Ever hear voices? I hear voices this Advent. They are
diverse and from extremes - voices of pain, voices of warning, voices of
hope and voices of fulfillment. That is just the way Advent is, filled with
contradictions and extremes. It is a season to celebrate the promise of
Christ’s coming, his arrival and the expectation of his return. Who can hold
it all together? Maybe we can’t. It is the way the season is, it is the way
Listen to the voices of Advent, maybe they will help balance
all the seeming contradictions. Better still, maybe they will throw off
balance what we have so carefully tried to keep balanced. Our ordered lives
need the disorder of Advent so that we can put aside our biased concepts of
order and be more open to the new order God wants to bring to our lives this
season. We should let the voices speak, hold them in Advent awareness and
experience the transformation they offer us. If anything, Advent promises a
change both for us and our world, a change beyond anything we ourselves can
envision or bring about on our own. Let the Advent preacher listen to the
voices of the season.
But it is hard to hear the voices because there is a lot of
background noise. It is the usual noise this time of the year, it starts
before Thanksgiving and gets to a feverish pitch as Christmas Day draws
closer. It’s everywhere this noise: it’s audio and visual, coming to us
through the sights and sounds of television, radio, the malls, newspapers
and, of course, through the Internet. Hard to escape it. Hard to hear the
other voices, the Advent voices that can keep us focused. I am guided in my
Advent listening by our Lectionary’s choice of scripture reading through the
season. Let the Advent preacher be a careful and discerning listener.
On December 28th, in my Roman Catholic tradition, we
celebrate the feast of Holy Innocents. That day, the story of the slaughter
of the male infants is proclaimed in our liturgical celebrations. In one
terror-filled verse, Matthew suggests unspeakable horror for the families of
the newborn and the people of Israel.
"Once Herod realized that he had been deceived by
the astrologers, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all
the boys two years and under in Bethlehem and its environs making
his calculations on the basis of the date he had learned from the
astrologers." (Mt. 2:16)
Though the feast falls just beyond the Advent season, the
voices heard as a result of this brutal act need to be attended to through
all of Advent. Hear them?
They are the cries of agony of all those who have suffered
at the hands of tyrants right up to our day, those who are powerless and cry
out to God to save them. To express their pain, Matthew draws upon the
prophet Jeremiah’s description of Rachel mourning her children. (Jer.
31:15f) From her tomb in Ramah near Bethlehem, the grieving voice of Rachel
is heard. Once again, as in the Exile, Rachel weeps for her scattered,
enslaved and slaughtered children. Hers is the voice we hear through all of
Advent, if we listen closely enough. She cries out for all humanity’s
children who are made to suffer by dictates and whims of those who wield
power and determine who are in and who are out of national political,
economic and military agendas.
I hear Rachel’s voice in modern tones this Advent from
information I read on the webpage of the Children’s Defense Fund. It is
a national moral disgrace that children remain the poorest age group in
the United States of America—one of the richest countries in the world.
It is also unnecessary, costly and the greatest threat to the nation’s
future national, economic and military security. Nearly 1 in 5
children—12.8 million in total—were poor in 2017. Over 45 percent of
these children lived in extreme poverty at less than half the poverty
level. Nearly 70 percent of poor children were children of color. About
1 in 3 American Indian/Alaska Native children and more than 1 in 4 Black
and Hispanic children were poor, compared with 1 in 9 White children.
The youngest children are most likely to be poor, with 1 in 5 children
under 5 living in poverty during the years of rapid brain development.
Child poverty hurts children and our nation’s future. It
creates gaps in cognitive skills for very young children, puts children
at greater risk of hunger and homelessness, jeopardizes their health and
ability to learn and fuels the intergenerational cycle of poverty.
