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The Christian tradition has long held that the most persisting and infecting temptations we humans face is that of arrogating divinity into our humble humanity—remember the serpent’s words in the garden: “eat and you shall be like God.” The sufferings inflected upon the weak and the innocent throughout humanity’s history is nothing other than this perennial sin enacted: reaching beyond the pure gratuity of my own life to assert violently my will upon reality through murder. Theologian Rowan Williams fittingly calls this the “apocalyptic delusion”—the belief that we can assume the divine role of acting permanently in history by stamping out the life of another. Though we do not have the power to create out of nothing as God does, we assert the power to destroy and so claim dominion over reality. This is what we are remembering today, the time when we humans tried to appropriate a power we were not given—the power over life and death—and murdered the innocent Son of God. This is a day for introspection and repentance, for taking inventory of our own lives and asking if we are graciously receiving the life we’ve been given, or selfishly hoarding that which is not ours. We are always tempted to forget that we are creatures.
This day is more than that though. It’s not only a day when we remember our culpability for the sins of humanity; it’s a day when we remember that we fail at our sins. We try to act with apocalyptic finality, but it is a delusion, the infinite God who gives life sinks into death today, not as one who falls prey to its harsh finality, but as one who undoes death itself. The finite death we deal cannot contain the infinite God.
What we see in Good Friday is that God takes on not only human flesh, but human victimhood. All of the myriad voices that have been silenced throughout our blood-soaked history are not far from God, but are held by him as he embraces their victimhood in the solidarity of death. These voices that seem for all the world to be as still as dirt are given new life by God’s utter identification with them. Good Friday demonstrates that God remembers as one who suffers as a victim in history, not as a cosmic umpire inactively observing history unfold from a considerable distance. God is so close to the victims of history that his memory enfolds their memory. In Christ, God identifies himself as pure victim without a shred of guilt or violence in him, and receives into himself the extremity of humanity’s expulsive violence. Thus, God’s memory is not other than the victim’s memory, and his remembering is a literal re-membering, a making whole of what was broken, a giving again of what was taken; God redeems the past by taking it into himself and raising it in his resurrection.
Christ’s defeat of death through resurrection cleanses us of the presumption that the death we deal is final, that the suffering of history cannot be undone, that the only ultimate act in history is that act preformed by the executioner. Instead, he shows us that divinity is not the power or prerogative to judge and destroy, but is a wellspring of infinite creative love, and this is a divinity we are invited to arrogate to ourselves. Humanity acts with apocalyptic finality only when humanity imitates God in love. Love cannot be undone even by death, but death can, and indeed is, undone by love. The Christian answer to the problem of suffering in history is nothing other than the mystery of the cross and resurrection, of God’s revelation of himself as infinite and infinitely merciful, infinitely loving, and infinitely life.
“Our world today needs weeping. The marginalized weep, those who are neglected weep, the scorned weep, but those of us who have relatively comfortable life, we don’t know how to weep. Certain realities of life are seen only with eyes that are cleansed by tears. I ask each one of you to ask: Can I weep?”
“God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.”
Today, Holy Saturday, is a day of lamentation, of weeping. In the Orthodox tradition there is a series of laments that are sung every year for this space between remembering the death of Jesus and announcing his resurrection once again. A portion of it reads:
“Woe is me!” the Virgin mourned through heart-breaking sobs.
“Thou art, Jesus, my most precious, beloved Son!
Gone is my light, and the Light of all the world!”
“Who will give me water, a fountain of tears,”
cried the Virgin Bride of God in her deep despair,
“that in grief for my sweet Jesus I might weep?”
These imagined words of a grieving mother remind us that at the center of our faith there occurs a death. Not only the redemptive suffering of Jesus as a theological concept, but the death of a son, a friend, a beloved one. Jesus was loved by his followers and friends, by his mother and his family. And this person was ripped from their lives leaving a gaping hole of consuming absence.
For this reason, our faith has everything in the world to say to those who have had their world turned upside-down by death, to people who break down sobbing while waiting at a traffic light, remembering for the thousandth time that their child will never again return their gaze with a smile.
This is why, on this Holy Saturday, we gathered with other Christians from the St. Louis region to mourn together. We gathered to remember those who have been killed by violence of every kind in our city. We came to express the raw sorrow these absences have brought into our communities. Together, we decried the division of our community and the hopelessness that engulfs one side of that division. We gathered to listen to each other’s pain and to carry each other in prayer. We gathered together to cry. And to confess that we do not cry as we should.
We left cleanse by tears and strengthened by one another’s presence, but still in mourning. We left still in darkness.
