Advent Reflections

“In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;…”
Isaiah 2:2

An Advent Journey- Reclaiming Hope

This year as we clear the Thanksgiving table, we are immediately ushered to the annual lighting of advent wreaths in our churches. This Sunday’s symbolic lighting of the first candle – the candle of hope – marks the beginning of the Christian calendar. It also signals our annual pilgrimage to the Bethlehem manger – that unexpected place of hope in the midst of darkness. Hope and darkness – I don’t know about you, but for me it seems like the darkness in our world is profoundly deep. There is a dangerous sense of desperation around us in an attempt to control violence and evil, much of it in the name of some religion. And desperation leads to desperate acts – acts clearly not of God.

Some 21 years ago, I recall being overwhelmed by stories of violence in not-so-distant geographic locations near our home in Bethlehem, PA. Young members of white supremacy groups had killed their own families – schools went on high alert and a friend of ours serving as a vice principal, was being guarded. It was then I began learning that our state is among the top five in our nation for harboring hate groups. Imagine my sense of panic. Did I want to raise my half-Latino, half-Irish child in this climate? I can assure you – my answer was “no way.” In an effort to understand our reality, I engaged leaders from Harrisburg, local police and educators. What I learned was frightening – the efforts to recruit in the name of hate and fear were sophisticated, intentional and quite successful. And that was two decades ago – imagine how sophisticated hate and fear have become today.

Fast forward to the events of this year – from the ongoing senseless violence on the streets of our nation, to the incomprehensible shootings of children at schools, to the recent acts of terror in lands far away (perhaps not that far). And then add the image of a child washed up on the beach as his family attempts to flee in hopes of a different life along with the image a small circle of people slaughtered at church while gathered to study a Word of hope. As you know, I can go on and on – specifically demonstrating the inhuman examples of our contemporary human existence. I can’t help but ask myself – Is this a different world from the one that birthed this nation in the 1770s? Or has violence in the name of some value or religion dominated the geopolitical reality throughout human history? I believe the answer is that we humans have had a propensity for darkness, hate and fear since the very beginning of time. It is no accident that the phrase “fear not” or “do not be afraid” dominates the Biblical narrative. God clearly knows what you and I are capable of when we allow ourselves to make decisions framed by fear.

So what is the response of a faithful “Jesus people” at a time when fear is again being used to dominate international and national conversations? How are we to respond to what is going on around us? I’m not so naïve to prescribe a set of answers to situations that require thoughtful interventions. But I do know how we are not to respond. I do know what values are to drive our actions. I believe deeply in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. – “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’ It is this conviction to be light and impose light on darkness that must lead our prayers and our actions. Any response framed by fear dangerously leads us to polarize others in the name of whatever makes us feel safe. God, in Jesus Christ, breaks into the darkness of humanity with incarnational love – even while knowing that the love of God, embodied in the infant child, would be executed by the very ones who claimed to be God’s emissaries on earth. Thankfully resurrection had and has the final word for us.

Friends – whatever opinions, backgrounds and race we are a part of, we are reminded that we are bound by something greater. We are each created in love by the God of creation. We are bound by a hope that is willing to face violence with love. We must hold tightly to the truth that fear and polarization does not and will not bring about hope for us or for the world around us. They will not offer us protection. In his address to the United States Congress, Pope Francis spoke to this temptation. “The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.”
“To imitate the hatred and violence” of those whose values do not honor the gift of life – ultimately makes us no better than the “tyrants and murderers” from which we seek shelter. These are uncomfortable words – pointing to an even more inconvenient truth for us all.

As we enter this Advent season, may we not allow ourselves to get trapped in the toxic temptation of polarization and quick fixes. May we find the way to be light and hope in the midst of often-unimaginable dark realities. May we find the courage to be a people who are not only framed by hope, but understand how costly hope can be as we seek to be that hope for others. May our decisions and actions be framed by an ultimate hope given to us by the child whose cries broke into the darkness some 2,000 years ago.