It is becoming increasingly difficult in 21st century life to find hope. As we gather in a darkened church, at the darkest time of the year, it is not too hard to see that we live in dark times.
We see the twenty-four hour news cycle for this reality, and what it shows us each and every single day.
We see technology continuously re-frame how we live, connect and isolate ourselves.
We see our thirst growing for ever more ridiculous entertainments – from gore to sex to idiocy; the outlandish and far-fetched scenarios that pass as “reality TV.’ We can’t help but watch.
We see the evidence of a crumbling society around us, but don’t want to admit it. Sunday (12/07/2014) was the seventy-third anniversary of Pearl Harbor – I think of the society that generation built – taking down fascism in Europe – brutal expansion in Asia; rebuilding out of the ashes of the Great Depression and Second World War an economy unparalleled in history that defeated Soviet Communism, went to the moon and created an Interstate highway system that allowed commerce and the free movement of people like never before. These things defined the second half of 20th Century America.
Now we see our roads and bridges receiving failing grades for upkeep and safety. We watch our economy grow for some but not for many others. We notice our astronauts take only Russian rockets into space. We have seen the great promise of the Statue of Liberty’s motto “give me your tired, your poor and huddled masses” become xenophobia and racial profiling, reinforced stereotypes and ongoing racism. We’ve seen our kids shooting each other and our police become militarized. We have seen our national conscious – which used to strive itself on being the force of good and a better kind of values for the world – unveiled this week our torture practices since 9/11/2001.
Recently we have watched those protesting throughout our nation under the motto: “I can’t breathe.” This statement speaks a much greater truth than people might realize. We live not just with unfulfilled dreams of equity and justice – it feels like all of us are suffocating under the collapse of a once promising future built on a brittle foundation. There is a lot to mourn and lament in 21st century America. None of us can breathe. Can any of us have hope anymore?
We have seen so much disintegrate before our very eyes. We have not lived up to our potential and we have squandered opportunities. We have taken the easy path at times when we should have fought a little harder and a little longer until we got it right. We have cashed in on America while our value was high; forgetting we’d still have to live here and so would our kids. It is a scary prospect to look into the future not knowing how or if we’ll ever get it back.
There is plenty of blame to go around. We could blame our politicians; our divisions; our powerlessness – and we’d probably be right to justify doing so. We have seen too much. What we see keeps telling us to be afraid. Be very afraid.
Fear has infected every part of our being, and it is the primary story we have come to know and believe.
Fear dominates our lives – from what news we read and watch, what entertainments we crave, what investments we make, what jobs we take, what friends we want, who we consider our neighbors, and even what we expect from our churches.
BUT ADVENT reveals a different story, and gives a different trajectory for our thinking and our living….
We gather around one of central images from this time of year: Mary holding the child.
We see in her so much joy; so much love; so much hope to share. It is as if God’s dreams and humanity’s dreams have come together in a moment. We can see it. It is right there! You can even come up and touch it if you’d like.
We know the story and remind each other of it often.
Jesus born of Mary in that stable long ago. Joseph is there too; as are the shepherds, angels and barn animals. Can’t you just see them? Aren’t they all so cute?
But cuteness can’t overcome fear. It may take the sting away for a while – but soon it returns, and that joy we can almost grasp slips away. We need something deeper. Something we can hold onto with both hands even when we can’t see it; and that thing is hope.
Hope doesn’t have all the answers. Hope does not pretend to be in control. Hope can not see the future, but holds on to the future anyway.
I wonder if part of the problem with Christmas (or even Christianity as a whole) is we on the inside are all too familiar with it. We create a cute mental picture of it too easily. The Jesus story resolves so nicely as we tell it. We have lost the shock of who Jesus is and what he might mean to us and the world. We have made Jesus safe.
We see where the story of Jesus goes:
We see Jesus grow up and do amazing things.
We see Jesus heal people.
We see Jesus speak for God.
We see Jesus gather followers.
We see Jesus challenge authority.
We see Jesus reaches out beyond what is comfortable.
We see Jesus love and love and love. Even the unlovable he calls his own, and we cheer him on for it.
We see him die.
We see him die at the hand of the empire that would crush those who oppose their competing values (just as we see our culture crushing each of us).
But Jesus, even though he dies…. comes back. He lives. He is raised from the dead. All is well. All will be well. Isn’t that the promise? Isn’t that our hope? Isn’t that enough? Can’t we see it?
We hope so. But we wonder. We have seen so many ignore him or shrug their shoulders and walk away. We see that life continues to be hard. It is hard for us. It is hard for so many. Cute won’t cut it. We gasp for a fleeting moment for something real, yet we still feel crushed, alone and abandoned.
Because in Advent, Mary still has no idea what is going to happen. She has no idea if the child will survive the trip to Bethlehem, or if she or her baby will survive the birth. Or if any of them will survive the trip home. Or if God’s promise has any chance of surviving at all.
She cannot see what will happen tomorrow any better than you or I can see tomorrow.
All Mary has is a promise, and a song.
But in that hope she breathes deeply.
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)