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.
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.
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
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.