I love advent. I recently wrote a blog post about it for my job, complete with some quotes from one of my favorite advent devotional reflections and a sturdy condemnation of the commercialization of Christmas. But this year is really challenging.
I started out well, with my three (yes, three) advent books by my bedside, reading and reflecting and journaling each morning or evening, listening for how God is talking to me in this advent season. But then stress about my work, friends, house, visitors, grad school, schedules and family piled up a little too high… and instead of spending the weekend reading and being with God, I spent a good chunk of it in my pajamas, in bed, watching Sherlock and drinking cocoa. It was good, and it is part of the way I allow myself to rest, but it threw me off my schedule. As a result, I feel less centered, less sure of myself, and more inclined to hopelessness instead of expectant waiting.
But there are many reasons for hopelessness this year (and every year, to be frank). For the past four months, race crimes and the (in)justice system of the United States have been on constant alert, on constant scrawl across the bottom of my TV, computer screen, and brain. I am glad to be choosing to notice and read and hear and see the things that have passed concerning the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and many others; a step in the work of using my privilege to lift up the voices and struggles of people who do not share in that privilege is refusing ignorance and being informed. I am choosing to see, because so many do not, and it is way beyond the time for seeing and hearing and acting.
I do not have much faith in this country right now. I’m generally not a super patriotic person, though I do own a denim shirt with stars on it; I love going to Fourth of July parades; and I can’t help tearing up when I see military reunions (that’s not just patriotism, it’s basic humanity…woah, emotions…). Congress is holding President Obama’s hands behind his back on so many issues, including immigration reform. Republicans just became the majority again. Michigan just passed a bill that will allow the government to validate certain religions over others, and it’s ironically titled “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” And, at the forefront of my, and so many others’, consciousness: the fact that there are not even indictments of the police officers who have brought about the death of so many black-bodied kin is utterly shameful and disgusting…forget “guilty” and “not-guilty,” we won’t even have a chance to TRY these people in court. Isn’t the fact that a man exhibiting non-threatening behavior was choked to death on camera probable cause? Isn’t the fact that many eyewitnesses said that Mike Brown was turning around with his hands up when he was shot more than six times probable cause? A recent undergrad slam poet at Vanderbilt University recently said: “It doesn’t take 100 days to decide whether to indict someone; it takes 100 days to figure out how to lie to the people.” There are so many facts and so many questions and conversations and hate speech swirling around that it is a miracle that anyone can decide anything efficiently…and honestly.
When I think about the family of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Renisha McBride and many others, I can only think of how difficult the grieving process must be. Can they even get enough personal space away from media to engage in their grief in the way they must be needing to? Eric Garner’s widow Esaw was eloquent about the loss their family has endured and that “sorry” doesn’t make it better. And Mike Brown’s parents requested 4.5 minutes of silence after the announcement of the non-indictment…but many people did not adhere to that wish as they themselves were outraged and in pain.
In church several weeks ago, the gospel text was the beheading of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-13).
14 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, 2 and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”
3 Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, 4 for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” 5 Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.
6 On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much 7 that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. 8 Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” 9 The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted 10 and had John beheaded in the prison. 11 His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. 12 John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. 13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns.
My pastor pointed out that after Jesus learned of his cousin’s murder, he “withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place” (Mt 14:13 NIV). There are so many words evoking the need for rest in the last verse: “withdrew,” “by boat,” “privately,” “solitary.” Jesus had to leave the land and go out onto the water so that he could have a moment’s peace. I can’t help thinking of the way that after these highly publicized killing of black men (and a child), the families must be feeling the need to withdraw and mourn and grieve by themselves. Jesus grieved the loss of his cousin, the man who baptized him, the voice in the wilderness that preceded his own coming.
And yet, not even this withdrawal could keep the crowds from Jesus’ side. Matthew goes on to pen the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (five thousand “men, besides women and children,” so all told, it is possible that Jesus fed upwards of fifteen thousand). Jesus “had compassion on [the crowds] and healed their sick” even though he had to return to shore and perform throughout his process of grieving. He returns to a solitary space after the crowds are fed, going up to a mountainside by himself to pray. He has to disturb his grieving process to help others’ process their hunger and their need. I wonder if the families of these black victims have been pushed into a similar place, needing to respond to the pain and trauma of others in the midst of their own.
Jesus has compassion. Jesus does not refuse to help people just because he needs some restoration for himself. He is moved to act, to turn his grieving into a catalyst for feeding those who were hungry. I recently heard a quote (not sure who said it first!) saying, “Change will come when the grieving are agents of social justice.”
So what does this have to do with advent? There’s a lot of waiting going on in this world, a lot of timestamps that are fixed in my brain.
4 ½ minutes: how long Mike Brown’s body lay in the street
8: the number of times Eric Garner said, “I can’t breathe.”
12: the age of Tamir Rice, who was shot before the cop car slowed to a stop.
100+ days: the time the grand jury in Missouri took to find no probable cause to indict Darren Wilson.
And through all of this, there is the waiting for justice. There is the waiting for people’s stories to be shared, heard. There is the waiting for the many racist and bigoted people to stop talking themselves in circles and shut up and listen to people who have been literally dying to be heard. There is the waiting for racial justice in this country…not only equality, but justice. There is the waiting for people to stop telling themselves that the United States is “beyond race”: you only need to look at racialized cartoons of our mixed race black president to see that there is no way in hell that this country is “beyond” race (or class, or sex…and definitely not gender, sexuality, ability, age, or geographic privilege).
All of these thoughts have been swirling in my brain and it’s been hard for me to relax and read my advent devotionals. What can be so hard about that?
The problem is that when I think about advent, it’s not actually possible to relax.
The Gospel is not there so we can relax. Nothing is relaxing about the stories of the struggle for the low to be lifted up. The coming of the Messiah is not so we can relax. Having the savior of the world living a life that got him killed via capital punishment is not relaxing. Jesus never told us to relax, instead he told us that we would suffer for his sake, for the sake of bringing more light to this dark world. And if there ever were a time when we really needed a time of advent, it is now. To me, part of advent is the permission to sit in the dark before the dawn of the light of the world, and contemplate why this world is so broken and so desecrated and why we need God oh-so-badly. Advent is the time period in which I can look at this world in pain and think about how much God’s justice and peace is needed. And this year, the brokenness of this world is ever obvious and prevalent.
O Come Emmanuel, “God with us.” We need you now more than ever.