by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, December 4, 2016
For a few weeks before this season of Advent began, we listened to many readings about the signs of the End Times—you know the ones: nation rising against nation; earthquakes, plagues, and famine; desolation; suffering, persecution, and death. I confess these have never been my favorite Scripture passages—I’m much more of an Advent kind of spirit.
But this year, in the aftermath of what we’ve seen unfolding in our nation and world, I found that the readings of the End Times felt somehow closer to my spirit than the hopefulness of Advent. In our world this past year, we’ve witnessed a long and brutal election process, bullying, legitimizing hatred, demonizing immigrants, excluding or acting violently toward Muslims, the LGBT community, people of color, women—anyone who is perceived as different or outside the margins of power.
So many of us—including me—might not be feeling the Advent dream right now: that vision of the peaceable kin-dom with the wolf playing with the lamb. With a dead stump blossoming into new growth. With a desert drenched in rain and turning green. With no more crying or weeping or mourning. With images of rejoicing and dancing and feasts of fat, juicy food with enough leftovers to feed the entire planet.
These Advent images stand in stark contrast to what many have expressed as their feelings going into this season. In conversations, in faith sharing, in companioning people in spiritual direction, I’ve heard a litany of the same anguished life questions over and over: How can this be? What does this mean for people we love and care for, for people who feel unwanted and unheard? How are we called to be? And especially, where is God? I can resonate with all of these questions. Perhaps you can as well.
Each time I prepare to act as a spiritual guide with another, I pray to God, “Show me Your face.” I’m asking to be present to the movement of the Holy One in the other person and in me, in what unfolds within and between and around us. Lately as I’ve been listening to people share their pain, what they’ve been sharing is not a showing of God’s face but an absence: they feel the face of God is turned away, distant, silent, and invisible, as if God has completely disappeared.
I suspect this is what John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-6) was feeling as he sat in prison and wondered if his life and his witness made any difference. So at this moment, in this Advent, if we’re not quite ready to move into rejoicing and hopeful expectation, that’s okay. We may want to first take a contemplative pause. Be still. Ground ourselves in Love’s presence as we reflect on the loving way to move forward.
And then perhaps we might sit with John the Baptist in silence and in stillness. From the dark prison where he’s languishing, John the Baptist asks one of the most poignant questions in all of Scripture: “Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?” We can imagine the fragile hope, maybe desperation, behind John’s questions. As if he were really asking, “Tell me, have I been wasting my time? My life? Am I pointing in the right direction? Give me a sign! Show me your face!”
And we listen to Jesus’ indirect answer: “Go and tell John what’s happening: those who couldn’t see are opening their eyes; those whose ears were closed are listening to my voice; those who couldn’t find a way forward are now taking steps towards a more just, inclusive world.” Do we believe this is possible?
I’ve read that after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, he was criticized because some said his words were naïve, that they presented a rose colored vision of the future, an impossible dream. I suspect those who said that would also notice echoes of Dr. King’s words in the Advent readings with their dream of a peaceable kin-dom where all are welcome and none are turned away.
A year before he was assassinated, Dr. King took some reflective time away from the demands of the civil rights movement. He rented a house without a telephone in Jamaica where he could work undisturbed. He dedicated his time to crafting a vision of America’s future: he imagined better jobs, quality education for all, affordable housing, respect for the dignity of every person, an end to global poverty and suffering. He not only imagined this; he committed his life to working with God’s grace to bring it about. He poured out his passion in a speech called “Where Do We Go from Here?”–a question that resonates in 2016. “Where do we go from here?” His answer in the face of social sin and violence: “I have decided to stick with love.”
Dorothy Day also decided to stick with love. She wrote, “Whenever I groan within myself and think how hard it is to keep writing about love in these times of tension and strife which may at any moment become for all of us a time of terror, I think to myself, ‘What else is the world interested in? What else do we all want, each one of us, except to love and be loved, in our families, in our work, in all our relationships?’…Even the most ardent revolutionist, seeking to change the world…is trying to make a world where it is easier for people to love, to stand in that relationship with each other of love.”
God needs us to stand in a relationship of love with each other. There is gift in naming and sharing our vulnerability, our unknowing, our uncertainty about what to do and how to be. God needs us to show the face of the Divine to our world, because none of us can see the face of God except through others and the way we live our lives as people of peace and compassion, as people of justice, of right relationship with God, with others, with all of creation. When we show the face of the Holy One and when others reflect that face to us, we are giving and receiving the gift of justice. Only from this place of Love can we truly act with God to move forward God’s dream for our world.
About that world Tennessee Williams wrote, “The world is violent and mercurial—it will have its way with you. We are saved only by Love—love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”
So let us decide to stick with Love. I can’t think of a better gift we could offer our world and give and receive from each other, this Advent and always.
This reflection was written for an Advent Evening of Prayer at Christ the King parish, Springfield Gardens, NY. It’s offered here in a slightly modified format.
My thanks to the many gathering for the Evening of Prayer and to all of you who prayed for us. Advent blessings to all!
In discerning how to move forward in challenging times, Martin Luther King, Jr. concluded, “I have decided to stick with love.”
What helps you to be and to sustain a loving presence?
Who has shown the face of the Holy to you?
To whom have you imaged the face of God?
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