Perhaps at no other time of year does our Christian perspective clash more with our culture than in Advent. Our culture is full-speed-ahead into Christmas, hook-line-and-sinker into getting the best price for the most desireable gadgets, children saying they want the latest toy or device so they can be like their friends, the lights in the stores on 24-7 and, of course, on-line shopping available at any time, in any place, day or night. Our economy depends upon these days leading up to the 25th of December, and even our generosity and service get ramped up, as is evident in the Spirit of Sharing, Toys for Tots, countless people working long hours to ensure a “good Christmas” for people in need.
And yet, Salon magazine said that Pope Francis “came as close to cancelling Christmas this year as a pope likely ever has.” [Scott Eric Kaufman, in Salon, 11/23/15] The Pope called Christmas this year “a charade, because the world has not understood the way of peace. The whole world is at war.” What would we do if the Prince of Peace showed up? “There will be lights,” Pope Francis said during a Mass at the Basilica di Santa Maria last week, “there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes–all decked out–while the world continues to wage war….and What shall remain in the wake of this war, in the midst of which we are living now? Ruins, thousands of children without education, so many innocent victims, and lots of money in the pockets of arms dealers.” Wow! How do you say to a Pope that “he’s harshing my buzz,” as the saying goes? On the other hand, how might we say “thank you” for speaking the truth to power?
“This Advent,” wrote Joanna Adams back in 2006, though it speaks as truly today, “this Advent I feel an urgent need for the light that comes from God, and I do not think I am the only one…The clouds of anxiety about the future are hovering so low and close that you can barely see your hand in front of your face…I am holding on for dear life to the reassurance that God intends to make the world right again.” [cited by Kate Matthews, sermonseeds, 11/29/15]
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, Jesus said, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
The season of Advent is less about preparing for a baby to be born and more about pre-paring for a day of justice, when God will make the world right again, when the whole world will be born again. 600 years before Jesus was born, the people of Israel and Judah were in utter despair and hopelessness. The city of Jerusalem and Solomon’s magnificent Temple lay in ruins, their rulers and religious leaders carried off into exile in Babylon, and in the years after the trauma, the people had time to contemplate their failure to live faithfully and justly, time to recall the warnings of the prophets that their materialism, their greed, their flaunting of actions opposed to God’s laws would have devastating consequences. They must have felt cut down, like a tree, as someone has suggested [Matthews]. Not so unlike those left in the wake of 9/11, or bombings in Paris, Beirut, Yemen, Iraq, modern day Israel and Palestine, and every other location of the war which Pope Francis so rightly indicted the world of waging.
But/And “in the midst of the despair…a prophet arises [Kate Matthews], the prophet who is also a poet with an imagination and a deep sense of call to proclaim , even in desolation, destruction and loss, the promise of God’s future taking shape beneath and behind it all.” –
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
People experiencing post-traumatic stress need something to hold on to, need to be able to imagine a future that is different from what they are experiencing now and what they have experienced in the past. God knows Jeremiah has ranted and raged about all the dangerous and deadly and delusional things Israel and Judah have done and the dire consequences of those actions, but now that they have come to pass, God speaks through Jeremiah a word of hope, a word of comfort. “The days are surely coming,” he says. Not, the day might come. “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill my promise to the house of Israel and the house of Judah”–a promise of restoration, a promise of peace, a promise of justice. The days are surely coming because even now, God’s future is taking shape beneath and behind all the devastation and despair around you.
When you see these things begin to take place, Jesus said, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. Stand up, when you see the oceans rising and nations in distress, when people are faint with fear and foreboding? Our redemption is drawing near? What do we imagine that “day of justice” will be like? Certainly others have laid out their visions of that “day” or time– Jesus will return in wrath, wielding a sword, hurling lightening bolts and setting the unrighteous on fire, rapturing up those who have been saved [Christians only], and leaving behind the others to a future of death and destruction. Proponents of this vision have already offered to bomb “God’s enemies” to hell. The day of justice will be a day of revenge, when those who had been victims will turn about in fair play to avenge the wrongdoing. Is that how we imagine it? Is this what we are to stand up to join?
How can we experience loss and tragedy, especially communally, and not seek revenge? How do we live in hope, not fear? For one thing, it matters whose vision of the future you listen to–bombastic or strident presidential candidates or a servant leader like Francis? Where and in what do we put our trust? On what “Day of justice” do we stake our lives? Listen to the prophets, listen to the souls made radiant with God’s word and power, who speak not of cities ruined or laid waste by poverty, rebuilt with “glittery, nightlife and new sports venues, but neighborhoods, restored and healed and safe for people to live in, and homes for people to inhabit and call their own…” [Matthews] The day is surely coming, when all of God’s children will live in peace, when everyone will have enough to eat, work that is dignified, children will be able to play safely, with bodies cared for, loved, and fed.
As it is, this Advent, the world is roiling with the “soul-deep longing of those who have suffered too much, for far too long,” in the Middle East and Africa, in the cities and campuses of our country, in those of our own community who see no hope. Modern empires of greed, materialism, militarism, and nationalism would keep us all numbed and happy with merely the prospect of a “good Christmas.”
But that is not what Advent is about, nor is Advent about waiting for some other-worldly savior to whisk us all away. “In those days,” God said, “I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up,” I will cause a green shoot to burst through the dead stem and trunk. God’s future, God’s kingdom is here and now–and not yet.
So what are we to do in this “twilight time,” as the Celtic tradition calls it, this time between times, between the Already and the not yet? Kate Matthews suggests that “Our accumulated choices, the little ones as well as the big ones, shape our communities into centers of greed and self-interest, or into radiant centers of hope and love and peace.” We are called to the “strenuous and crucial Christian task of imagination…and position ourselves to become partners with God in the advent of a new reality.” [Jennifer Ryan Ayres, cited by Matthews] On this Alternative New Year’s Day–this First Sunday in Advent–, we can reaffirm our trust in God. [Deborah Block, cited in Matthews]
“The days are surely coming when God will renew the promise…,” the prophet cries. “When you see these things take place,” Jesus the prophet commands, “stand up and raise your heads, for your redemption is drawing near.” “All souls on deck!” cries the modern-day prophet Clarissa Pinkola Estes, who writes to “brave souls” that “we were made for these times.” Listen to this Advent call–
…You are right in your assessments. [she writes] The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is that we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement.
I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able vessels in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.
Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a greater forest. That long-grained lumber is known to withstand storms, to hold together, to hold its own, and to advance, regardless.
In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.
We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn’t you say you were a believer? Didn’t you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn’t you ask for grace? Don’t you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the voice greater?
Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.
What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.
One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.
Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.
There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.
The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.
[By Clarissa Pinkola Estes, http://theunboundedspirit.com/we-were-made-for-these-times]
My brothers and sisters, the Captain is on board. So may we set sail on this journey into Advent.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark