The photo is from a walk on the 30-day retreat, following a suggestion from my director to enjoy the contrariness of a warm blizzard. In much the same way, this piece (the first of a four part series reflecting on the ways the prophetic call speaks to us in Advent) considers the contrariness of Advent's stillness and hecticness.
This piece appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times on 11 November 2010.
Lift up your eyes and look. For who made the stars but He who drills them like an army calling each one by name. So mighty is His power, so great His strength, that not one fails to answer. — Isaiah 40:26
“Why does this time of year have to be so crazy?” lamented my friend. He longed for time to sit, like Mary, with the unfolding mystery of the Incarnation but instead faced a veritable firestorm of commitments. Papers to grade, faculty meetings to attend and exams to write were balanced precariously on top of a frantic round of social activities and holiday commitments, while the routine demands of life struggled to make their presence known.
I pointed out to my childless friend that my experience as an expectant mother suggested that the last few weeks leading up to the birth of Jesus were probably not all that contemplative for Mary either.
A first-time mother, unsure of precisely when this baby will be born, or even how to be sure that the time is near, in a community that is rife with rumors about this child and perhaps less than supportive, preparing for and then undertaking an arduous journey with her new husband? All this in the days before you could buy packages of onesies and disposable diapers at the big box store or get FedEx to deliver a last minute item? I imagine that, at times, Mary felt as frazzled and stretched as we do in these last weeks before Christmas.
I admit that I, too, covet the stillness and peace that Advent so richly advertises in its hymns and psalms. May peace be within your walls, we sing in the psalm this first Sunday of Advent. I’ve tried in the past for a stance of extravagant “unbusyness” in this frantic season. A small dose of agere contra, a “pushing against” the external social cues, I have elected to watch and wait more than dash and dance through these Advent days.
It’s a radical notion, but one that I’ve recently begun to wonder might also be more than a bit rash. Have I romanticized Advent? In turning away from the hecticness could I be missing something God is trying to show me?
Jesuit Father Alfred Delp, whose moving reflections on Advent were written while he was imprisoned and awaiting execution by the Nazis and smuggled out with the laundry, pulls out a similar thread to contemplate. Delp begins with the stark statement, “Advent is the time for rousing.” He goes on to point out, “The kind of awakening that literally shocks a person’s whole being is part and parcel of the Advent idea.”
Throughout Advent, we hear in the readings at Mass from the prophets: Malachi, Jeremiah, Zephaniah and above all from Isaiah. Certainly the prophets speak of peace, but less as a present reality and more as a hope and a challenge. The prophets came to rouse people.
Rabbi Abraham Herschel, in his book The Prophets points out, “Reading the words of the prophets is a strain on the emotions, wrenching one’s conscience from the state of suspended animation.” Shudder, you complacent ones, says Isaiah (Is. 49:2).
The Church feeds with the prophets in this season, not to bring us on tip toe to a softly lit manger, but to strain us, shake us, to upend things completely. We are walking toward an encounter with God incarnate, who calls the stars — and us — with such strength, who could fail to answer? This is the moment that, as Delp says, “Humanity will be shaken to its very depth.” God will dwell among us. The might and power that creates and moves the stars will become man.
We are not shaken without purpose. We hear the prophets of old to learn how to live as prophets now. We are sealed at our baptism with the oil of chrism, and in the doing, brought into Christ’s prophetic mission. The very name of the sacrament comes from the Greek word for “plunge” — surely a shock to the system. Prophets listen, call out, pour forth. They do not fail to answer.
As Advent begins, I’m seeking not a hushed stillness but the grace of a steady gaze that does not turn away from the tumultuous and the unsettling. Can I let the voices of Isaiah and Jeremiah in the liturgy wrench me out of my usual paths and turn my ear toward the world, to the place where God chose to dwell in time? Can I awaken to the Voice that drills the stars like armies? Advent is a time for rousing.
God of power and mercy, open our hearts in welcome. Remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy, so that we may share His wisdom and become one with Him when he comes in glory, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. — Opening prayer for the First Sunday in Advent