Although not much heralded in the news media, the now-annual Christmas nativity scene was erected and blessed on Saturday morning in Chicago’s Daley Center Plaza. It is the only religious portrayal of the “reason for the season” in the area, but at least it is there. And today we observe the beginning of Advent, the period of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. But with plastic and plaster nativity scenes now populating church gardens and suburban lawns, there’s not much left to anticipate. Santa Claus came to town early, too. Well, God knows we need a little cheer. Not by chance, Christmas decorations went on sale in big-box stores a week before Halloween.
It has been a dreadful year, for sure, despite welcome bright moments. The Covid-19 Crisis is, of course, on everyone’s mind, followed closely by the economic calamity that has followed and the most contentious presidential election in modern history. 2020 will linger in our lives and memories for months to come, if not years.
But I was particularly struck during the past week by stunning contrasts as the nation observed Thanksgiving Day. As the United States surpassed world records and even its own with Covid infections and deaths, tens of millions of citizens ignored pleas from the Centers for Disease Control and a multitude of government agencies to stay home then jammed airports and bus stations for trips home to celebrate feasts and frolic with family and friends. The medical community, already besieged with nearly intolerable efforts to save lives, has expressed grave concern that the inevitable surge in infection and death will cast a ghastly pall over the Christmas season and well into the new year.
But the most glaring contrast was the juxtaposition of scenes of millions of citizens lined up in cars and on foot to receive food packages to sustain their families during this desperate period of economic meltdown with images of food-laden tables and happy multitudes dining to capacity on turkey with all the trimmings. On the other hand, I was deeply impressed by the massive efforts by volunteer groups, many if not most, associated with food pantries and churches, to distribute care packages to the 26 million Americans unsure of where their next meal is coming from. One out of every six children in America now goes to bed at night hungry.
We have some work to do as we look forward to the coming of our Savior.
To begin with, we would do well to recall that Covid-19 is not the only threat to health, well-being, and economic stability. Next Tuesday, Dec. 1, has been designated as World AIDS Day, since 1988 an annual call to care and action ‘to call attention to the global HIV epidemic, to increase HIV awareness and knowledge, to speak out against HIV stigma, and to call for an increased response to move toward Ending the HIV Epidemic: A Plan for America.’ [On December 1st at 2:00 pm ET, join the Live with Leadership World AIDS Day Edition with federal and community speakers. Learn how submit questions in advance or during the conversation.]
HIV-AIDS is still a world-wide affliction threatening millions of people here and especially in poorer nations –worse than Covid-19, SARS, Zika, the Ebola virus, and the ‘flu.
Whether it’s AIDS or Covid-19, wildfires, earthquakes, drive-by shootings, terrorist attacks, or even bad weather (which we’ve had plenty of this year), we want protection and ultimately we want it from God. But we even hear Isaiah trying to lay the blame for such bad things on God…. “Why do you let us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” Please save us from ourselves…
But if we think for a bit, 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. 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, wildfires, and earthquakes?
Isaiah seems to suggest that if God lets such things happen it is by way of saying that our thoughtless way of living brings such tragedies on ourselves and others, including the innocent. 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 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 passage 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, unless we stay awake, waiting for God, we will miss out. For the 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, and then to act. That is how we will be prepared to meet our Lord.
Such waiting demands patience, stamina, and courage. We may tire of promoting justice, of making peace, of being merciful, of letting love guide our words and actions, but no matter how long the wait our task is clear. 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.