that when I see one of these trees: right now, it looks like nothing.
But it stands there, in silent, frozen hope – a sign of unyielding optimism. It is a promise waiting to be kept.
And that, I think, is the story of Advent – especially this particular Sunday. A promise is about to be fulfilled. The landscape of our lives is about to be transformed.
This day is called “Gaudete Sunday,” from the Latin word meaning “rejoice.” And this Sunday, we rejoice because we have crossed the halfway point of Advent; our redemption, Christ’s arrival into our world, is closer and closer.
If any moment finds us truly waiting in “joyful hope”, it is this one.
In the first reading, Isaiah describes another people who were waiting in joyful hope, the Jews waiting to return to their homeland from exile. And for them, the prophet predicts something wondrous.
“The desert and the parched land will exult,” he writes. “The steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song.”
Well, we bring that very sense of springtime to this liturgy, celebrating mass with bright rose-colored vestments, and lighting a solitary rose candle in the Advent wreath. It is the color of new life — that new life is almost here.
All we need is patience – as St. James reminds us, like the farmer waiting for the “fruit of the earth.” Make your hearts firm, he writes, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.
We wait, and we wait. Like children on a long car trip, we find ourselves asking: are we there yet? The followers of John the Baptist even put this blunt question to Jesus.
“Should we look for another?”
But Christ’s reply is more than just an answer. It is a challenge, a dare. In effect, he says: look around you. The evidence speaks for itself. The blind see and the dead are raised. A prophecy is being fulfilled.
But for now the waiting continues — and the preparation.
I’m not much of a gardener – I tell people I have a brown thumb. We have plenty of plants in our home, but they’re all made of plastic. That way I can’t kill them.
But I know that planting requires planning and preparation. If you’re planting a tree, it needs nutrients and water, sunshine and mulch. If you look at the new trees just planted around Forest Hills, they’re secured with tethers and stakes, so they grow up straight and don’t bend.
So it is with our faith.
These last days of Advent, we are planning and planting. Let’s make ourselves ready for the spring that we know will come. As the Baptist cried out last week: prepare the way of the Lord.
Let’s make our hearts ready. Take advantage of the sacraments, particularly confession. And in these last 13 days, look at what we have planted over this season. Let’s secure our lives with prayer. Nourish our hearts with sacred silence. And warm them with charity – giving to those in need. Let joy and wonder take root, and grow.
In them, we see the optimism of the gardener, looking forward to what will be.
That is joyful hope.
That is Advent.