Saturday, December 6, 2014

Underwhelmed by Advent - A Confession

O people of Sion, behold,
the Lord will come to save the nations,
and the Lord will make the glory of his voice heard
in the joy of your heart.
—Entrance Antiphon for the Second Sunday of Advent,
based upon Isaiah 30:19, 30

Advent is a complicated season. I’m even tempted to say that this is the most complicated season of the Church Year. Unlike its counterparts, including Lent, Advent presumes that we Christians have been formed in an adult faith that is prepared to celebrate an adult Christmas. As we know, Advent isn’t a season that is focused only on the past—Advent is also a season of reflection and attentiveness as we recognize the One who is among us right now and who will come in glory in the future.

I have to admit, though, that I’m feeling disheartened this Advent. A key virtue of this season is hope but, like so many, I’m finding hope difficult these days. So, as I was reflecting on this Sunday's readings with their prophets calling for comfort and conversion, I thought about what hope might mean for our Church and the world.

As I did this, I realized that I was making a mistake in my Advent-ing and in my understanding of the Readings chosen for this Second Sunday of Advent. I am guilty of hoping for something. I hope for justice. I hope for peace. I hope for equality and an end to poverty and oppression. Surely these are good and worthy and Christian hopes.
But that isn’t Advent hoping.
That kind of hoping, however noble the desires may be, is very subjective. After all, I may recognize injustice in the world in places where others see proper order. I might be complacent and not recognize discrimination when others feel alienated and dehumanized. And I think this is why Advent has felt underwhelming this year. I'm genuinely disheartened by all the holiday "cheer" that feels so premature and which seems to ignore that Christmas is still weeks away. More importantly, however, underwhelmed I am in my Advent observance this year, I’m overwhelmed by Michael Brown, Ferguson, Eric Garner, “I can’t breathe,” ISIS, immigration, gun reform, marriage equality/defending traditional marriage, polar vortexes (vortices?)… so many sound bites and calls for change and renewal. So much hope and so much disappointment. How many sermons are being preached this Sunday about these news items and what we hope for? Beyond bolstering our self-esteem and agendas, I wonder who we're really helping with all this hope? 

So, then, if Advent hope isn’t about hoping for, then what is it?

Advent is about hoping in. Specifically, it is about hoping in the power of our God and having the courage to trust that all things can be set right and that justice will prevail. This is why we hear Isaiah crying out, “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end” (40:1-2a).

“Comfort” isn’t consolation. In its truest sense, comfort is about standing with someone who is weak and sharing your strength with them (com = “with” and fortis = “strong”). Through Isaiah’s words, God promises to act with and for his people: “See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” We can't save the world. Only God can bring justice to birth in individual hearts and minds. It is this birth for which we wait and pray during these Advent days.   

St. John the Baptist
from the Iseheim Altarpiece
by Matthias Grünewald
The beginning of the Gospel of Mark, which we also hear this Sunday, recalls the promises of Isaiah by associating that great prophet of the Old Covenant with the prophet of the New—John the Baptist. But, while he echoes Isaiah’s promises and announces the coming of the Messiah, John also calls for conversion—a turning away from sin and all-too-human preferences and agendas toward the ways of God. Wherever we read about him in the Gospels, John doesn’t mince words: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). It’s harsh and vivid language, but John’s point is unmistakable- - preparing the way for the Lord requires constant effort: “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19). This is the time we've been given and we are expected to do something with it.

But, when we hear these warnings, our emphasis shouldn’t go to the images of hellfire they can understandably evoke. Instead, we should remember that the call to conversion preached by John is where our Advent hoping in and our day to day lives intersect; this is the point at which Advent can become a season of discipleship.

In his masterful series, The Liturgical Year, Adrian Nocent, a Benedictine monk and liturgical scholar, reflects:
Every Christian, by his conversion, is a preacher of the Good News of the Lord who comes and gathers his sheep… The Lord wishes that all be converted, but we must also make the effort to be worthy preachers of a new earth. And even though the Lord does not consent to the loss of some but wills that all have the opportunity for conversion, he will come nonetheless like a thief. Such is the teaching of St. Peter, who follows in this teaching of the Gospels. Peter is aware that a new heaven and a new earth are coming, but his concern is to remind us of what such a renewal requires of us: “what sort of persons ought you to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God… Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace” (2 Peter 3:11-12a, 14). 
This is the “adult” Advent to which I referred in the beginning of this reflection. We wait in faith, hoping in the One who has the power and the love necessary to renew all of creation—the dawn of the Sun of Justice. But, this waiting and hoping must be a time of conversion and cooperation with the God who is already at work in the world. In this sense, to “prepare the way of the Lord” means living out the call to conversion and discipleship that we recommit ourselves to every time we attentively hear the Word of God proclaimed, receive the Eucharist, or mark ourselves with the Sign of the Cross. Because we're disciples we hope (and work!) for, but our hope must always be grounded in.

In the first part of the third century, the priest Origen wrote:
Love no longer tolerates the presence of valleys in your lives; if peace, patience, and goodness find a home in you, not only will each of you cease to be a valley but you will actually begin to be a mountain of God… Each one of us was once crooked; if we are no longer so, it is entirely due to the grace of Christ. Through his coming to our souls all our crooked ways have been straightened out. If Christ did not come to your soul, of what use would his historical coming in the flesh be to you? Let us pray that each day we may experience his coming and be able to testify: ‘It is not I who now live, but Christ who lives in me’ (from Homilies on Luke, 22:1-4).

So, going into the Second Week of Advent, I'll try to remember that this season isn't about me and what I want...hope for... for myself, or for the Church, or for the world. This season is about what God wants for me--for all of us--and what God is bringing to birth in all of creation.
Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

A Prayer for the Second Sunday of Advent +
Almighty and merciful God,
may no earthly undertaking hinder those
who set out in haste to meet your Son,
but may our learning of heavenly wisdom
gain us admittance to his company.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.  

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