Have you noticed that people seem to have put up their Christmas trees, house lights, and decorations a lot earlier than usual this year? A lot of us are feeling a deep need, I think, to do whatever we can to force some cheer into these final days of a desperately difficult year. Even when it comes to Advent practices, there is a strong temptation to focus on themes of hope alone—without taking time to feel into the sorrows and sufferings that make us yearn for the coming of Emmanuel.
I serve a network of grassroots leaders in vulnerable urban communities in Cascadia and beyond. As we near the end of this painful year that 2020 has been, we in the Street Psalms community are learning to see Advent as an invitation to learn to wait in difficult spaces. I’ve come to think of these four spaces in terms of:
Apocalypse, Wilderness, Low Ground, and Public Shame
In some ways these are themes that seem jarring when set against the normal celebratory mood of the season. Yet because they help us to engage truth, they might also help us to discover new understanding, new life, and healing if we are willing to engage them—and willing to stay present in the contemplative spaces that each theme represents.
As we think about them in the Street Psalms context, these four spaces reflect the myriad struggles faced all the time by those who live in vulnerable urban communities. Yet applied more broadly, they give all of ways to make sense of the challenges facing contemporary society as a whole. For many of us, this last year has seemed like an endless onslaught of 21st century plagues—including COVID 19 of course, but also the exposure of racial injustices, expanding social and economic inequities, increasing impacts of climate change, growing spiritual anemia, and rampant fear of the Other at all levels of society. Our world seems fraught with troubles, and increasingly volatile. Even our relatively bucolic corner of the world here in Cascadia has been wracked with anxiety and grief.
And so we enter these spaces to consider: Apocalypse, Wilderness, Low Ground, and Public Shame—and to await the hope of Christmas. Yet let’s be clear: these are not spaces to be merely endured and passed through, nor can the truths they represent be studied from a safe, academic distance. To yield their gifts, each space must be occupied, engaged, experienced. As Pope Francis puts it, the only way to come out of the current mess better than when we went in is to let ourselves be “touched by others’ pain.” That’s exactly what we encounter in these spaces of waiting—our pain and the pain of others. By staying fully present to the waiting, we might just become poets and prophets of a different way—a way that makes us all more fully human. Ultimately in these spaces, we seek to encounter the One for whom we so desperately hope:
Emmanuel. God with us.
First week of Advent: Apocalypse
Mark 13: 24-37
In the space of Apocalypse, we wait with Mark:
“In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mark 13:24-25)
It used to seem odd to me that this gloomy prophecy is one of the traditional passages that initiates the Advent season. It’s taken me awhile to see the wisdom of this, but in 2020 I have come to see that it mirrors the Gospel’s relentless commitment to name reality and to stay present in it. I confess that I sometimes have a tenuous relationship with reality. I spend a lot of my time and energy trying to avoid it, deny it, reject it, or suppress it. Yet avoidance and denial, with illusion, is a recipe for disaster—and that is perhaps what Mark is trying to tell us. The theme of Apocalypse provides us an opportunity to change our relationship to reality. It’s an invitation to turn and face it, and let it give its gift.
Given the terrifying images associated with apocalypse, it might help to know that the word “apocalypse” simply means “unveiling.” Apocalypse is about seeing things as they are and waking up to truth. In that sense, 2020 has certainly been an apocalyptic year. Among the hard realities we’ve been awakened to is the deep cultural disunity that now marks American society; the myth of a truly United States has been called into question. Yet because that is the truth, we have no way through except to live into the sorrow of disillusionment. Only then can there be the possibility of a different future.
That’s what apocalyptic literature does. It opens us up to the fact that things are falling apart—hardly a revelation by itself, especially to the most vulnerable among us who already live this truth. Yet when we all embrace the sorrow of revelation, we also become aware of the promise of something more: the promise of the Son of Man (Mark 13:26).
Depending on how we read the text, this could be more terrifying than falling stars and shaking heavens. Many have read Mark’s words to suggest that suffering and darkness preclude the imminent arrival of an angry God. When we read the text this way, through the eyes of fear, that is exactly the picture we get. But when we read these texts through the eyes of love, a different, more life-giving scenario emerges—one that sparks in us the possibility of a more hopeful, more beautiful future.
Anaïs Nin observed, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” And this is the real challenge of waiting in the space of Apocalypse. We tend to see God not as God is, but rather as we are—and for most of us, that is a terrifying prospect. The whole purpose of the Incarnation is to change our perception of reality . . . to help us to see God for who God is, and ourselves for who we are. This can only happen through what Father William Burghardt called “a long, loving look at the real.”
In the space of Apocalypse then, we wait for the clarity of vision and the courage to see things as they truly are. Only then do we make ourselves ready to receive what Apocalypse has for us. There is a gift being given, and it is better than anything we could possibly ask for or imagine. God sends us an infant, whose cries in the night disturb and disrupt our illusions, and call us to sustain a long, loving look at the real.
Second week of Advent: Wilderness
In the space of Wilderness, we find ourselves waiting with John the Baptist and the prophet Isaiah:
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'” (Mark 1:2, 3)
In the imagination of Israel, wilderness is the barren place that longs for the garden of life to spring forth. It is also the place of endless wandering that never seems to arrive at a destination.
If Apocalypse is about facing our fears and the illusions that fear creates, Wilderness is about facing elements of barrenness in life, and the aimless wandering that has us, like the Israelites, seemingly going nowhere.
