Now, we begin a season it seems we’ve actually been in for a long time. A season of waiting. A season of watching. A season of hope.
The Christian Church enters Advent saying, “But I’ve already been waiting for nine months.” But for what have we been waiting? Watching? In what do we place our hope? In political outcomes? In our government? In a vaccine? If the answer is yes, Advent bids us: begin a different kind of waiting.
If our hope is in politics, we are called to shift it to the one about whom St. Paul writes, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20) If our hope is in the government, we are called to shift it to the one about whom the Isaiah prophesies, “and the government shall be upon his shoulders.” (Isaiah 9:6). If our hope is in a vaccine, we are called to shift it to the one called “Healer of our every ill.”
We’ve been watching and waiting for a long time. Some of us have been busier than ever before, working long hours as teachers or medical personnel and trying also to homeschool our children. Some of us have lost our jobs and have all the time in the world to retreat into the otherworldly quality of quarantine. Many are struggling financially, while a few are gaining more wealth during this time than ever before. Many are faced in new and startling ways with systemic inequalities woven into the fabric of our society.
This pandemic has exposed, in new ways, just how far apart the human race is from itself. Just how big the gap is between those with much and those with little. Just how stubborn the apathy is in the hearts of the comfortable.
This is where Advent lives. In a world with diverse hopes and fractured politics, Advent bids us: see with empathy your fellow human’s hopes and needs. In a world with divergent directions and contradicting interests, Advent bids us: see how your interests are your neighbor’s, and their interests yours. In a paradigm in which more is better and less is pitiful and the gap is getting bigger, Advent asks us: is this the world I want to take credit for helping build?
Advent calls us,
Raise every valley, and make every mountain and hill low. Make the crooked paths straight, and the rough places plain.” (Isaiah 40:4)
This is not a political program, but it is political, Just as Jesus himself is not, yet is.
So often, we think of seasons like Advent and Lent as opportunities to retreat inward and forget the world. This is partly true, but not completely. It is an invitation into a wilderness of sorts, a special retreat with God. But if that retreat doesn’t in turn shape how we are in the world, then we are missing some of the point and power in encountering God.
At the end of our lives, we are not asked to give an account only of the inner recesses of our hearts, free to ignore the rough places in our world. Advent asks us: if the world were to end tomorrow, would you be ready? Or is there some gift God has given you to give the world, and you will have to stand before God admitting you failed to make time?
A global pandemic has hit us all the same in that it begs us all to stop and seriously evaluate our lives. If mine were to end tomorrow, is this the world I would be proud to stand before God and say I participated in? Would I say, “I gave it my all?” Would I be satisfied with the people and things and activities I prioritized? Would I feel accomplished about the injustices I sought to help overcome? Did I attempt to share my best self with the world, responding to problems whether or not they affected me personally?
At the end of the day, we do not stand before God responsible only for the “me” of your inmost being. God loves that inmost being, and calls it to intimacy with him and with each other, for sure. But if we ignored our neighbors, saying, “their plight is up to them,” God will remind us that we stand before him as his one, beloved family. When we ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) He will surely say, “Why, yes! My plan was for you to build each other up, not tear each other down. You are as well off as you let your most pitiful neighbor become.”
Our final goal is not dying, at the end of life, in a world we’ve made perfect. Our sinful nature makes that impossible. But God’s grace enables us to resist that nature and work toward God’s original plan of harmony. Our final goal is not to show God we can achieve a perfect society without his help. It is impossible. Rather, our goal is to allow God’s grace to so permeate our hearts that Earth begins to look a lot like Heaven before we even get there, a playground to practice that eternal paradise, as it were.
This is the lesson of Advent.
My prayer for each of us is to retreat to those inner recesses of our heart where God speaks a taste of Heaven to us, and bring that grace into all we do. It is hope beyond politics, government, or health. It is spiritual health. It is true hope. During this season, as many of us have been doing throughout the pandemic, we are called to stop. Wait. Watch. Listen. Where is God calling me to be the presence of the Kingdom of Heaven right here, right now? Where am I called to lift my eyes, and the eyes of others, to that source of ultimate hope that bids us all act like brothers and sisters in the same boat? What valleys am I called to raise, mountains to lower, crooked places to make straight?
This Advent, talk less, listen more, and love wholly. Join me. Now, and since the pandemic began, I’ve not much to say, but I have all of Heaven to listen to. Listen with me.