Advent preparation


It’s the first Sunday in Advent, and today’s readings focus on movement toward the Lord: Isaiah’s hope that all nations will go to worship God in common and for peace; the Psalm’s expression of a hopeful joy; St Paul’s admonition to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” in place of fleshly desires; and the Gospel’s reference to the return of the Son of Man. I’m especially struck by the ways in which all the authors make reference to hope and joy in a world that is a mixture of good and bad. Isaiah writes about a hope for peace, but writes in a time when people still do carry spears and swords, and commit acts of war. The swords are not yet beaten into plowshares. St Paul urges us to commit to “waking up” and attending to what is most important instead of focusing on physical pleasure, lust, jealousy and rivalry. He speaks these words in a world in which many people do spend their time and energy on competing with or dominating other people, or fulfilling pleasures without integrating them into higher goods. Jesus’ words are even more urgent and even somewhat dark: exactly when the Son of Man returns is known to no one except God. On God’s return, however, God’s action will  be unexpected, disruptive, and may even appear to be random. Jesus points to a certain hiddenness in God’s motives and purposes that will not be fully discerned or understood.

We, too, live in a world that is not yet redeemed, where newspapers and media remind us of the war and terrible suffering in Aleppo, violence against black men on the streets of the USA, threats to deport immigrants, and the prospect of climate change that threatens many species and even whole civilizations. Still, we are urged to have hope. How can we have hope in the midst of seemingly insurmountable problems?

Here, these authors are speaking not only to individuals but to larger communities about hope. We can hope in community because as communities we can try to wake up, and wake one another up, to the reality around us and to the even deeper reality of God’s love, mercy, and creativity. No individual can do much to affect systematic racism or climate change but cumulatively we can do a great deal. Second, there is a role for individual action: here, Scripture names watchfulness, wakefulness, prayer, and “putting on the Lord Jesus.” We can try to be attentive both to where the world is broken and also attentive to where God’s light and love shine through, where there are possibilities for love and justice to be nurtured and enacted. We can pray and trust that prayer for the good of others has real effects and participates in God’s saving action. We can set aside some of our own fleshly desires and try to undertake work that cooperates with God’s grace instead.

Jesus invites us to use our imaginations in order to cultivate this wakeful attitude. We are asked to imagine, for example, what it would be like if suddenly one person disappeared while another remained behind. Often we can live our lives on auto-pilot, as if we know with certainty what will occur, whether the more mundane moments in our lives, or the more climactic political or social events in the larger world. But in fact no one can predict or control the future, and so we have to be open to the possibility that many things can happen. We might think that there are many years still left to reconcile with another person with whom we are in a rift, but perhaps an unexpected death will remove that possibility from us: perhaps one wants to choose to take the first simple steps toward reconciliation now because there might not be a later. We might want to fall into despair about the inevitability of climate change, and therefore do nothing, when a wakeful hope asks us to do what we can, for example, lobby our politicians to promote better public policy, even if we are ‘sure’ they will not listen. We can do our own small part to make peace, to ensure prosperity for others, to recognize that God’s love is for “all nations” and religions, and not just our own. Where our own actions feel powerless to effect change, we can pray and trust that God will act somewhere and somehow for love and peace. We can trust that God redeems all evil at the end of time, and so even in out still watching and still waiting remain a joyful people.

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