In this dreadful year of the pandemic, there are many—especially those who have not yet been directly impacted by the virus—who have chosen to downplay the enormity of our collective losses. Others cling to the fantasy that it’s all a hoax, making believe that there is no wilderness in defiance of their surroundings. Yet it is in the space of Wilderness that we are exhorted to feel, for ourselves and with others, the futility of wasted days and ravaged economies . . . and to mourn the loss of so many lives needlessly lost to a plague that will only get worse before it gets better. And while we cling to the hope that it will get better, in order to counter the soul-weariness that threatens to overwhelm us, we mustn’t give in to the soul-numbing pretense that we aren’t in the midst of a disaster.
When we find the strength to wait in Wilderness, in due time we discover another gift. We find a longing deep at the center of our being—a longing so deep and so real that we realize at once: it is both a gift from outside ourselves, even as it emerges from within the substance of our own being. Deep calls to deep, and our desire for life, even (and especially) in the midst of death springs forth. And that desire resonates with the relentless delight of God to call forth new creation, everywhere and in all things, even in the most desperate places.
The ache itself becomes a kind of sweetness. Wilderness becomes a space of paradoxical tension between our deep life-longing, and reconciliation to the barrenness of present circumstances. If we wait there long enough, we might even begin to see the faint outlines of a garden in the wilderness. We begin to see in the vast wasteland a pathway to a more beautiful place. We sense an end to wandering as we learn to walk in hope, and to believe that we make the road by walking. As we understand God’s purpose in Wilderness to awaken such desire, we stand to gain a vision of beauty coexisting with barrenness.
Third week of Advent: Low Ground
When we enter the space for contemplating the Low Ground, we wait with Mary:
“’He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.’” (Luke 1:48)
If the first two Advent themes leave us wondering if perhaps God holds our humanity at arm’s length, in Mary’s story we sense a decisive shift toward vulnerability, intimacy, and a deep embrace of our humanity. In this space we are in the presence of the sacred feminine.
It is in this place that we hear the voice of Mary describing what it’s like to find “favor” in the place of “lowliness.” Of course, Mary is not low in any objective sense; she is low because she’s been made low by the large part of humanity that was (and still is) terrified by feminine presence—a presence that exerts bottom-up relational power that inverts and disrupts the dynamics of a top-down, transactional world. In the process of societal healing, we will need this presence to help us understand the hubris, the moral bankruptcy, and the ultimate impotence of autocratic national leadership that has oppressed, disheartened, and discouraged so many. It’s a kind of power that we are only beginning to learn the genius of—and the salvation of the world may well depend on how quickly we might embrace it.
In the Street Psalms’ work of developing leaders, we like to say, “Grace is like water; it flows downhill and pools up in the lowest places.” And where grace gathers, life springs forth. Mary occupies the Low Ground, and invites us to consider: The goodness and mercy this world longs for may be a gift from above, but it is born from below. Its ultimate expression is in the Incarnation.
It is in the Low Ground that Mary finds herself found by God. She is seen by God with “favor”, and she discovers that she is not only loved by God, but genuinely liked by the Creator. In the low ground, something happens in her; the very ground of her being shifts.
In that shift, her soul does something very strange: her soul “magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46). Mary magnifies God. She makes God bigger. Is this something we can comprehend? The passage seems to suggest that the more we relax into God’s affection and accept our own “likeability,” the bigger God gets. And when love breaks through to the human heart in its lowest state, not only do we expand; in a sense the whole universe expands along with us.
Fourth week of Advent: Public Shame
Again we sit with Mary when we wait in the space of Public Shame.
“Mary was much perplexed. . . . The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid.’” (Luke 1:29-30)
The angel comes to Mary and tells her she is “favored” and will bear a son. Of course, the conditions surrounding her conception will be disputed by her community. Even 2,000 years later we can hear the rumors spreading, “Exactly whose son is this anyway?” Joseph, her soon to be husband, considers sending her away quietly so as to lessen the public shaming that is bound to come. No wonder then that, in the moment of annunciation, the angel takes such pains to speak to Mary’s fear and confusion at what is about to unfold.
In response to his assurances, Mary utters the immortal words, “’Here I am. . . . Let it be. . . .’” (Luke 1:38).
Here I am. In Mary’s response to God she shows herself to be located, rooted, and real. She knows she is somebody. She stands before the Creator of the universe without fear.
Let it be. Mary speaks as someone who has believed and embraced God’s favor toward her. She has internalized it so deeply that she can now accept the public shame that is about to come with the dignity and grace that deserves our adoration.
In 2020, a new movement of truth-speaking was sparked when we witnessed the public shaming of George Floyd. That image of him lying pinned to the ground, slowly dying, has been seared into our collective soul. What is becoming increasingly obvious to more and more of us is that the shame George Floyd was forced to bear was not his shame, but ours—the shame of a society that has collectively refused to deal with the deep historical, cultural roots of sin.
Mary chooses to believe that her shame will be redeemed as part of God’s ultimate restorative, revolutionary purposes. She internalizes God’s message of favor and from it draws courage. She lets the favor of her own belovedness give birth to a love that not only occupies shame, but heals it—a love that reconciles both shamed and shamer alike.
Christmas is coming, and soon after, the end of 2020. In a year that most of us would like to forget, let us not forget. Rather, let us find courage and patience to wait in the spaces of sorrow, pain, loss, and shame long enough to become fully, deeply aware of our correspondingly great need—and our only hope:
O come, o come . . . Emmanuel.