"Don't do drugs." Everyone is told this message many times over growing up, from teachers, counselors, police officers and parents. Let's imagine one students goes to a college with very low tolerance for drug use, where very few students abuse drugs, and it's not really part of the culture; so this student successful avoids drugs throughout their college years. Another student attends a university known as a party school, where a large part of the student body abuses drugs on a regular basis as part of campus social life; this student also avoid using drugs, though they have to constantly and consistently resist temptation and say no to their peers.
Both students have done good. But which would you describe as more heroic? Obviously the second student, who had to pluck up the courage to say no. The first student is in a situation where it is easier to live a virtuous life. This is the type of situation we would want to create for ourselves. But the difficult situation faced by the second student is also an opportunity to increase in virtue. That student is surrounded by sin and so must exercise greater discipline to remain pure. Thus an occasion of difficulty and duress can be looked upon as an opportunity to exercise heroic virtue and thus draw closer to Gd.
In today's Gospel reading, Christ leaves his followers with a warning. The situation sounds dire indeed... "nations will be in dismay... people will die of fright." Christ encourages them to "be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent..." He is speaking of the situation on earth before his Second Coming. But he could be speaking to any of us, any generation (for indeed, no one knows when the Lord may return). Each generation has faced trials and tribulations, some more dire than others.
But the Lord says, "when you see these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand." Remaining pure and holy through times of trial is a great occasion to draw closer to God. It is through difficulty that we are redeemed. How can we do this?
We must first learn to rely on the Lord. One of the reasons Jesus says it is so difficult for a rich man to enter heaven is because people who have easy lives are not used to relying on others and asking for help. And that is precisely what we need to do to invite God into our lives -- rely on him and ask for his gracious help. Difficult times can teach us this lesson.
When we ask the Lord to strengthen us in difficult times, how does he respond? Not by making us cold and hard hearted, to protect us from being hurt. No, he does the opposite. He increases our capacity for love. In his first letter to the Thessalonians (today's second reading) St. Paul prays, "May the Lord make you increase and about in love for one another and for all... so as to strengthen your hearts..." Love makes us vulnerable, it is true, but it is the only path to true strength. A Christian overcomes trials and difficulties by love.
What does love gain us? In addition to strengthening our hearts, St. Paul says it will make us "blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones." In short, love gains us God; which is to say, it gains us everything.
Advent is a season of expectation. The name Advent means "coming." We look forward to Christmas when we celebrate the first coming of our Lord at his birth over 2000 years ago. That first coming is an historical fact. So too will be his Second Coming. Our entire lives should be a season of advent as we wait in joyful and loving expectation for that day. There will be difficult times between that day and now. Jesus assures us of this. It will be hard. But if we stay close to God, if we live our lives full of love and humility, joy and courage, we will remain close to him and by our heroic witness do glory to his holy name on that day. Come, Lord Jesus!