We must weather the storm in God's 'absence'

  • November 21, 2008
First Sunday of Advent (Year B) Nov. 30 (Isaiah 63:16-17; 64:1, 3-8; Psalm 80; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37)

Where is God? Is God angry with us? These are anguished questions that people have always asked. In our own time the first question seems to have even greater importance and it is often joined with doubt that God even exists.
The poignant cry of the prophet is for God to tear open the heavens and come down — then everything will be all right again. We might have similar feelings when we are struggling or feeling alone and overwhelmed. At times we might be frustrated by the feeling that we are praying to the wall or to empty space. But when God seems far away that is paradoxically the time when God is closest to us.

The prophet adds an interesting note: he seems to blame God’s alleged absence as the cause of Israel’s infidelity and sin. He even says that God “made” the people stray. Interesting. Usually we hear people blame the devil for their sins, but here the fault is laid on God’s doorstep. After all, God “hid” Himself. It’s your fault, Lord; if you had been here we wouldn’t have sinned. It’s a variation on many of the rationalizations we use today. But the perceived absence of God — and it is only that for God hasn’t gone anywhere — is just as important as those times when God seems so close.

For Isaiah’s audience — the exiles in Babylon — the question was whether they would remain faithful to God during their sojourn in captivity. They were surrounded by a pagan culture and the many pagan gods. Would they just be assimilated or would they remain the chosen and faithful people? Only the “absence” of God would test them.

We can never blame God for our failures, only our own lack of spiritual grounding. We do not see the punishing hand of God behind every earthquake, famine, illness or tragedy — and that is good. Spiritually mature human beings must be compassionate and just for its own sake and not in fear of punishment or desire for reward. During the “absent” times we decide who we are and what we stand for, and we apply the spiritual principles that we have learned. This is done without the immediate feeling of consolation that we might normally experience. As they say, “Seek the God of consolation rather than the consolation of God.”

Paul assures us that those who live in Christ have been given all the spiritual tools they need to weather the “absence” of God. Our strength will come to us from within as a gift from God. We are not alone; God is faithful and we are never given more than we can bear. We just have to know where to look and how to conduct ourselves during these arid periods of our lives.

Mark’s generation believed that Jesus was going to return very soon and that His return would be followed by the general resurrection and judgment. As time passed without His return, enthusiasm and fervour began to wane and people slipped back into old patterns of behaviour. This was another case of “absence.” Some engaged in end-time speculation — just as many do today. The message is clear: stop worrying or even thinking about “when” the Lord will return. We do not and cannot know when that will be or in what manner it will occur, so we should concentrate on how we are living and conducting. How we behave when there are no rewards and punishments or when we are not being observed is an indication of who we really are.

With a bit of a twist we could say that how we act and think when we are not aware of God’s presence is a good measure of our spiritual makeup. And our concern must not be limited to avoiding evil, but must also include and even emphasize being engaged in positive and compassionate activity. Life can sometimes seem very lonely and scary. But it is a testing ground and school and we will be given the experiences and the tools to form ourselves for eternity. Our struggles and suffering can lead us to a deeper awareness of God. To be awake and alert, then, is merely to remember why we are here and never to waste the present moment.