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Hard Gifts

By Debie Thomas

For Sunday, November 30, 2014

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

Isaiah 64:1-9

Psalm 80:17-19

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Mark 13:24-37

           Three weeks ago, a 16-year-old boy from my daughter's high school went down to the local train tracks shortly after midnight, waited for an arriving train, and ended his life. Since 2009, seven teenagers in this town have committed suicide on the tracks, and as a community, we are reeling. Fearing another cluster, the town has stationed police officers at the site, who scan the tracks each time a train approaches. I pass those officers several times in the course of a day, and each time I glimpse their faces, I wonder: when they signed up to become cops, did they ever dream they'd spend their days like this? Keeping watch so our children won't die of despair?

           "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down," cries Isaiah in our reading for this first Sunday in Advent. "Restore us, O Lord of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved," pleads the Psalmist. "The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken," says the writer of Mark's Gospel, describing a state of catastrophe I wish I didn't recognize in the world around me.

Icon of the Prophet Isaiah (Novogorod Museum).
Icon of the Prophet Isaiah (Novogorod Museum).

           I didn't grow up observing Advent. Since my childhood church didn't follow the liturgical calendar, my family went straight from Thanksgiving turkeys and pumpkin pies to Christmas trees and "Jingle Bells" — one consumer feeding frenzy pressing hard into the next. But this year, as Christmas approaches, and my community mourns the loss of another child, I am particularly hungry for what Nora Gallagher calls the "counterweight" of liturgical time. "One time set against another." This year, I believe Advent — with its play of darkness and light, urgency and stillness, fear and hope — has at least three gifts to offer me.

           According to the week's readings, we enter this first season of the Christian New Year — if we dare enter it at all — in lamentation. Eschewing all forms of denial, polite piety, and cheap cheer, we allow the radical honesty of Scripture to make us honest, too. "How long will you be angry with your people's prayers?" asks the Psalmist in desperation. "You have fed them with the bread of tears." During Advent, we stop posturing and pretending. We come to the end of ourselves. We get real.

           "Our world is not okay," these Advent readings declare in stark terms, and God's apparent absence isn't okay, either. We are surrounded by evil and suffering, and we're not sure our faith can endure what our eyes reluctantly witness each day. Though we long for a Savior to rend the heavens and come down, the very ferocity of that longing often wearies our souls. Sometimes hope itself is a grind.

           The first gift of Advent, then, is the permission to tell the truth, even if that truth is laced with sorrow. We are invited to describe life "on earth as it is," and not as we mistakenly assume our religion requires us to render it. The second is the gift — and the discipline — of waiting. During Advent, we live with quiet anticipation in the "not yet." We stop rushing, and decide to call sacred what is yet in-process and unformed. As Paul puts it in this week's reading from 1st Corinthians, we "wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ."

The Annunciation, Russian Icon — 4th century.
The Annunciation, Russian Icon — 4th century.

           This is no easy task in the modern world, which applauds arrivals, finish lines, shortcuts, and end products, far more than it does the meandering journey or odd way station. Eugene Peterson calls the Christian life "a long obedience in the same direction," and I don't think we can get more counter-cultural than that. If the secular world speeds past darkness to the safe certainty of light, then Advent reminds us that necessary things — things worth waiting for — happen in the dark. Next spring's seeds break open in dark winter soil. God's Spirit hovers over dark water, preparing to create worlds. The child we yearn for grows in the deep darkness of the womb. "Our food is expectation," writes Nora Gallagher about Advent. In this season, we strive to find, "not perfection, but possibility."

           Thirdly, Advent prepares us for the God who is coming — a God who will turn out to be very different from the one we expect and maybe even hope to find.

            I am always struck by the difference between the Biblical passages we read during Advent, and the ones we shift to when Christmas finally arrives. This week, Isaiah longs for a Very Big God to do Very Big Things. Recalling the history of the Exodus, he asks God to once again do "awesome deeds" — deeds that will make the mountains quake and the nations tremble. Come to us as fire, he pleads. Fire that kindles and burns, fire that sets the world boiling. Who among us has not prayed similarly? For the past three weeks, my prayers have been as outsized as Isaiah's: Protect our children. Protect ALL children, everywhere and for all time. End depression. End anxiety. End loneliness. End trauma.

           But why stop there? Eradicate Ebola. Thwart terrorism. Prevent rape. End hunger. Root out corruption, racism, and all corporate greed. Protect this wounded planet before we ravage it past saving, and shield us, O Lord, from our sinful, self-destructive selves. "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!"

           I don't believe I can — or should — ever stop praying these prayers. God is big, and when I come to him in prayer, dreaming of a just and wholly redeemed world, I know I'm dreaming a tiny version of God's own dream. But during Advent, I am asked to prepare myself for something else. Someone else. Someone so unexpected and so small, I'm tempted to either laugh or cry. The world is falling apart, my heart is exhausted, and God chooses to send me … a baby?

Traditional Orthodox Icon of the Nativity.
Traditional Orthodox Icon of the Nativity.

            In a sermon entitled, "The Face in the Sky," Frederick Buechner describes the Incarnation as a kind of scandal — one that requires us to ponder the shocking unpredictability of God: "Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in the stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant's child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too."

           What are we to make of this? The God who is limitless chooses limits: one womb, one backwater town, one bygone century, one brief life, one agonizing death. The salvation we long for is not the salvation he brings. These are not easy or comfortable truths to accept; they're truths to wrestle with hard and long. In other words, if we're not at least slightly bewildered, we haven't been paying attention.

           Come Christmas, I want to be ready to receive God as he is. Not as I might wish him to be, or insist he become. Advent is my time to prepare for the Savior who is.

           In response to the tragic death that has shaken my town, the church I attend held a service of lament and consolation the evening after the suicide. I practically stumbled into the chapel that night — I was so hungry for solace — and in the eyes of all who came I saw my urgency confirmed. We needed to be there. We needed the container of sacred space, ancient words, and beloved community to hold us.

           What if the same thing is true of Advent? Maybe we need to be here. We need this sacred season to voice our laments and register our yearnings. We need this time to prepare ourselves for the God who is coming. And we need to remember, always, that our hopes are not in vain.

           Be patient. Be still. Hope fiercely. Deep in the gathering dark, something tender is forming. Something beautiful — something for the world's saving — waits to be born.

Frederick Buechner. Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons. 2006.

Nora Gallagher. Things Seen and Unseen, 1998.

Eugene Peterson. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. 1980.

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