Can you hear the cries of anguish this Advent? There they
are, the cries of poor parents in our own land for their children’s future,
a future made bleak by the cycle of poverty and national neglect and growing
insensitivity to their health and educational needs. They are cries not
being heard by a nation setting priorities that ignore their voices. Let the
Advent preacher hear Rachel’s ongoing cry for her children in our modern
God hears Rachel’s cry. When Matthew quotes Jeremiah’s
description of Rachel’s pain, he also implies a voice of hope and comfort to
the grieving. In Jeremiah, God addresses her pain and promises restoration.
In the very next verse God says, "Cease your cries of mourning, wipe the
tears from your eyes. The sorrow you have shown shall have its reward...they
shall return from the enemy’s hand." (Jer. 31:16) Indeed, all of Chapter 33
is about the total healing God will bring to The People. This restoration
will be for all aspects of their lives; for their interior healing through
the forgiveness of sins and for the restoration of the nation.
Thomas Merton warned that we must not strive to keep an
atmosphere of optimism during Advent by the "mere suppression of tragic
realities." (cf. Seasons of Celebration) There is, he says, an
"anguished seriousness in Advent." We are anticipating the birth of one
Jeremiah says, will be a "just shoot", who will "do what is right and just
in the land." Baruch, another prophetic voice of the season, (heard on the
second Sunday of Advent), tells us this one who is coming will call
Jerusalem to wrap herself "in the cloak of justice from God." Our voices
need to speak against sentimentality this Advent and for justice.
Advent does not pull us out of the world to wrap ourselves
in the warm fuzzies of the season, but to look to the coming of Christ and
his justice. Indeed he is already among us. How will people know that the
One who is to come has already arrived? It certainly won’t be obvious in the
sights and voices of the malls. The first Sunday of Advent’s Gospel passage
that opens the season is Jesus’ reminder, "Be on guard lest your spirits
become bloated with indulgence and drunkenness and worldly cares." (Luke
21:34). It is a stark wake up call to sobriety and circumspection. It not
only calls us to examine our own lives, but the signs of Christ’s presence
in our midst. We need to enter more soberly into the Advent yearning for a
new creation, when a new community will come into being. Let the Advent
preacher hear the voice of justice and reordering that wakes us up to be
sober, alert and ready to speak to injustice.
Our spirits are uneasy in Advent, restless and yearning for
the peace promised us in God’s Word. The present world is complex, not
easily dismissed by platitudes and simplistic promises. The world is tense,
yearning for peace, a resolution not easily achieved. We are found waiting
in this Advent world, a world of alienation and division, longing for
justice and peace. Let the Advent preacher hear the longing voices and the
incompleteness that permeates our lives.
It is not that Christ may or may not come – he will come!
How will we receive him? We must receive him ready to set things right in
the world. This Advent is not a mere celebration of the "Christmas season"
described to us in the jingles and the slogans. It is not a nostalgic trip
to former, youthful, more innocent days. Christ’s coming this season is a
call to renewal, indeed, a call to transformation that makes a new world
according to the plans voiced for us by the voices of the ancient prophets
we hear through Advent. Let the preacher hear the voices calling for
Rachel’s plaint is to be attended to this season. We cannot
deafen our ears to her cry. She wails for the children of exile, fleeing
civil war and violence in their own land. But the season does not end with
only that wail, another woman’s voice is heard, it is that of Elizabeth on
the final Sunday of Advent. She is filled with the Holy Spirit and cries out
in a loud voice to her pregnant kinswoman Mary, "Blessed are you among women
and blessed is the fruit of your womb,...Blessed is she who trusted that the
Lord’s word to her would be fulfilled." (Lk.1:42-45)
That is the closing voice of the Advent season. It is also
the voice that addresses our future. God’s word is fulfilled and will be
fulfilled. Promises made to an inconsolable people have been kept. The
"great day" has come, the "just shoot’ is being planted in the land and
there will be an abundant harvest. All of us cry out with Jerusalem, "The
Lord is our justice." (Jer. 33: 16) Let the Advent preacher hear the final
voices of triumph and preach with certitude that promise of fulfillment.