Br. Roy Parker, OHC
Advent 1 C - Sunday, November 29, 2015
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
|The Advent wreath in the church|
Some of you may be familiar with the weekly cartoon contest which appears in the New Yorker: a cartoon without caption is printed, giving readers the opportunity to invent a caption appropriate to the drawing. Three submissions appear in the following issue of the magazine and in the week after, the winning caption is printed.
Several weeks ago the contest depicted a bearded patriarchal God in therapy on the clouds of heaven, an angel seated alongside, taking notes. The winning caption has the angel asking, “When did you first realize you were really a woman?”
That this caption won the poll seems to me a cultural indicator of a kind of sea change in the popular religious imagination regarding God, a change from what might be called ‘metaphysical masculinity‘ to something like ‘compassionate solidarity.‘ That is, a movement away from masculine images of God, images not easily understood nor much in tune with actual experience, images even uninviting and repelling to our sensibilities; a movement away from those sort of descriptions to a more feminine imagery characterized by the Hebrew word chesed, which appears significantly in God’s self-description to Moses in the thirty-fourth chapter of Exodus: The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation . . .
That key word is variously translated ‘kindness, loving-kindness, mercy’, and ‘steadfast love.‘ No one English word captures its meaning. It seems basically to have to do with loyalty in relationships, loyalty that is considerate of and affectionate toward the sharer of a relationship. It is not used in Hebrew of ‘kindness’ in the abstract. It bespeaks actual steadfast, loving, merciful, kind loyalty toward another. It is rooted in God’s commitment to God’s people, in God’s steadfast, loving, merciful, kind loyalty toward God’s human colleagues in the doing of justice. It is about the kind of relationship God wants people to have with God, and with each and all of their human sisters and brothers.
It is indeed about sensitivity and responsiveness to the needs and rights of others, indeed about respecting others, but, at root, it is about affectionate, unswerving commitment to others. Which, by the way, will remind us of St. Paul’s gold standard of this in the Letter to the Romans: “(In the utmost adversity) we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come . . . nor anything in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Attending to today’s Gospel, we’ll note that the signs in the sun, moon and stars, the distress of nations confused by the roaring of the sea, the waves, and so forth were originally stage props to bolster the endurance of first century Christians under persecution who were encouraged to raise their heads and greet their approaching redemption. As if those on the way to salvation need not be that concerned about the surrounding chaos.
Because the femininity of God is about God’s affectionate, unswerving commitment to God’s human colleagues in the doing of justice toward all persons and toward the environment, it signals the realization that now the distress of nations and the roaring of the sea and waves are no longer merely stage props, encouraging signs of redemption, but have become warning signs of imminent global collapse summoning humanity to radical action.
At the moment, for example, the Pacific is a troublesome place, creating storms and causing problems for people and marine life across the Pacific rim and beyond, including the strong El Nino system that has formed along the Equator, and another unusually persistent zone of warm water sitting off the North American coast, called the Blob. The warming of the Pacific due to greenhouse gases has been linked to unprecedented harmful algal blooms that have toxified shellfish and shut down fisheries in the Pacific Northwest. It’s really worrisome. If this is a window into the future, it’s not a good future.
Advent is the celebration of three comings: God’s self-gift to the world at the incarnation, God’s self-gift to each believer, and the final coming which is still outside our experience, expressed in the New Testament hope that Christ will come again in some way earthed in our own expectations, fears and desires. If we are to be more than simply agnostic about the long-term prospects for our race, our most fundamental hope must be that it will not end in meaningless destruction.
If we are going to blow ourselves out of existence or make the planet uninhabitable, there is little point in hoping for anything else. To believe that the human race will eventually reach the end of its earthly pilgrimage is one thing; to equate the end with total destruction is another. The hope that we are traveling towards a destiny, rather than a mere collapse, is linked with the faith that our origins were already purposeful.
If there is a Creator who stands outside the whole cosmic evolutionary process and yet works God’s will within it by a wisdom and love that are present in its every movement, then human life has a purpose. It begins from God and is on its way to a goal which, however unimaginable, will give meaning to the whole adventure.
We cannot comfort ourselves with wishful thinking. Though we may admire the courage of those who face the possibility that human life is simply absurd, that there is no future, and that the only option is to live with dignity and kindness as we await our meaningless extinction, this view is not convincing because it leaves too much unexplained. Deeply rooted in our experience is a certainty that our best intuitions will prove to have been the truest. We also want justice, however we may fear it or fall short in practicing it ourselves.
Our hearts demand that the very rough and uneven distribution in this life shall be redeemed within a larger justice. We are radically convinced that good, not evil, will triumph in the end. The assurance of the classic fairy tales that the wicked are defeated and everyone else lives happily ever after is reached only through suffering, danger, courage and endurance, and these stories so appeal because they strike a chord in us.
Perhaps you know the phrase deus ex machina, that originated in the theatrical device of placing a contraption just off-stage to manufacture a god figure who would enter the play at the last minute to save a hopeless situation. Literally: God from a machine. Part of the sea change in the popular religious imagination is that no deus ex machina solution, no machine-made god who simply eliminates problems can be the coming one to satisfy our deepest desires, but only the one who promises to come and be with us especially in the midst of our struggles and uncertainties.
I suspect another part of this sea change is the information I’ve gotten lately from my Jesuit network to the effect that the idea of the priest as one with special powers is not very popular today in theology. Rather the priest is the sacramental minister whose presence in the liturgy ties the individual worshiping community to all the Christian communities, making it possible for the fullness of the church to be present in the local assembly.
Our calling is to go along with God in doing what is right toward all persons and our planet home, in having a passion for lasting human and humane relationships with God, our sisters, brothers, and the entire creation, and to be open to new and unknown and surprising and scary and devastating things that may involve.