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Entries to Advent

By Kathy Coffey

Last Advent we were in mourning, living with the aftermath of the horrors of September 11. This Advent, we need to focus on signs of hope for the future.

Q U I C K S C A N

Humanity Is Fragile
Looking Back
Looking Forward
We Name the Bridge Incarnation

Entries to Advent

Illustration by
Matt Manley


Last Advent was draped in purple. The mourning for families of September 11 victims who died in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., extended around the world. Recession struck hard; reports from Afghanistan were depressing; Israelis and Palestinians seemed locked in endless struggle. While there was success on the military front, the threat of U.S. casualties and the civilian Afghan sufferings tempered any joy one might feel in the fall of the Taliban.

For many Americans, it was the first dramatic experience of need: deep-rooted, soul-scraping, gut-plumbing need. We were defenseless, with conflicts no therapist could resolve and losses no mall could alleviate.

The president’s exhortations to buy stuff rang hollow and the carols sounded tinny. It was tempting to talk back to the advertisers: “C’mon! You really think a new sweater will erase the horror of September 11? Are you shallow and greedy enough to suggest that a DVD player will cheer legitimate sorrow?”

We were sunk deep in sadness, beyond the power of hype to console. Perhaps that is the way to begin the Advent season. We needed more than any human could offer. We needed a savior.

While some may want to bury last year in tinsel and make merry “the way it usedta be,” many still mourn. Others who did not lose family members or friends can still learn much from that somber season. Before we barrel back to the shopping and the spending and the partying, let’s consider the purple tones of last Advent.

Humanity Is Fragile

John Dear, S.J., described his work coordinating 600 chaplains of all denominations at Ground Zero. Every ferryboat approaching the site carried 65 relatives or friends of the deceased and two chaplains. His voice softened as he spoke of those broken, grieving families—an echo of the pietà.

While we might hesitate to admit it, they represent all humanity. Everything we love is fragile; little endures. At some time or another, all of us will visit our own sad burial grounds. Each one will view the devastation of what we presumed was permanent. If we are honest, we’ll recognize the shock of human limitations.

Then if we are graced, we will look beyond ourselves. We will turn to the mystery of what we do not know and beg the heavens to drop down the dew of the just one. We will sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with heartfelt yearning, knowing how desperately we need God-with-us. The desire or the song or the unsettled feeling help create the threshold to Christmas.

Looking Back

One special image of last Advent—the bridge—gives us new ways to think about the mystery we encounter every year. In New York City, metaphorical bridges abounded. The firefighter or police officer running into the World Trade Center offered a bridge to those escaping. Mychal Judge, O.F.M., who died as he anointed a firefighter, symbolized the ritual bridging into eternity. The arm of the blood donor reaching out to pour life into a vial became a frail and generous human bridge.

On the other side of the world, the bridge image took on a different meaning. In Afghanistan, refugees lived in bedraggled camps, a thin sheet of plastic their only protection from snow and wind. A half million displaced people, the victims of war and drought, approached the end of their endurance. Children and elderly people were dying of starvation and exposure.

Yet across the border in Uzbekistan, tons of humanitarian aid lay unused. International agencies waiting to rush in were frustrated by the Uzbeki government’s refusal to open the only bridge that spanned the river into Afghanistan. Understandably, Uzbek leaders feared Taliban infiltrators and bandits crossing the other way.

It epitomized stalemate: trucks filled with food, government resistance. Meanwhile, thousands waited, dying. If we ever wonder why it was necessary for God to become human, we may have our answer here. Someone needed to merge the human/divine divide. Someone more than human needed to bring us bread and life.

The scene is a dustier, sadder version of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, where Michelangelo portrayed God extending a finger to Adam’s. Their two hands together form the bridge that breaks the stalemate.

Last year, Advent was shadowed by Lent. Cardinal Godfried Daneels of Brussels, peering into the World Trade Center pit, likened it to the wound in the side of Christ, from which poured blood and water, grace and redemption. Heroism and compassion emerged at the site of crisis and pain.

Jesus’ words to his friends during the Agony in the Garden were a disarmingly simple call into the paradox of death and salvation. An echo resonated in the final words of Todd Beamer before Flight 93 crashed in western Pennsylvania: “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll....” Beamer’s statement is broadly interpreted as a signal to attack the hijackers, try to take over the jet and, in the end, die as they saved other lives.

Looking Forward

So how do we live Advent in the aftermath of September 11, 2001? That terrible day gave us not only images of horror, but also those of hope. This Advent, we can look back in order to move more clearly forward. Perhaps in Advent 2002, we ourselves can become the bridges: between the riches of our spiritual heritage and the profound human need, between the feuding members of our own families, between our inner and outer worlds, between the unreconciled parts of ourselves.

Our outreach to the sullen nephew or estranged relative may not have the dramatic flair of the firefighter’s rescue. But it may be almost as courageous. The movements of God within us and beyond us create a beautiful bridge, as the word of God spoken to us and incarnated within us spills over into daily life.

We cannot forget the World Trade Center’s compelling vision of what is always true: Every minute is a risk as we bridge into the unknown. If we are to approach the future without fear, we must be nurtured with images of hope. The role of every parent is to give a child the dignity and grace which carries through any door, over any bridge. Likewise, the world’s great religions have always given people confidence to transcend their anxieties and move ahead.

For Christians, that encouragement comes from Jesus. We can all relate to the desperation of John the Baptist who hurls a question from a dank prison cell: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3). Locked in our personal cages—the dead-end job, the relationship gone sour, the financial ruin, the illness, addiction, depression or grief—we too cast about for reasons to hope.

John asks for a lifeline; Jesus sends a braided cord, responding that “the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them” (Matthew 11:5). Wonderfully, he does not send the prisoner a message that is cryptic or abstract. “I am who am” won’t satisfy a man in chains. Instead, Jesus gives John enough radiant examples to light the darkest dungeon.

Let’s focus on these bright beacons when we’re tempted to fret over the gingerbread house. One thing we might carry as a bridge from last year into this is a discomfort with holiday frills, the buy/spend/bad-taste version of Christmas. In other years, we tolerated or ignored it. Last year it was a glaring affront to the tragedy. Perhaps this is as it should be. We were particularly sensitized then to the chasm between religious and commercial interpretations of the feast.

We Name the Bridge Incarnation

A good Advent motto might be “Mind your head,” a warning posted on London subways to prevent bumping one’s noggin. It sensitizes us to the dissonance between gospel values and the surrounding culture. It directs us to spend more time in the blue shadows of a quiet walk outdoors, less in the mall. It leads us to choose a vespers service over another tired television special. It does not demand a flight to a monastery, but simply withdrawing to one’s room for prayer.

Each of us can savor what Elizabeth Johnson describes as God’s “inestimable largesse” in that stillness in Friends of God and Prophets: “God’s unfathomable splendor drawing near and passing by to create and to beautify, to heal, redeem and liberate the beloved world.”

No matter how sunken the human need, God who aches to share our experience carves a bridge. We respond: Two hands meet. We name the bridge Incarnation and cross it to celebrate Christmas.

 

Kathy Coffey is the author of 10 books on spirituality, including God In the Moment: Making Every Day a Prayer (Loyola Press). She lives with her family in Denver, Colorado.

 

 


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