a reflection on the readings for Advent 2A by the Rev. Margaret Rose
In spite of a seemingly positive jobs report, this week marked the day that numbers of unemployed will lose their benefits. The death rate in Afghanistan is beginning to climb again and the negotiations on peace between Palestine and Israel are breaking down by the minute. The START treaty, despite being endorsed by the military, Republican and Democratic Generals seems to be dead in the water for this Congress. The homicide rate in New York is up, and a Congressman from Harlem who has done good work for many years in the House, now in his later years somehow forgot to pay taxes on homes here an abroad. Heroic sports figures in baseball, cycling and more are having their medals revoked, because somehow they felt they needed to cheat to win. And to top it off, it seems that terrorist attacks lurk on every corner and we will have our bodies scanned or patted with mistrust every time we fly. If the politicians are right, this is a season of fear and darkness and the chill of winter almost enfolds us in it. And if the news is right we should despair.
“You better watch out! And not just because Santa is coming to town.”
And yes. And yet. I have been astonished as I walk around my city which happens to be New York. It is actually Advent in Manhattan! And despite the fact that the so called secular world doesn’t have a clue about the preparations in Advent, hope is in the air. I know it is marketing and commercialism and all the things we often say we should avoid in this season, but sometimes the Holy Spirit is working in the world and those of us prone to more dire predictions will benefit by paying attention.
The lights, which of course are used by marketers beckoning us to up their bottom line also brighten the darkness on Fifth Avenue. The “Crown” in front of Cartier, the laser snowflake show at Saks took my breath away. The store windows once again tell the story of good times gone by and hope for days to come. New Yorkers and tourists are out walking, taking time in the middle of the day or early evening, risking good cheer to one another, defying the darkness and chill and to imagine the possibility of a future.
Something about this season does it to us. And I don’t think it is either denial or naïveté but expresses something deep in the heart of human being. And for my part it is some how the Holy Spirit who lives among us and offers these resilient moments for all of us.
In the church of course, we name it Advent and defy the darkness and the fear in a different way. and darkness of our time. It doesn’t take a Cartier Crown (spectacular as it was!). The very ground of our faith is that hope will win out over despair. From the prophets until today that is the message of Messiah’s birth. And if I am honest, the perils of today of 2010 are not so different from those I might have mentioned ten or hundred or two thousand years ago.
Take Isaiah. The 9th Century BCE was the era of the text today. Times were bad. Jerusalem was declining. The people, fighting small ethnic wars with their neighbors were embroiled in political in fighting. There was violence in the streets and the threat of invasion from without. The turbulence of present day Baghdad or Afghanistan would be a cakewalk for Isaiah’s time, except of course for the advanced technology (which could be another reflection by itself.) In any case, fear was the rule of the day.
Yet out of this social situation Isaiah’s witness arises proclaiming that God is present and the hope of the Messiah coming very near. Over and over Isaiah claims peace in the midst of war:
They shall beat swords into plowshares and nation shall not lift up sword against nation. The wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together. A little child shall lead them. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra and the weaned child shall put a hand on the adder’s den. They shall not destroy in all my holy mountain. Waters shall break forth in the desert.
What a crazy idea. Was Isaiah naïve or in denial, proclaiming some future hope by and by that might or might not come to fruition? And how different this is from the apocalyptic vision of death and destruction we hear from the prophets of our texts in past weeks. Here in the midst of impossible odds, God’s realm of loving abundance promises to break through and create peace. With the coming of the Messiah, hope is to be born and reborn again and again. Good thing. We need it.
I wonder. What is it that makes us each year, from Isaiah’s time until our own reclaim this hope, believe that in spite of the odds or of history, things will be better next year, that we will make it through. What is it that makes us marvel at the lights, put up a tree, sing The Messiah?
There is no formula of course, no guarantee that despair will not win in the end. But there are witness who give us courage to face our own despair. The prophets of course but those of today as well. You can name your own I am sure.
For me, there is Mugisa from the Congo, who in spite of seeing her friends raped and killed, her own husband kidnapped for days, her house robbed, did become bitter or give up but started and empowerment project in her village.
Or a woman whose story I heard recently. Her name was Angela, a mother of four whose husband finally succumbed to the drug habit which had plagued him for years. Having not finished high school, she was relegated to low skill jobs, food stamps and welfare. Yet, in addition to her own four children she was adopting the child of a cousin who was soon to be homeless. “I do that,” she said, “because everybody needs a place to lay their head. We may not always have the gas and the lights, but they will have a roof and a little something to eat. You know, I don’t think of it as a bad life.” In order to continue ot receive assistance, Angela trained much to her delight, as a certified nurse’s assistant—a home health aide. She was glad to have the work even though it did not always pay well, and even though from time to time the clients’ racism was blatant. “Well,” Angela said, “Many of my clients are from another era, and there is a lot of prejudice. At first they are just mean and sometimes they call me nigger. But I say to myself: ‘Well, you may call me that, but I am the one here combing your hair and making you look pretty. I am the one helping you get out of bed in the morning, helping you get dressed.’ And you know what happens? Pretty soon that word nigger become thank you.”
Tears came to my eyes as I listened. Imagine a person, in the face of ridicule and racism, hanging in there, serving the needs of another, forgiving a world of pain and hurt and continuing to strive to make better for herself and her children. “It is okay,” she says, “and I think it will be better next year!”
Enough folk like these loving women will change the world. They are living out Isaiah’s vision. Not giving up and knowing that forgiveness and thank you are the way of hope. Is it their faith that gets these women through? Grace? Character? A good mother somewhere in the past? Whatever, they are witnesses for us offering hope and light in the midst of our own and the city’s shadows.
That is what the season is really about: light in the darkness, hope in despair. Isaiah said it. The city says it. Angela and Mugisa say it. It is what Paul says to us in the letter to the Roman. ( Remember, that early Christian community too, in the first century was persecuted and under siege. These Biblical witnesses and the stories of those who live in hope today are offered so that by steadfastness and encouragement, we too might have hope. It is not as easy as speaking the words. Hard times are real—in the world, in our own lives and communities, among those we love. But the Gospel reminds us that turning around, starting anew, indeed repenting –pointing in a new direction, is always possible.
The Advent message of hope remains. And St. Paul’s prayer at the close of the epistle to the Roman is our own: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.