Fear and the Future
By Bishop Paul V. Marshall
[Diocesan Life, Diocese of Bethlehem, December 2008]
I tend to feel sharply contrasting emotions around Christmastime, and feel them simultaneously, as do many of us, I suspect.
This is our first holiday period after my father’s death. As Advent comes upon us, I feel rather than see the darkness.
Of course that happens every year. In the northern hemisphere, Advent comes as the world is darkening, as things always appear to be dying. I am particularly aware this year that someday Advent will arrive and I will not be here to greet it because I, too, will be dead.
On the road to acceptance of one’s mortality there are feelings of futility, of cynicism, of anger. My light shines so dimly; and the darkness, the afternoon darkness, the winter darkness, the last darkness, seem likely to overcome it.
So, one old prayer for Advent began, “Stir up, we beseech Thee, Thy power, O Lord, and come.” Advent is first and foremost about humanity in the darkness, longing for light to come, longing for God to act. Advent is permission, invitation, for each of us to enter the heart’s fearful dark places that we try so hard to ignore most of the time, and to cry out, “Stir up your power, Lord, and come.”
To do that is to know something of the longing of God’s ancient people, who knew bondage, who experienced exile, and whose prophet sang, “O that Thou wouldst rend the heavens and come.” This time of the year is holy because we are asked to name in the very center of our hearts our common hope for humanity’s survival and for its growth into a community of peace and equity.
With its memory of John the Baptizer, Advent reminds us that longing is fine, that crying out for God is great, but that self-assessment and change need to be done to make room for Christ. For it is not God who keeps the fruits of the earth from reaching those who starve, it is not God who hoards power and wealth, it is not God who abandons spouse and children to scratch a mid-life itch.
I remember then some more words of the first of those “stirrup” prayers. “Stir up, we beseech Thee, Thy power, O Lord, and come, that by Thy protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins.”
“Threatening perils of our sins.” Unless and until we understand that it is business as usual in the human community that defiles our life; unless and until we commit ourselves to change, to making straight in the desert a highway for God, there is very little that Christmas, that God, can do for us.
The unofficial fifth gospel, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, reminds us that for change to happen, detailed memory and ruthless self-assessment need to come first. That asks us to work, work hard, for as Mary and Joseph knew, there is no easy road to Bethlehem.
Advent’s preparation, however, is not sustained penitence. The same ears that hear “Make straight a highway for our God” also hear “Comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord.” Advent is very much about hope.
Hope is the belief and the feeling that, in the long run, life makes sense. Hope separates the believer from the cynic. The scriptures teach that history –– yours, mine, and humanity’s –– is going somewhere, and that history has the destiny of fulfillment in God.
Our sense of where history is going in God, our sense that in God our life has meaning, these are the foundation of hope. Hope generates a positive and productive attitude. When everything around appears to be in a shambles, hope keeps us going, carrying on until victory comes.
Hope for the grieving is also the sense of connectedness, of solidarity with those we love but can no longer see. It is the bone-deep perception that we are all headed to reunion, reunification, in God. Because hope, in the deepest sense of that word, impels us toward our destiny and guides our behavior along the way.
There is one more thing. During the long years of war in Kajo Keji, the one thing that was not lost was hope, which is why our sisters and brothers there were able to move out in New Hope as together we live into the reign of God. They and we are together experiencing what hope tastes like as it is realized in lives lived now in a Godward direction.
In the coming of Christ, Christians see God’s total commitment to humanity, the invitation to lift drooping spirits and intensify resolve to live the longed-for future in word and deed. In the darkest night, we move toward the light.