After having a chance to celebrate Thanksgiving in as normal a way as we know how, returning with mixed caution to many of our pre-COVID traditions and routines, venturing from the safety of home despite the hassle of airports and traffic and surging gasoline prices, gathering once again with loved ones unmasked and in close quarters, sharing handshakes and hugs, eating from a common spread, filling the air with lively conversation and rowdy laughter and perhaps spontaneous song, we are just grateful to have emerged at the other end of this long dark night humbled but resilient, the danger held at bay somewhat for all who keep vigilant and who have taken advantage of the vaccine. