Saturday, November 28, 2009

Addressing Advent's Frustrations

The liturgy which opens the season of Advent tomorrow celebrates our waiting in solid hope for God's coming at the end of human history when Jesus will reign as Sovereign. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, one of the Eastern Fathers of the Church, writes: "We proclaim the coming of Christ -- not just a first coming but another as well that will be far more glorious than the first...At his first coming, he was wrapped in linens and laid in a manger; at the second, light shall be his robe...Let us therefore not stop at his first coming but look forward to the second..." (Catechesis 15,1)

However, we need to be realistic about Advent's full meaning: we do wait for and celebrate Christ's birth with all its tenderness, beauty, and majesty. At the same time we take seriously the liturgy's assurance: "Christ will come again." But, in the meantime, there is the painful necessity of the cross, for Jesus and just as surely for each of us.

Advent spells out for us two frustrations with which, I suspect, most of us are familiar. 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, tomorrow's second reading, alludes to one of these. Paul prays that God and Jesus may bring him back soon to the Thessalonian community. He asks that Jesus make this gathering of Christians "increase and abound" in love for each other and for all others. In effect, Paul is praying for the Lord's true presence among them until his final presence, his parousia or advent.

We're asked during Advent to enter into an expectation and longing that you and I may never, or rarely, have actually experienced. The hope we're to have in Advent can't be feigned. Neither can we replicate the longing which Paul had and which he prayed that the Thessalonians might have. We have to experience our own 21st century kind of hope.

I suggest that a way in which you and I might come to this kind of longing and hope is by living the next four weeks in deeper prayer for one another, and in exerting ourselves to reach out in love to each other to whom we're often physically present, but often not so much present in Christ.

It seems to me that our goal during Advent is to experience Jesus' being with us, his coming to us, in whatever context we find ourselves. We search for his presence through each other and through God's Word proclaimed in power and received in grateful hearts willing to give that Word flesh in daily life and ministry.

As bearers of God's Word and Sacrament you and I have a vocation, a calling, to be with each other in Christ, in this moment and in our unique context. Only then can we believe that Jesus will come to be with us in glory at the end. God's Word is a surrogate for God, and you and I as persons who set our hearts on it are called to be its designated bearers.

Advent is a reminder that there will be another advent, a coming of our God, in-breaking into the world in a way it has never experienced: through Jesus the Christ in the fullness of glory. When Paul speaks to the Thessalonians about "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints" he's speaking of the kind of hope and promise depicted so beautifully in Isaiah 61:11: "For as the earth brings forth its shoots and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations." It echoes a phrase from the liturgy's first reading from Jeremiah: "...I will raise up for David a just shoot..." (New American Bible translation) In Christ's coming at the "day of the Lord", the world will have its first inkling of true justice and peace.

Which raises the second frustration of which Advent makes us aware. This waiting upon the future, this attempt to keep our spirits, souls, and bodies "sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" has everything to do with longing for a God who will vindicate and "comfort all who mourn", as Isaiah says: a God who works justice and peace.

Only a person out of touch with reality our times can presume to call him/herself "Christian", yet not take personal responsibility for the human work of justice and peace in the context in which he/she lives. But how?? How?? -- That's the question with which we all struggle. Though I can't cite the exact author and source from some 20 years ago, I jotted down this relevant quotation: "In we are coming to a fuller awareness that a response to the call of Jesus is both personal and demanding...We live in a world that is becoming increasingly estranged to Christian values. In order to remain a Christian, one must take a resolute stand against many commonly accepted axioms of the world...Values we call 'Christian' rest ultimately in the disarmament of the human heart and the conversion of the human spirit to God, who alone can give authentic peace. Indeed, to have peace in our world, we must first have peace within ourselves...When we accept violence, war itself can be taken for granted. Violence has many faces: oppression of the poor, deprivation of basic human rights, economic exploitation, sexual exploitation and pornography, neglect or abuse of the aged and the helpless, and innumerable other acts of inhumanity..." Such an evaluation, written 20 years ago, is incredibly compelling to read today!

Just as our Thessalonian sisters and brothers many years ago, we believe and understand, at least theoretically, that peace and justice are gifts of God. For us as for them, this belief prompts us, sometimes even shames us, to pray and work constantly, personally and together. By looking into Scripture, into the Tradition, and into our God-given reason, we seek the wisdom, as they must have, to search for justice and peace in our times. We, too, during Advent seek the courage to sustain us in bringing Christ's hands-on justice and peace to the world.

Theodore Ferris has written a beautiful prayer for this Advent season of hope and work which we begin this week:

Sharpen our mind, O Lord; humble our spirits,
and open our hearts to take in the love
that once became flesh, that comes amongst us
again and again, that we may not only
take him in, but show him to others
and let others see him in us.
And we ask it in his name, and by his power,
and for his sake.

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