Hope In A Violent World
The Season of Advent is upon us. In a world of violence, hope is breaking in.
The lectionary readings leading up to the birth of Jesus — Love embodied and born anew — begin in an unexpected place. The first Sunday of the liturgical season that prefigures Jesus’ birth begins with a warning about the world that will follow his death.
The disciples — and we ourselves — will need to cling to the hope of the cross, the hope that Love prevails even when the powers of fear and hate do their worst. For those powers will continue to rage in the years following the crucifixion. A world built on division and enmity will not yield quietly to the transformative power of unconditional love. The Empire will strike back. There will be struggle and resistance. Hate will don new masks of pseudo-righteousness and continue to demonize enemies and sanctify cruelty.
But Jesus assures us that in the bleakness of violence, hope will break through. The Son of Man will come, in power and glory, again into this aching world. But no one can know exactly when, so we must keep awake and ready.
Unlearning the Rapture
Many Christians interpret this Gospel in terms of the ultimate return of Christ at the end of the age, when time will be “up” for the unbelieving and unrepentant. Jesus will “rapture” the faithful to heaven, leaving the masses behind to suffer. Instead of transforming violence, some see Jesus returning in the ultimate act of violence, in triumphantly defeating his foes forever.
Violent interpretations of Jesus’s words and actions are one way the powers of fear and hate strike back against the revelation of Love that Jesus embodied. But placing this passage at the beginning of Advent helps us to connect the “Second Coming” to the “First Coming,” when God broke into the world not in conquering glory, but vulnerable humility. All our expectations of righteous violence triumphing over evil are subverted by the birth of a helpless baby who grew up to befriend the marginalized and was crucified as a criminal.
Jesus refuses to fight violence with violence. Rather, he exposes our violence for what it is on the cross and transforms it with life-giving forgiveness.
Why should we expect his return to negate his original message? Why should we expect Jesus to succumb to the powers of violence and wield them against enemies? When he was tempted to do so in a desert long ago, he answered, “Be gone, Satan!”
God does not “rapture” some people to heaven while leaving others to suffer. God does not not die on the cross only to return and turn the cross upside-down into a sword. The terror of the world is the work not of God but of a humanity that, blinded by fear, has conflated God —or ultimate power —with violence.
The Days of Noah and the Days of Now
Conflating ultimate power with violence is a tale as old as time.
Jesus harkens back to the days of Noah, in which people were eating and drinking and marrying and letting life go on… while violence brewed all around them.
The overwhelming deluge of violence, represented by the flood that swept everyone but Noah and his family away, was attributed to God. But if God is Love as Jesus reveals God to be, we must reinterpret Noah’s story.
The ongoing waves of violence that finally washed away the world were human-made, just as they are today. The world drowns again and again in the bloodshed of war and inhumanity. Crusades, conquests, genocides, and atomic annihilations, all come from forsaking the divine image in our neighbors and ourselves and worshipping the pseudo-gods of profit and power, Mammon and Moloch.
Jesus speaks not of heavenly rapture but of turbulent waves of violence and judgment that take some and spare others. In his day, that would be armies and secret police, dragging perceived spies and enemies off to prison or death.
Today, I can’t help but think of two children playing in Syria or Iraq, when a drone suddenly extinguishes one of their lives. I think of the traffic cop who let one person off with a warning before arresting Sandra Bland, who was found hanged days later in police custody. I think of the devastation in Afghanistan when the US took all of their money as they withdrew from the war. Hunger overwhelms one starving child while another lingers on.
The violence of the world rages on, destroying some while others are left to mourn. And so it goes without ceasing, as long as we fail to recognize the divine in one another.
Awakening to the Divine in Every Person
And that is precisely what we must awaken to! When Jesus tells us to “keep awake” and “be ready,” he is charging us to be alert to the humanity and divinity in everyone that a violent world tries to erase.
Perhaps instead of waiting for a “Second Coming,” we should open our eyes to Christ in every person, and thereby live into the image of Christ, the image of God, within ourselves.
Maybe what no one, not even Jesus, can predict, is the precise moment when we will open our eyes and see God in flesh before us — in the homeless person begging on the street corner, the refugee at the border, the death-row inmate, the enemy soldier. There is no one in whom the image of Love does not reside, no one beyond Love’s reach. But we continue to see the world in terms of friend and enemy, deserving and undeserving, us and them.
Maybe when we live according to the understanding that all are forgiven and beloved, we will love more boldly. We will dare to raise our voices on behalf of the vulnerable, or even dare to become vulnerable in solidarity. Maybe we will have the courage to speak truth to power without forgetting the truth that even the powerful are human and forgiven and loved. And maybe we will even have the courage to keep our eyes open for our own mistakes and repent over and over and over without hiding behind defenses or projections.
Perhaps that’s when the clouds will burst — not in the heavens but in our own perceptions — and the glorious realization that God is among and within us will break through.
An Advent Prayer
Awaken us, Dear Lord,
In a world that blinds us with fear,
And drowns our senses until we are numb to the violence all around,
Awaken us to the hope of the Incarnation.
Awaken us to the understanding
That in You, Love became flesh.
You came to earth in a body
That we may see the face of God in every body.
And when we see your face in the battered and bruised,
The desperate and lonely,
The hungry and the sick,
The despised and condemned,
May we be to them as You are to us.
Then violence will yield to compassion,
Fear to friendship,
Horror to hope,
And despair to joy.
As we await the birth of Love anew in the world,
Help us to recognize that we are all pregnant with Love inside us.
Prepare us to deliver Your love to the world.
Image: Photo by George Becker