(Statue of Hope in the foyer of the Paris Opera House, by Louis-Amile Durandelle, 1875, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(This post originally appeared in Episcopal Café's Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, November 27, 2011)
Readings for the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2011:
Psalms 146, 147 (Morning)
Psalms 111, 112, 113 (Evening)
Amos 1:1-5, 13-28
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Historically, the theme of the first week of Advent is "hope," but our readings today present a rather mixed bag of hope and despair. Although our Psalms are lavish with praise for the goodness of God's provisions to the righteous, our reading from Amos describes atrocities committed by Israel's neighbors, including the ripping of unborn children from pregnant women in Gilead. Our Epistle reading in 1 Thessalonians describes a state of being spiritually asleep and unaware, yet birth occurring, along with its requisite labor pains. Finally, today's Gospel is filled with images of war and persecution to the point of death, yet paradoxically concludes with, "But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls."
In the Northern Hemisphere, even nature seems to display this paradox of the first week of Advent. We are entering into a season of pregnant expectation, the "New Year" of the liturgical calendar, yet all the signs of Nature feel like we are hurtling headlong into a frigid darkness. Many of us are getting up to go to work in the dark, and driving home in the dark. Some of us are dealing with the irritants of winter again, such as scraping windshields and failing at predicting what clothes to wear for the day. What light we see--the strobe-like blinkings of artificial Christmas decorations luring us to elbow our way through the throngs of people shopping on Black Friday--seems insincere and false.
Frankly, it's the time of year it seems the better plan is to close down, tune out, lie down in our beds, turn out the lights, and languish in the inertia of depression. Yet Paul urges us in today's Epistle to stay awake and reminds us that we are not children of darkness by nature, but children of light.
It's exactly when we need to ponder hope more than ever, because, you see, everything I've come to understand about Advent has taught me that Christianity is all about its upside-down-ness compared to conventional logic. Logic tells us that people can't be raised from the dead. Logic tells us that the universe started all compressed and is constantly moving to a more random state. Logic tells us that the birth of a child of locally uncertain parentage in a dirty stable has no power whatsoever to change the world. Yet how many of us, at one time or another in our lives, have cried so hard and long that suddenly the warmth of true release has overtaken us? How many of us have had some horrible work day where we've failed miserably at something, been demoted or canned, and the smile of a child has given us bravery to start again tomorrow? How many of us have experienced some huge emotional blowout with a loved one and had our pets snuggle next to us, and we feel our anger dissipate? I'm betting if we could all sit together and tell our stories, we have them.
Sometimes I think we miss the boat a little bit on Advent. We tend to think of Advent solely from the Christological perspective and tend to forget its power to illustrate another piece of the Trinity--the Holy Spirit's power of creating hope from the ashes of despair, and its role of guiding us from darkness to light. It sounds odd, but without despair, there would be no need of hope. If we had no need of hope, we would have no need of a Savior--and if we had no need of a Savior, we would have no need of God. It's the darkness and the broken-ness of the world, I believe, that creates the substrate for hope to even exist.
A good image we might want to carry into Advent is the classic image used in statuary for hope as a human allegorical figure. Although sculptors generally depict her a beautiful woman of reproductive age (capable of giving birth,) she often has a rather mournful visage. Yet she points upward. She is often depicted as leaning against an anchor, and that anchor also has a vague cross shape. Sometimes we see her wearing a chain around her neck--a broken chain--having escaped the bonds of sin and death.
Today, the church year begins anew--as do we, in this ever-repeating cycle that is a journey best related in our Eucharistic Prayer B--"out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life." May we lean against the anchor of the Cross and feel the free end of the broken chain around our necks as we begin to embrace the mystery of this Advent season.