Part One of Four Parts
A friend recently asked me for the key to success in surviving a child’s thirteenth year. She told me she ate some truly nasty broccoli at dinner one night in a desperate attempt to do something good for herself. She swallowed the stuff in the hope that it would help her live long enough to see her son become the parent of a thirteen-year-old.
Longevity and sheer perseverance have a lot to do with justice and salvation. If you can live long enough, you may see the triumph of good with your own eyes. Being able to hang on, to wait through periods when all seems turned against you, to survive and prevail is a central activity of a Christian.
Some pastors struggle to get congregations to sing the more somber and penitential advent hymns before the favorite Christmas carols. I am not surprised. Our culture’s mindless celebration of Christmas distorts the basic truth of the season, namely, our need for redemption and what might be required of us to receive it. We gloss over our appalling sin and ruin, skip past the eager groan of creation’s need for healing. We drug ourselves against the suffering of dark nights. We grow numb and fall asleep before the TV instead of keeping alert and obedient watch for God’s saving action in our lives. We succumb to the temptation to consume more and more as we race to gratify desires.
In contrast, Christ tells us that here is where we are to linger, to stay awake, to wait and be ready,
here in the bleak and barren heart of our need.
Timing is everything. Should one push, move ahead and make something happen or lay low, wait, and watch for the hand of the Lord to act? Tolerating ambiguity, not knowing and uncertainty can be excruciating. In our anxiety and fear we may take things into our own hands.
As a general rule of discernment, when in doubt, wait. The stance of faith waits, trusts, praises, and gives thanks. Faith joined with love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.
Why is that hard for us? Perhaps we fear that we won’t be vindicated, that our longing will not be fulfilled, that our cause will not redeemed, that things will not be made right and goodness will not prevail.
My friend with the thirteen-year-old told me her family motto: “Learn to bear what must be borne.” This stern admonition carries for me a puritanical severity, a life of gritted teeth, pursed lips, and making the best of one trial after another. But when I shared the proverb with another friend, “What a great theme for advent,” she exclaimed, seeing a possibility I had missed. My understanding shifted from regarding what must be borne as some heavy load and having to slog along through life like a drudge to the exhilarating task of the labor and delivery of a baby.
“Love in real life is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” observed Dostoevsky. The advent season invites us to the harsh and dreadful task of giving birth to a love that will ask more of us than we thought we could bear. Learning to bear the one who must be born, the Christ, into our lives, families, communities, and world requires us to wait, persevere, and overcome fear with faith.
As the promises of God are delivered through our lives, we can rejoice with St. Simeon, whom Orthodox Christians call “The God Receiver.” Old Simeon was waiting to see the Christ before he died. Led by the Spirit, Simeon showed up at the temple when Mary and Joseph brought their son to present him to the Lord, according to the law of Moses. Taking the infant into his arms with a heart full of love and eyes full of tears, the old man uttered these words:
Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace,
according to Your word,
for my eyes have seen Your salvation,
a Light to lighten the Gentiles,
the Glory of Your people Israel.