Sunday, December 5, 2010

Waiting In Hope

Some years ago John Irving published the novel The Hotel New Hampshire, one that has remained a favorite of mine through the years. There's a character in the book named Freud: a Viennese Jew, an entertainer, who drives a motorcycle with a sidecar. The only one allowed to ride in the sidecar is his dancing bear, State o' Maine. Early in the story, Freud and the bear entertain guests at a resort hotel with an act they repeat over and over. It features the bear taking over the motorcycle's controls and driving his master, Freud, around in the sidecar, to the great delight of the audience.

Later in the book, in a letter trying to convince the Berry family to come and manage a hotel in Vienna, old Freud mentions a humorous, yet tragic story:

"But Viennese answer is better: we say, 'I keep passing the open windows.'
This is an old joke. There was a street clown called King of the Mice: he trained
rodents, he did horoscopes, he could impersonate Napoleon, he could make dogs fart 
on command. One night he jumped out of his window with all his pets in a box.
Written on the box was this: 'Life is serious but art is fun!' I hear his funeral was a party.
A street artist had killed himself. Nobody had supported him but now everybody missed him.
Now who would make the dogs make music and the mice pant? The bear knows this, too:
it is hard work and great art to make life not so serious."

The beginning of the Church's year, Advent, is a time of waiting for the coming of the One promised. But this time of year, just before the holidays, is just as traditionally a time of increased depression and sadness for many people. The ghosts of loneliness and fear and frustration appear in many people's lives for a whole variety of reasons. Some, unfortunately, pushed to the edge of despair, end it all in suicide. Suicide: just reading or saying that word makes one uncomfortable. It faces us with an alternative which we'd rather not think about.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has written: 'Man, unlike the beasts, does not carry his life as a compulsion which he cannot throw off. He is free either to accept his life or to destroy it.' In our freedom to die, we're each given a unique power which we can easily abuse. Suicide is the ultimate and extreme self-justification of a human being as human. From a purely human standpoint, it is, in a certain sense, 'even the self-accomplished expiation for a life that has failed.' It's a person's attempt to give final human meaning to a life which has become humanly meaningless.

We consider suicide wrongful and as exhibiting a lack of faith because God is a living God. Lack of faith isn't a moral fault, for it's compatible with both good and bad motives and actions. But in both good and evil, lack of faith takes no account of the living God, and that is the sin. It's for God alone to justify a life or to cast it away. Before God, self-justification is quite simply sin, and suicide, at least objectively, is therefore also sin. God, the Creator and Lord of Life, alone exercises the right over life.

Taking one's physical life isn't the only form of suicide. Most of us probably would find it abhorrent to exercise the final option in this way. But there are other ways to kill oneself: by the inward violence done to one's human spirit, by losing faith through negelct, by letting one's heart atrophy towards others, by allowing life's possibilities to go unrealized. Like the street clown called King of the Mice, many times we inwardly jump out of the window. "It is hard work and great art to make life not so serious."

The trick is, as old Freud observed, to "keep passing the open windows". The liturgical Scripture readings for this Second Sunday of Advent call it hope. Isaiah (11:1-10) describes the ideal Messianic king, a descendant in the line of Jesse and David, who would stand in the presence of the wise, understanding, knowing, and awesome God. He would so embody God's righteousness and faithfulness that he would be immune to flattery, special pleading, sentimentality, and the false mercy of permissiveness. He would govern the good and bad alike with even-handed justice and true mercy. Upon his coming he would restore a complete harmony of humanity with nature and of nature with itself. Such an "ensign to the peoples" rekindles in a dying people the spirit of hope.

Paul's formula (Romans 15:4-13) for the Roman Christians to "keep passing the open windows" is steadfastness and encouragement of the Scriptures. Paul tells the community at Rome that the God of hope wishes them to work toward that integration and harmony between themselves and others, and between themselves and Jesus, which, though not yet "Paradise regained", will be brought to completion through the long-awaited One, the Messiah, the Christ. The assurance of their hope is Jesus, the now Risen Lord, who is living proof of God's fidelity, God's promise, in his becoming a servant even unto death. New life in the Father is now accessible to the people of the Covenant for whom Jesus confirmed the ancient promise, as well as to the Gentiles to whom he now extends the promise. If Paul's hearers can accept this in faith, the power of the Spirit, of whom Isaiah spoke, will make them "abound in hope".  

Then there is John the Baptizer (Matthew 3:1-12), the herald of hope. Matthew describes him as the one foretold by Isaiah, who would prepare the way for the Lord's coming. In the spirit of the great prophet Elijah, this cousin of Jesus takes his vocation seriously and disciplines himself ascetically. John is thus the faithful example of hope in the coming One.

John's message is one of repentance in preparation. The preaching of John and Jesus both begin with the Greek command Metanoiete! = Repent! Literally, it means that a person needs to undergo a positive change of mind, of disposition: a conversion which leads to decisive action. Simply being sorry or regretful for past wrong-doing isn't enough. Such a radical change or conversion isn't only a preparation for the coming of God's reign. In a real way it's the beginning of God's reign, the taking hold of the individual person. It implies resuming one's Covenant commitments. Such inward change and conversion is an expression of hope that life can be different. That hope is rooted in Jesus who brings us the cleansing and purifying Spirit of hope.

During Advent you and I enter into and make our own the longing, the dreaming, the hoping which we feel deeply in our hearts. But how do we cope with the longing in our lives, with personal dreams and visions which are so often shattered and go unfulfilled, with hopes that are so often dashed to the ground that we're tempted to despair and to jump out the open window, symbolically or actually?

John Irving concludes his book thus: "...we dream on. Thus we invent our lives. We give ourselves a sainted mother, we make our father a hero; and someone's older brother, and someone's older sister -- they become our heroes, too. We invent what we love, and what we fear...and our dreams escape us almost as vividly as we can imagine them. That's what happens, like it or not. And because that's what happens, this is what we need: we need a good, smart bear...skilled at keeping sorrow at bay.

In an entirely symbolic sense, Jesus is the "dancing bear" of our lives. The "hard work" of his coming and being one of us, his dying and rising for us; and the "great art" of his sending his life-giving Spirit among us, to bring us into all truth, is what makes "life not so serious." Jesus has taught us how to "keep passing the open windows", how to hope. "...This is the will of the One who sent me, that I should lose none of those who have been given to me...For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day." (John 6:39-40)

As we wait in Advent hope, we make our own the ancient prayer of the Church: Marana tha! Come, Lord Jesus! 

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