Sunday, November 27, 2011
The Advent Community of Hurt & Hope
An anonymous poet has written:
I saw the sign on the highway
‘Prepare to meet thy God.’
But when I got a little closer
There were no further instructions.
Advent is a season like that: one where we prepare, we wait, we discern what the “further instructions” are!
Contrary to the dominant and prevailing view in our American culture, however, Advent doesn’t begin with unbridled celebration or a shopping spree! Rather, Advent deals with a community of hurt, with you and me, real people who know pain, depression, inadequacy and failure, particularly at this time in our country. We’re people who articulate our hurt and aren’t afraid to let it show. Such a community of hurt knows the One to Whom it speaks in prayer of its suffering. We call upon God, the Lord of hurt, whom we trust to bring our suffering to an end.
Since our hope and prayer is directed to the One whose reign is never really in doubt, our community of hurt is also ultimately a community of hope. We passionately hope for the end of our troubles. Our living faith assures us that God reign will eventually come. The hope which we express isn’t wishful thinking, but a concrete hope: as real as the pain we feel. Hurt and hope go together in our lives, even though you and I don’t like to accept that reality. We’d like to think that, somehow, we can have the one (guess which?) without the other. Yet it’s precisely the reality of our present hurt which motivates us to have hope.
The first reading (Isaiah 64:1-9) pictures a waiting community of Israel as a child abandoned, but not orphaned: in desolate loneliness and disarray, yet still able to hope in One who will set things right. The author of the passage is undoubtedly that anonymous inspired prophet, referred to by scholars as Second Isaiah. He addresses a hurt people who’ve been in exile in Babylon for nearly 50 years. They’re unaware that in another 10 years Cyrus the Persian will vanquish Nabonídus and his son, Belshazzar. And that will make it possible for the Jewish exiles to return to their beloved, devastated land and, subsequently, to rebuild their sacred Temple. But the only immediate thing they have to hold onto is the memory, the hope, of God their Father: “...For You are our Father. Were Abraham not to know us, nor Israel to acknowledge us, You, Lord, are our Father…” (Isaiah 63:16) “...no ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen any God but You, doing such works for those who wait for God…” (64:4) These are Advent’s parameters: whatever it is that bothers or plagues us, you and I begin and end knowing whose we are. That is our Christian hope.
Second Isaiah explores what it means to look to an ever-present, though hidden, God in the midst of suffering. He accuses God of misleading and of abandoning sometimes. He begs God to come back. He calls to mind God’s previous interventions and, in doing so, reminds us of our lives and the times when God takes each of us, individually and as a community, by surprise, and shatters our expectations. Advent teaches us to wait for another future coming like that. It gives us focus at those times when, because of the weighing-down burden of our selfishness and weakness, we feel unclean, like a dirty garment, or blown about and abandoned, as a faded autumn leaf.
Yet, says the prophet, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father...you are our potter...we are the clay...we are all the work of your hand!” The basis of Advent is a “yet” which contradicts what we see around us and feel within ourselves, a “yet” grounded in the Person of the Holy and Mighty God in whom we dare hope and to whom we belong, even in our hurt: a God “who works for those who wait for God”.
In the Epistle passage (1 Corinthians 1:3-9) St. Paul addresses such a community of hope in Corinth. Generally, the Corinthians weren’t any greater on waiting than we are. Corinth, like ours, was a self-indulgent society. They had the idea that all that was to be given had already been delivered...to them! They were self-sufficient, rugged individuals. That mentality, understandably, spilled over into the life of the Christian community at Corinth. So much so, that Paul later takes to task this church which had been blessed, as he puts it, “in every way...in speech and knowledge of every kind...in every spiritual gift…”
Paul addresses himself to people who have a different set of expectations, people aware of their hurt and weakness, people who wait in hope for Jesus to reveal himself in all his fullness. In our day, “end time” talk can be somewhat embarrassing, if not outright off-putting. Advent deals with the reality of the eschaton = the end time: the end of creation as we know it; the end of a world of abandonment, sorrow, alienation, and injustice.
Mark’s Gospel narrative (13:24-37) affirms this. Often called a “little Apocalypse”, i.e., a miniature revelation, it speaks of waiting for a decisively disruptive coming. Mark uses extravagant end-time images: a darkened sun/moon; falling stars; the assembling of the chosen from everywhere. If we can get beyond this tumultuous and somewhat overpowering imagery, we can recognize that, in themselves, these verses are simple, sober and disciplined. They convey a transparent message: the advent, the coming, of Jesus the Chosen One, in whose coming the world as we know it, “heaven and earth”, will be transformed. The crucial point which Mark stresses is to “beware, keep alert”
This common thread runs through all of today’s readings: the end of what we know as “the world” will be brought about by God alone and in God’s time alone. Our task is to wait, watch and be alert for the coming reign of God. Advent isn’t a business-as-usual festival of things which we now know and possess, or perhaps seek to possess under the Christmas tree! Jesus the Chosen One for whom we wait isn’t just a gentle baby who comes to fit into our preconceived world, but rather the mighty Son of Man who breaks into our hurting and hopeful humanity. Advent reminds us that his in-breaking is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, there’s a shattering of our this-worldly settledness and our comfortable assumptions that we can buy our way to whatever we want. But there’s also a liberation, a setting-free, by shattering the narrowness that restricts us, the selfishness that binds us and others, and the paralysis and apathy which shuts us down.
These may be hard words for us who claim to rely on God, but whose actions so often imply that we’re really in charge. The temptation for all of us is to think of God as a “Sugar Daddy” who presides over a predictable world in order to keep it user-friendly and benign for us. We’d really like to believe that if we only work at it in clever ways, perhaps we can have the world, and our family, and our job, and our Church on our terms. “Well,” writes theologian Walter Bruggemann, “that is conventional. But it is not biblical, not Christian, not news.”
Ironically, the greatest barriers between us and God may oftentimes not be our sins and guilt, but our gifts and talents. God asks us to repent not only of our sins, but of our reliance on our own resources, virtues and power. To live as though my priorities could ever supercede God’s is full-blown spiritual pride. To live as though I have God’s own private cell phone number is to live an arrogant pretension which separates me from others and from God. To allow myself to feel religiously superior because of my real or supposed religious “experiences” or insights is to substitute those things for God, and that is idolatry. The clay, in its self-importance, tries to tell the Potter how and when and whom to mold!
Advent is meant to shatter our fantasy worlds, and to teach us to accept and to speak about our pain and the world’s; to look in hope, not to ourselves, but to Jesus. Advent asks if you and I are open enough for a newness to be given, if we’re trusting enough of the faithful God to let go of this world. Advent should lead us to reflect on Jesus‘ observation (Mark 13:2) that “Not one stone will be left here upon another…”
Larry Parton, in a now-defunct little magazine called alive now!, wrote: “The one we wait for is the one who will get in our way. He is the one who will disturb us and our peace. He is the one who will stop cooing and begin to talk about things that will trouble us.” Realizing that, do we, as 1st century Christians did, still dare to pray without ceasing throughout our Advent wait: “Maranatha -- Come, Lord Jesus”?