Advent, awash in paradox

  • November 28, 2012

It’s a perilous journey, but one that is filled with hope

Our hearts are broken.

A member of my family has taken his own life. We’ve been weeping at the grave of a young man we love. It should not be so. It is unreal, and far too real. One we love has suffered immeasurably, bearing an anguish we couldn’t take away from him. We’ve stood in death, despair and agony, even horror. How can we get to Christmas from here? How can we want to? That is to say... how can we come to God? We desperately need Him. Where is He?

“Comfort O comfort my people, says your God.” Isaiah 40:1

So we come to the darkest time of year, when we most need hope — and are hardest pressed to find it. People are covering their dwellings with brilliant lights, planning parties, keeping shops open, purchasing, drinking, eating. Do they know what they’re looking for? Do we?

And still the night comes, and still we’re asked to enter into it, and wait in darkness. Alexandre Dumas wrote that all human wisdom comes to these two words: wait and hope. What an impossible assignment! For we wait in suffering, in anguish and unknowing. This is Advent.

All during Advent we’ll be immersed in paradox. We’ll see rejoicing and sorrow, birth and death, poverty and power, vision and blindness, fulfilment and anticipation, pierced hearts and healed hearts, wise men and assassins...

Let’s not choose one or the other. Let’s risk remaining in paradox, in the unbearable tension. How else will we know? Whether suffering is the last word. Whether birth and death are the same or different. Whether hope is true.

“When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly.” Matthew 2:10

It’s a perilous journey. The risks are real. Ask Joseph, leading his pregnant wife to an unknown place where the door will be closed against them. Ask the magi, leaving their safe places with no map but only the light as guide. Ask Isaiah and John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness, speaking love to a world caught up in violence. Ask Zechariah, voiceless and confused. Sometimes hope doesn’t seem like much to hang onto.

The Gospel’s Nativity stories are odd. They present us with animals and straw, taxes and murders, dirt and mess. Thank God for that, because dirt and mess are where we live. Here or nowhere, we learn whether our hope is everything or nothing.

After my young nephew’s funeral Mass last week, I returned to his grave. He is buried in a country cemetery, beside the church. I could see the newly turned earth — fortunately, no plastic grass to hide it. I bent down and rifled the earth through my fingers. As I did, I was astonished to feel a personal presence, filled with peace. Not coming from within me, but coming to meet me…

“He will shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.” Luke 1:79

“Something wild like fire is at work,” his mother, bearing the unbearable, told me yesterday. Over and over during Advent, we hear stories of people, improbably, impossibly, saying Yes to that perilous journey.

“Behold the bondslave of the Lord... may it be done to me according to His word.” Luke 1:34,38

We learn from them, and drink from the Spirit they shared. Like them, we can demand love. We can be drawn to Christ, like the owner of the manger who somehow knew that it could become the birthplace of the human race. We can open our hearts to the person in front of us — going to the most dangerous place of all, the human heart — like the shepherds, the night-shift workers who believed they were called to glory at the borrowed home of the world’s poorest couple and their swaddled newborn.

“And they were terribly frightened.” Luke 2:9

We needn’t go without fear, but we need go. We go alone, each in our own heart, and we go together, drawn to the silent mystery which woos and bedazzles us.

“He will be a sign to be opposed ... and a sword will pierce your own heart.” Luke 2:34-35

Everybody knows about death, judgment, humiliation, condemnation, violence. Do they also know that love is stronger than death? That when our dear one died, his life was not ended but changed?

If we don’t speak what we’ve lived, how will people know about resurrection, hope, faith, joy, life, love, God-with-us? The only way they’ll know is if our voices ring with hope like the finest and most majestic bells, purified by the sadness and pain He has borne with and for us.

It’s a perilous journey. Others have risked everything for it, and have paid the highest price. We can’t wait and remain as we are; that, too, is our hope.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” John 1:5

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