Fr. Stephen Muller, OCSO
2nd Sunday of Advent
Bar. 5:1-9; Phil. 1:4-6, 8-11; Lk 3:1-6
One of my sisters recently gave me a book with an interesting story in it. It helps demonstrate a point made in our readings today.
Just before the Second World War, Alexander and Ludmilla Ivanovich were a very happily married couple living in Moscow with two young sons. He was a physicist and she was a school teacher. Then Germany invaded Russia and Alexander was suddenly called into the army in 1941. Living apart was extremely difficult for them since they had been so deeply in love. They wrote letters to each other every day. More often than not, the letters never arrived at their destination, since he was being moved around on the front and the mail system wasn’t all that dependable. They longed for each other’s presence and thought of each other all the time. The hope of being reunited again someday was what got them through all those difficult times.
Alexander was a very valiant soldier and was wounded several times. As he said, “My chest was covered with medals, but my thoughts were always at home.” Six days after the war ended he was arrested and court-martialed. His superior officer, looking to get a promotion, had made up a story about Alexander and some of his friends, claiming they had led a campaign against their country with the enemy. No matter what Alexander said, they believed his superior instead of him. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was whisked away so quickly that he was unable to get word back to Ludmilla. Meanwhile, after the war ended and he never showed up and she never heard from him, she tried frantically to get word about him from the authorities. The response was always the same: missing in action.
Those twelve years in prison camps were extremely difficult. The camps in the wastelands of Siberia were death camps. Tens of thousands of prisoners died there. It was rare that someone survived and made it out. It was during this time that Alexander became a Christian believer, thanks to the good example and instruction of another prisoner. Alexander dreamed of the day when he would find his beloved Ludmilla again. He confessed, “Ludmilla was everything for me; I think my love for my sons even came second after my love for her.”
Finally, in 1957, he was set free. He searched desperately for his family, first through legal channels and then through friends. He eventually found out that Ludmilla had been evacuated from Moscow to Kostroma and had been living there. He got dressed in his best clothes and arrived there on the train one night about nine o’clock. He found the address and knocked on the door. The man who opened it shuddered and took a step back, but then said, “Come in, Alexander Ivanovich!” He entered and took off his coat. The man turned to a door and said, “Ludmilla, somebody has come to see us!” As soon as she saw him she screamed and ran up to him, “Sasha! Sasha! It is you! Where have you been?” In the words of his own account, “She hugs me, she kisses me. I forget everything, everything in the world. I hug her, I hold her against me, and I kiss her face, her hands and I feel the beating of her heart.”
But then he noticed the look on the other man’s face: such suffering and grief! He turned to his wife and asked, “Lyuda, who is this?” “He is my husband!” came her tortured reply. It turned out that after she didn’t hear from him for so long she assumed that he was dead. She eventually met Boris and they got married after four years. Now they had a little girl together, along with the original two boys.
Alexander collapsed in a chair. He held his head in his hands and started sobbing and shaking. Then he looked up again at Ludmilla. As he says in his own words, “Her face was pale, her eyes were enormous and filled with tears and indescribable suffering. There she stood, looking at me and then at Boris. She was as beautiful as before, my own, my beloved Ludmilla, my wife who was now the wife of another. The Lyuda about whom I had been thinking all these years, towards whom all my thoughts had been directed during all these years. Only the hope of seeing her again had let me survive in camp during those twelve years – I had finally found her and had immediately lost her again.”
They were in a quandary about what to do. He noticed on the wall framed pictures of himself from earlier years. She had kept his memory alive. He prayed to God and decided it was best for him to leave that same night. He didn’t want to break up this family. The three children were with their grandmother. They never even knew he came.
He got a good job again as a physicist. He sent most of his earnings to Boris through a friend who lived in the same city. He asked him not to tell Ludmilla. Alexander eventually became a priest. The years rolled by. Then one day Boris came to visit him. He had cancer and was given only two months to live. He filled him in on the intervening years. The boys were now married and had children of their own. They were both engineers. Alexander’s financial aid had really helped. Ludmilla and the children had all joined the Orthodox Church. Boris had been a believer even before. He told him, “Ludmilla loved you and she still loves you; but she doesn’t know where you are. Your departure drew her even closer to you. By sacrificing yourself you showed the power of your love.”
Alexander received news of Boris’ death some time later. The book is rather ambiguous about how the story ended. I like to think he joined up with Ludmilla again, since they both missed each other so much. In the Orthodox Church priests are able to be married.
But it is this sense of longing that fits into our liturgy today. Ludmilla and Alexander had longed for each other during all those many years. In our first reading and Responsorial Psalm we heard references to the exile of Israel in Babylon. These exiles had an intense longing for their homeland, and had a great expectation and yearning for the day when they could return.
This sense of expectation and yearning is also reflected in our gospel reading. John the Baptist quotes the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low.” In this case the longing is for the long-awaited Messiah.
And that is what Advent is all about. It is a time of longing. It is a time of yearning. It is a time of expectation. We know that Jesus is not here in his fullness yet. We feel that our lives are not complete. We need to long for the coming of Jesus as much as Alexander longed for Ludmilla. They had become two halves of a whole, and he felt incomplete without her. Heaven is our true homeland, not this place. We are as much exiles as the Israelites in Babylon. We should be yearning as much for heaven as they did for Jerusalem.
And so, my brothers and sisters, let us long for that day when you and I and Ludmilla and Alexander will all be reunited with our Lord in heaven, and creation will have reached its completion.