For we know the story. We know that it is only to those who are in darkness that a great light shines; it is only those who mourn who shall be comforted; it is only those whose cheeks are drenched with tears that have them wiped away by God himself.
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”
Advent has a lot going for it in my mind. In the liturgical year it marks the end of the long drudgery of “ordinary time” and the beginning of a journey that carries us through Easter and Pentecost. It’s a season imbued with hope and joy. I love the songs that we sing—songs of longing that point to the resolution in Jesus. I have a particular fondness for the Advent wreath that rests on our dining room table. We countdown the days to Christ’s coming by watching the purple and pink candles slowly come alight. There are a set number of days until Christmas, so it’s just a matter of simple mathematics.
I’m reminded of the story of Prometheus, that mythological god who stole fire from Olympus and gave it to mortals. For that and other transgressions Zeus chained him to a mountain where he was continually tormented by an eagle that would eat at his flesh, condemned to continually suffer without the release of death. In Aeschylus’s play we learn another reason for his horrific punishment. As he lies there suffering the chorus approaches him:
Iron-hearted and made of stone, Prometheus, is he who feels no compassion at your miseries. For myself, I would not have desired to see them; and now that I see them, I am pained in my heart.
Yes, to my friends indeed I am a spectacle of pity.
Did you perhaps transgress even somewhat beyond this offence?
Yes, I caused mortals to cease foreseeing the doom of their death.
Of what sort was the cure that you found for this affliction?
I caused blind hopes to dwell within their breasts.
Mortals had been cursed with knowledge. They knew all two well that the life of humans is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. For them, that shortness was not a vague sense of danger that they might be dragged into eternity at any moment; it was written on the calendar like a doctor’s appointment. Prometheus thought this cruel. He thought mortals should not be destined to live lives of confirmed desperation, resigned to embracing the absurd finitude of mortality. So he blessed mortals with ignorance, and gave them blind hope instead. Death was thus transfigured from a depressing inevitability to a rude interruption.
Advent is like mortal life before Prometheus’s rash move. It is a finite season with a marked ending. We all know that it will end on December 25, so we are willing to think about waiting for a few weeks. But we would do well to remember that while Advent is necessarily a set period of time, it points to a different reality. Advent is about waiting for God to interrupt the world. This kind of waiting is not like waiting for a date to come on the calendar or for the immanent mechanisms of history and politics to bring the change they constantly talk about; this kind of waiting is hope that God will break into our world like an earthquake.
In dark Nazi prison in November of 1943 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote “A prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent; one waits, hopes, does this or that—ultimately negligible things—the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.” God’s entrance into the world is not the consequence of human activities or the passing of time. God’s coming is a rupture of time itself. For this, we wait. That’s all we can do.
At Advent, we remember the generations of people who hoped and prayed for God’s salvation to come. They lived and died longing for the comfort spoken of in Isaiah 40 to be realized. When it finally came it came in a small forgotten corner of occupied Palestine.
At first brush, it seems strange that Advent and Christmas fall during this dark season. Why do we remember the mystery of the Incarnation, that most joyous event, when the earth is barren, dark, and cold? Does not summertime with its flowering life seem like a better time to celebrate the birth of the life-giving Christ?
The birth of Jesus is good news, indeed the best possible news—no; more than that—the impossible news. It’s the impossible news that God has not left us to fend for ourselves. It’s the news that God opens the jail cell and strikes off the fetters of the languishing prisoners. Nothing could be more joyous than this.
Yet, this good news comes right in the midst of all of the bad news we know so well:
The death of a friend.
The unbreakable pain of chronic illness.
The stress of financial instability.
The pain and death inflicted upon black and brown bodies by a deeply racist society.
The heartsickness of loneliness.
It is in the middle these, our coldest nights, our darkest days, when the sun seems to withhold its warmth, that Christ comes. That is why we celebrate Christmas in the middle of the dark, short days of winter.
On Sunday a few of us from the Lotus House went to a service called the Longest Night at a church downtown. Gathered with a few dozen others, we remembered and prayed for the people who died homeless in St. Louis this past year. We left the somber service with candles to gather outside for a closing prayer. The bitter cold of the wind blew all of the candles out. Not one person could hold their light against the darkness of this night. That is Advent. Remembering that Christ, the light of the world, brings brightness to the deepest recesses of this barren world.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”
I can think of no more fitting picture of Advent than protesting injustice and death in the midst of the darkness of the world. For it is to those who are in prison, those who are struggling to keep candles lit, and those who are longing for comfort that the word of comfort finally comes, and comes like an earthquake.
“No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God—for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel. God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.”