The politics of this contemporary moment in the United States are as bleak as they have ever been in my lifetime. I fear, and I don’t believe that I’m being overly dramatic here, that we are living through the collapse of progressive democracy. We are living in a world in which a small conservative minority is impoverishing the majority and where our most vulnerable are ignored and oppressed. This week alone, I’ve called my representatives about net neutrality, CHIP, and the sinful tax act. Even while I’m exercising my rights as a citizen to speak out, I am sadly convinced that those calls for justice and mercy will be largely ignored by my representatives who will continue to vote against the well-being of their constituents.
In this season, clergy are called upon to stand before the congregation and proclaim that hope is born anew into the world. Our faith reminds us that no matter how bleak the world feels, new life and redemption will be born again into our midst. I can, with enough prayer, and a few advent hymns, get myself into the Christmas spirit and I can preach that sermon. But it takes some work to sustain this positive and hopeful energy outside the confines of the church service. It is nearly impossible for me to connect that hope to the literal, concrete expression of our American political life.
Ostensibly, advent teaches us to sustain hope. During advent, we are supposed to learn the spiritual practice of waiting upon the Lord; to anticipate hope and peace even when they are nowhere in sight. I’ve always appreciated the way the lectionary ties the very common experience of pregnancy to the eschatological waiting of the second coming of Christ. In reality, though, eschatological hope gets short shrift. I can’t remember the last advent sermon I preached, or heard preached, on the second coming. Eschatological hope lacks the concrete specificity of pregnancy. We know what it means for the Christ child to be born, but it is hard to imagine what we’re talking about when we talk about Christ come again. Unlike my brothers and sisters in more conservative theological traditions who have a well defined script for the return of Christ to the earth, for me it is about redemption, but I don’t even know what I mean when I say that. Eschatological hope is the hope the God has this and is working toward a vision of humanity that, even if I can’t see or imagine, I can trust it.
Advent as it is practiced is about Christmas. In theory, like Isaiah, I long for liberty for captives and release to prisoners. One week later, I rejoice that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light! This year, literally one day later, Jesus is born. At this speed, I can’t say that advent has taught me the spiritual task of sustaining hope during times of hopelessness. I barely have time to notice hope. Like my actual pregnancies, there is just so much to do and so little time, the season becomes a blur that I remember with a hazy romantic light. I haven’t learned to sustain hope, but I have learned to multitask.
This year, I’ve had to truly face the reality that whatever it is I am hoping for, at least in the political realm, isn’t likely to be brought about in the next year, or maybe three years, or maybe even longer. The speed of advent belies the fact that waiting on the Lord is tough—a marathon, not a sprint. I wonder, as matter of spiritual practice, if we might be better off shifting away from pregnancy and toward the longer, harder anticipation of a redemption we cannot see or imagine or fully know. We need to practice the hope of the prophets; an eschatological hope in which we acknowledge that what we wait for will not come in a couple of days or weeks or maybe even in our lifetime.
James urges us to take as our example the Old Testament prophets who suffered and showed endurance. He points us toward Job and reminds us that this example of suffering and endurance is named as blessing. This isn’t the hazy romantic hope of pregnancy. It is a hope deeply embedded in the experience of suffering and social and political despair. This year, it feels like the advent I need. It is the advent that will push me to continue to make phone calls, to organize for justice, to build coalitions around the needs of the most vulnerable, even while I fear redemption may be a long way off.
Elizabeth Hakken Candido is an ordained Presbyterian (USA) Pastor who currently serves as the College Chaplain and Director of Religious & Spiritual Life at Kalamazoo College. Liz lives in Kalamazoo, MI with her husband Bob who is a pilot. They have two daughters, Clara and Abigail. Liz blogs at collegechaplainclergy.com
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