I still love this season – the Advent wreath with its candles and the fragrance of fresh evergreen branches, the hymns, the
readings, the violet hues, the expectant anticipation – the whole marvelous thing. This year, however, Advent not only arrived sooner but got shorter. That’s not fake news, but a quirk of the calendar. Yet in some respects, Advent seems to have disappeared entirely. In keeping with the new normal, Christmas decorations dutifully took over big-box store shelves right after Halloween. Santa Claus has already appeared in dozens of Thanksgiving Day Parades, and even at our university, the stable scene was set up last week with Mary and Joseph, the donkey, shepherds, wise men, and the baby Jesus already in the manger. A life-size nativity scene was also erected downtown in Daley Plaza for the 33rd time, practically adjacent to the big illuminated A (for Atheism) placed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The university Christmas party is scheduled for Tuesday, right before the Lessons and Carols – the Episcopalian ceremony invented years back as an alternative to Midnight Mass, a very Catholic thing. (It’s now called the Vigil Mass and is celebrated around 7 PM…) What’s left to anticipate?
We’re just not very good at waiting any more. We want it all and we want it now. There’s hardly any surprise left, even when it comes to presents. Today children hand a list of expected toys to their parents, moving Santa Claus completely out of the picture. Kids now accompany their parents to big-box stores to pick out what they want or just order them on line. It seems like Advent, that beautiful, quiet, subdued period of joyful anticipation has been swallowed up at both ends by commercialism and the entertainment industry.
So here we are again, increasingly out of the swirl of things, in the wake of Black Friday-Saturday-and-Sunday, Cyber Monday, Travel Deal Tuesday, Cyber Wednesday (with special deals on shooting and gun-cleaning supplies from Battenfield), Gray Thursday, Polka Dot Saturday… trying to recall why we do what we do, we crazy Catholics. And some holdout Episcopalians and Lutherans, bless ‘em.
Friday was different. It was World AIDS Day – a special day of remembrance and resolve. For HIV-AIDS is still a world-wide affliction threatening millions of people here and especially in poorer nations – far worse than Zika or the Ebola virus, and at least for now, the ‘flu.
Like cancer, the news that someone has a potentially deadly virus is one of the most frightening things a person can ever hear, next perhaps to a diagnosis of cancer. People often turn to God when they learn of it. Not in prayer, or in hope, but in disbelief and anger. I suppose we all have a tendency to hold God responsible when things go wrong. After all, isn’t God supposed to take care of us? Especially if we say our prayers, vote our conscience, try to keep the Ten Commandments, and put our envelopes in the collection every Sunday. We even hear Isaiah trying to lay the blame on God…. “Why do you let us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?”
Whether it’s AIDS or an earthquake, a drive-by shooting or a terrorist attack, or even bad weather (or especially bad weather, which we’ve had plenty of this year), we want protection and ultimately we want it from God, unless we’re atheists and probably want it from the government. But if we think for a bit, the way Isaiah does, we begin to realize that the real question is not why God lets such awful things happen, but why and how we do. Something seems particularly wrong when senseless tragedies befall the innocent. But is it God’s fault that children are dying of hunger and disease in Yemen, Syria, and Bangladesh? Or that families are wiped out because of faulty gas pipes or improperly placed space heaters? Or terrorist attacks? Or the devastation of storms and earthquakes?
If Isaiah seems to suggest that God lets such things happen because of our guilt, it is by way of saying that our thoughtless way of living brings such tragedies on ourselves and others, including the innocent –and if God does not prevent it, that is not because God wants it that way. St. Paul simply tells us that God will strengthen us to the end, so that we can be blameless on the day of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He does not say that God will miraculously protect us from the consequences of our sins — or even the sins and mistakes of others. God will strengthen us. That is what he promises.
That is why it is important to pay attention to the theme that links today’s readings – waiting on God. Waiting for God. “No ear has ever heard,” Isaiah says, “no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for you.” The word appears again in the second reading, from St. Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Corinth, that wild Greek port town. “He says, “the witness I bore to Christ has been so confirmed among you that you lack no spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus.” The gospel from Mark does not mention waiting, but watching, although the connection here is important. What we do while we wait is watch. When I looked up the word “wait,” I found that it comes from an Old German root, ‘wahta,’ which actually means “to watch.” Watching means to look for someone, keeping vigilant, staying awake, which is one of Mark’s favorite ways of saying “waiting.”
All the gospels warn us that unless we watch out, unless we stay awake, waiting for God, we will miss out. For Christ comes like a thief in the night. Jesus is telling us to be mindful, to pay attention to the presence of God hidden in the events of our daily lives, whether minor exasperations or major crises and real tragedies.
Such waiting demands patience, stamina, and courage. We may not tire of promoting justice, of making peace, of being merciful, of letting love guide our words and actions, no matter how long the wait. In Isaiah’s words, “Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in all our ways!”
And that is why we wait. And watch. As Advent begins, let us pray, then, that as we wait in joyful hope, we will also watch out for Christ in the person of the least and lowliest of those he calls his sisters and brothers. Atheists, too. May they have a Happy Solstice.