For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh,
and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago,
and opened the way to eternal salvation,
that, when he comes again in glory and majesty
and all is at last made manifest,
we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise
in which we now dare to hope.
These words are taken from Preface I of Advent, which begins the Eucharistic Prayer of the Catholic Mass from the First Sunday of Advent until December 16. In the Roman Missal, this preface is subtitled, “The two comings of Christ.” Praying this prayer, we are situated in between those two comings. We gratefully recall “his first coming” and hopefully look forward to “when he comes again.” We remember how, in his first coming, Christ “fulfilled the design” that the Father “formed long ago.” Remembering God’s faithfulness in that first coming, we have renewed confidence that, “when he comes again in glory and majesty,” Christ will again – once and for all – fulfill the “great promise in which we now dare to hope.”
What is that “great promise”? Here are just a few of the New Testament tests that answer that question:
Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. (Matt 25:34)
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. (John 6:54)
Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)
The victor shall inherit these gifts, and I shall be his God, and he will be my son. (Rev 21:7)
God’s “great promise” to us is eternal life, happiness in His kingdom, beatific vision. We are made for God: to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him, to share in His life, and to live in His kingdom. This is God’s great promise; this is our great hope. But why must we “dare to hope” in this great promise? “Daring” suggests something difficult. It suggests that there are obstacles that threaten to impede our hope and turn us to despair. What might those obstacles be?
One obstacle is our own inability to achieve what we hope for. By our own power, we cannot attain eternal happiness. Hoping to “inherit the great promise,” therefore, requires faith that God is able to give us what we are unable to acquire for ourselves. It also requires trust that God will be faithful, that His love will be steadfast, and that He will give to us what He has promised to give. Another obstacle to hoping in God’s great promise is the experience of illness.
Illness can tempt us to despair. The Advent preface calls us to a hope for the future that is rooted in the saving events of the past. Illness can make past and present seem bleak and the future hopeless. In the face of serious, debilitating, even life-threatening illness, God might seem absent. Prayers seem to have gone unanswered. What God has done in the past seems to offer little hope for what God might do in the future.
It is one thing to feel the sorrow, grief, and apparent God-forsakenness that can result from illness. It is another thing to despair. Jesus himself heard the silence of what seemed like unanswered prayer and experienced the torture of what felt like abandonment. He prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt 26:38-39). He questioned, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). Yet his faith and trust remained firm. The prayer that began with, “let this cup pass from me,” ended with, “not as I will, but as you will.” Psalm 22, which Jesus starts reciting on the cross, ends with hope-filled praise. Jesus experienced human sorrow and grief in full measure, but his feelings could never undercut his faith or cause him to lose hope in the promise of his heavenly Father.
In the face of illness, Christians dare to hope. We know that God is faithful. God has been faithful to His promises in the past, God is faithful in His pledge to remain with us in the present, and God will be faithful to His great promise for our future. Illness can be devastating. It robs us of our health. It can even rob us of our mortal lives. But nothing, not even the worst of illnesses, “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39).
Be strong and take heart, all who hope in the Lord (Ps 31:25)