Advent 01, Year C-2009
- I had heard of you by word of mouth, but now my eye has seen you (Job 42:5)
I question, of course. I ask, “When will I see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory?” Not infrequently, I ask why the Lord stands at a distance and pays no heed to these troubled times—times of high unemployment and severe economic downturn, of growing homelessness and more homes being underwater, not to mention, of arrogant scoundrels still pursuing the poor and trapping them by their cunning schemes all the while boasting, “God doesn’t care, he doesn’t even exist” (Ps. 10). I wonder if there really is a provident God who is in control of the situation.
My taking issue with the Lord sometimes takes the form of envy: I envy the arrogant when I see the prosperity of the wicked (Ps. 73). On occasions, I align myself with those who, in Mal. 3:12-15, defy the Lord by asking something like, “We serve God, but what have we to show for it?”
And while at times I make my own the apostle Paul’s statement that “all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now” as it waits for redemption to be complete (Rom. 8:18-25), sadly, it is doubt and despair that I express rather than faith and hope. No wonder, therefore, that I cower in fear; I cannot stand erect, with hands raised, in joyful and courageous expectation of the redemption that is at hand.
All this questioning, along with doubt and despair, may well be due, I am afraid, to my having exchanged, unwittingly perhaps, the gospel of poverty for a gospel of prosperity. Chances are I have allowed myself to be misled by shepherds who fail to strengthen the weak, to heal the sick and to bind up the injured because they guarantee prosperity for the sheep when they really should alert and prepare them for trials and tribulations (Sermo 46:10-11, the non-biblical reading in the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours for Friday of the Twenty-Fourth Week in Ordinary Time).
It does not help either if I have lost the sense of the imminence, nay, the presence of the kingdom of God. Perhaps it has taken its toll on me, the oft-repeated reminder that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, the preposition “of” being misconstrued as saying that the kingdom does not belong to the world instead of it being seen as indicating simply the origin of the kingdom. There is surely a huge difference between “the kingdom does not derive from this world” and “the kingdom does not belong to the world.” Without a sense of the imminence of the kingdom of God, of its already being present on this earth in mystery, as is taught by Gaudium et Spes, 39, I remain relegated “to helping people into the next life but at the risk of meekly acquiescing to the way things are” (cf. William Reiser, S.J., “The Road from Aguilares,” in the November 16, 2009 issue of America).
For all my groaning and questioning, I may actually like the way things are. Maybe I have gotten too attached to this place of exile, too busy building houses and settling down, planting gardens and eating its fruits, taking wives, begetting sons and daughters, finding wives and husbands for them, and seeking this city’s prosperity (cf. Jer. 29:5-7). Accommodating and making innumerable concessions, I may have all but forgotten that part of the prophet Jeremiah’s instruction that says that after so many years the Lord will come to visit in order to fulfill his promise to bring the exiles back to their true home and to realize his plans to give them a future full of hope elsewhere, in the kingdom where they genuinely belong (cf. Jer. 29:10-11). I have perhaps plunged headlong into the hustle and bustle of being married, of weeping and rejoicing, of buying and owning, of making full use of this world as though it were an enduring city and there were no other to look for (cf. 1 Cor. 7:29-31; Heb. 13:13). My attachment to the world could explain why all my groaning, my painful writhing and crying, is but giving birth to wind (cf. Is. 26:17-18).
There are, however, true and worthwhile birth pangs. In Jn. 16:21-22, Jesus compares his followers’ mourning, weeping and grieving to the anguish of a mother giving birth. The immediately preceding verses make clear that the disciples’ grief will be due to Jesus’ departure and their subsequent separation from him. Verses 2 and 32 surely point out as well, however, that such grief is not altogether unrelated to the separation that is supposed by the dispersal or the scattering of the sheep due to quick excommunication and fanatical persecution.
But whether it is the result of Jesus’ departure or of persecution, grief will be brief. Jesus tells his disciples that a little while and they will no longer see him, and again a little while later and they will see him. The disciples’ grief, in other words, will quickly turn into joy, just as quickly as a mother’s anguish gives way to such joy that she no longer remembers her birth pangs.
Yet more importantly, it seems to me, grief is presented as a necessary moment of the passing over to a stronger and more intimate union that completely excludes questioning and misunderstanding. “On that day,” says Jesus—that is to say, on the day when he will see again his disciples, who are now in anguish, and when their hearts will rejoice in such a way that no one will take their joy away from them—“you will not question me about anything.”
Trials and tribulations, suffering and persecution, open eyes, expand hearts and make for vigilance. I don’t think those who deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Jesus all the way will have any difficulty in seeing Christ enthroned in glory on the cross as David’s just offshoot, who leads us to the city deserving of the name “The Lord our justice” through his death in defense of the poor and in protest against the injustice of oppressors (cf. also Ps. 72). The cross is a revelation of Jesus’ abounding love in which he invites us to share, saying, “Take and eat, take and drink.”
And if I do eat and drink, then I must truly be committed to the poor, ready and willing, as St. Vincent de Paul was, not only to preach the gospel to them but also to comfort them, to respond to their spiritual as well as their temporal needs, to assist them and to have them assisted in every way, by ourselves and by others (cf. P. Coste, XII, 87). “The love of Christ impels us” (2 Cor. 5:14). No ifs or buts. No questions asked.