It’s been a difficult year to be Catholic, but the Advent season is always when I feel most at home in this faith tradition – perhaps because it is a season of homelessness, of tension, anticipation, and uncertainty. This is a time for the wanderer and the outcast, for looking out of windows and over walls, for wondering what lies beyond the horizon. Our restlessness is given license.
Ultimately, of course, we will understand that the ragged prophet in the desert is the herald of God. Eventually we will spin out the explanations. The least of these, a helpless baby born into a poor family in an occupied country, will be given all his weighty doctrines and definitions. We will no longer be permitted to wonder who the voice is, crying in the wilderness, nor to ask what the meaning is of this portent, a child born in Bethlehem. We will be given our creeds to memorize.
Ultimately the time will come when getting the definitions wrong could lead to punishment – even death. When we have reached that time, those who wander will written off as lost, and the restless will be told to stay put, be content, be obedient.
That time has not yet come though. For these weeks, we are allowed our darkness. We are even still permitted to long for the coming of a liberator who will smite the oppressors and lift up the lowly.
The savior who never came
For the first time, this past Sunday, I read the Old Testament readings with a strange sorrow, thinking of how at the time when they were written the Hebrew people, in exile, hungered for an earthly deliverer – for “all oppression to cease” as we sing, dutifully, in our hymns and carols. I think also of the early church, how they waited in anticipation for the second coming of Jesus, as Paul told them would be soon, very soon. They expected him to come back as he had departed, but none of them lived to see what they expected – any more than the people of Israel lived to see an earthly savior.
I think also of the tension between the Old Testament prophecies of a deliverance that will be here and now, of this earth, for this earth, part of living history – and the New Testament epistles which speak of putting off all earthly things, for the kingdom of heaven. We can debate at length on how to resolve this, and balance our earthly duties against the hope in transcendence, but what it comes down to is this: that we are still homeless. Still restless on earth, unsure of whether it is our place or whether we should be living for some future paradise. The result of this is that we humans remain half-immersed in nature, awkwardly participating in its processes, uncertain of where we belong. So inevitably all that we touch becomes disaster.Right now we are in the time before the coming of a savior, so our doubts and questions have a place. We are permitted to long, with the Hebrews, for the physical deliverer – and with the early Christians for the physical return of the Jesus who had ascended into the clouds.
We are allowed to whisper our secret doubts: what if the savior never came.
Where do we even belong?
I have occasionally been admonished that my concern for politics is a distraction from or a reduction of the reality of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection, and from the joy and mystery of the Gospel message. Politics, I am reminded, will not save us. And I get it. I get how imagining that a political leader has all the answers is usually a path to war, violence, even genocide. But looking only to the beyond for resolution and communion is a recipe for ignoring our call to be present as light-bearers here and now. Even if our light is very tiny indeed.
When I am informed that there is a divine plan beyond my comprehension, chastised for railing against a God who remains absent, I am inclined to follow the example of Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. Like him, if I am supposed to accept the terrible suffering of innocents in this world as part of a divine ineffable plan, to trust that God knows best and rejoice in some justice beyond my comprehension – sorry, I “respectfully return the ticket.”
What is the answer to all this? Where do we belong? How important is our calling to liberation, here on earth? How valid is our hope for resolution in eternity?
I don’t know the answer to this. And for once, for a few weeks, I am permitted this silence, this darkness. I am permitted to wait with those who prayed and went unanswered. I am here with Job, before God arrived. Or maybe after God left and Job murmured to himself “that wasn’t really an answer at all.”
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