Third Sunday of Advent
I was in the clinic last Friday, and the nurse leading me to the examination room asked: Do you have your Christmas shopping done? Are you ready? Was I finished shopping on December 9th? No, I wasn’t ready. I stopped short of being a smart aleck and telling her that I am a Muslim and don’t care about Christmas. But I suppose she was typical of those who get ready early for Christmas, have all the bases covered, will never be caught off guard or surprised. Semper paratus (U.S. Coast Guard). Never at a loss.
The liturgy of Advent takes another approach to being prepared, being ready. It is not by being master of time and controlling our future that we prepare. The root of prepare is pare, to trim down, to cut back to the essentials. And it does that by introducing us to an alternate experience of time and space, by stepping out of the successive moments of chronology and stepping across the margins we use to assure and insure ourselves against the unknown and against surprise. Advent is a time of darkness and of silence where we cease the efforts to evade that side of reality that threatens our security and well-being, that intimate all our house is not in order. Silence and stillness first make us anxious and uncomfortable because we are invited into an unknown territory lying in our hearts. When I was growing up, our family lived in an apartment with a basement. That basement was filled with forgotten treasures and mysteries, separate rooms housing the useless and discarded. Like and archeological dig. Mysterious at any time, it was especially so when the light bulb at the foot of the stairs burned out. The only way to get down the stairs to change the bulb was to feel your way slowly, reaching out for something solid in the dark. What had been familiar suddenly became foreboding and threatening. With vision dimmed, all the other senses came alive. When the senses are pared down, new sensibilities emerge.
Sitting in silence and darkness can readily seem to be a waste of time. Let’s get things moving again. Why these pauses and silences in the liturgy? I’m impatient to get on with the action. It is a waste, and maybe that is the best way to transport us into a wider and deeper vision. It has no purpose outside itself. But that is enough. Waste comes from the same family as vast. It is wasteland, vast, wild. It is difficult to find orientation, to find beginnings and endings. The eye can’t encompass it all from one standpoint. It is, indeed, the desert. Empty. Vast. Vacare. St. Benedict tells us to vacare Deo. Make an empty space where God can appear. The motto of our community is Vacate et Videte. Go into emptiness and see. It’s a waste.
Blessed is the one who does not take offense at me. Take offense is a soft translation of the root meaning: be scandalized. Hard to admit that we might still be scandalized by Christ, that he has disillusioned us and disappointed us. We can be scandalized at the way God acts in the world. To be scandalized is to be shocked and surprised at the behavior of someone who has misled us, who has acted at odds with what we have believed them to be. The disappointment can cut to the marrow of our relationship. It is a cutting experience to have someone we care about say to us: You have been a great disappointment to me. We can file away these disappointments and scandals as dead ends in our lives. They have touched upon our hope, which can lie deeper than our wants and desires. Are you the one who is to come, or are we to look for another? Or we can be led to a deeper awareness of our hope. Perhaps Christ would be justified in saying to us: I have been disappointed in you. Ouch.
The silence and darkness of Advent nurture the patient waiting that allows our hope to be exposed and known. At the root of our preparing for Christmas is living from this hope which does not disappoint. In the profession ceremony of monks, Benedict want them to cry out three times: Receive me, Lord, as you have promised and I shall live. Do not disappoint me in my hope. That is really the cry every person makes as he/she enters the world and begins the journey to finding Christ as savior and joy. We don’t need to look elsewhere.