Sunday, November 27, 2011

First Sunday of Advent

Romans 13:11-14 / Luke 21:25-33

When we find ourselves in times of distress, how do we feel when we see someone, especially someone we care about and who, we believe, cares about us, going about confident and undisturbed? Perhaps we find strength in such a witness. That is, we might be comforted to know that, whatever ills we are experiencing, at least those whom we love do not suffer them as well.

Even so, we might just as likely find ourselves both angered and hurt at their confidence, at our friends' not being downcast. Why, we complain, do they look up and lift up their heads? How can they be confident and unafraid when I am so troubled? Is it that they are unaware of my suffering, which would be a fault of theirs, for surely those who love me should be attentive to my distress as well as my joy? Or, is it that, even knowing my distress, they are unmoved, uncaring, revealing their love for me to be false?

Such protests are, of course, unfair, but they are nonetheless not unexpected. The truth that we can see more readily when things are going well is that we do not and should not desire our own sorrow and trouble to have a veto over joy. That those we love and who love us should care about our troubles is, to be sure, beyond dispute. Even so, to care deeply and still to have confidence in a deeper happiness, indeed to be able to care deeply precisely because of that unshakeable confidence, is precisely the best and proper way to respond to the pains and suffering of others.

So, it should come as no surprise that the Church in her collective observance of Advent, in her looking to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ not with fear or anxiety, but with joyful hope, finds herself critiqued both in her members who have not this confidence and in those who do. Those Christians disturbed by the events of the world — by the signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, by reason of the confusion of the roaring of the sea and of the waves: men withering away for fear and expectation of what shall come upon the whole world — become for the world of unbelief a justification to doubt the warrant for Christian hope. Yet, at the same time, those Christians who live in confidence and joy, awaiting the Son of man coming in a cloud with great power and majesty, joyful even in the midst of the troubles of the world because their redemption is at hand, are accused by these same critics of the Good News for being callous, being untroubled by real suffering, offering Bronze Age opiates to avoid the pains of the twenty-first century.

In all of this, we need not be disturbed or dismayed. We know that, in light of the Gospel, we need not, indeed cannot, deny the reality of the troubles of the world, for the one who will come in glory and power to judge the world still bears the scars of his Cross. At the same time, we know that those wounds are marks of love and not shame, of the triumph of mercy not the continuance or permanence of malice. We know better than others that death, pain, and troubles, while altogether real, cannot and will not have the final say, neither in our individual lives, nor for the whole of creation. Heaven and earth, Jesus reminds us, shall pass away: but My words shall not pass away.

Stir up Thy power, we beseech Thee, O Lord, and come: that from the threatening dangers of our sins we may deserve to be rescued by Thy protection, and to be saved by Thy deliverance.

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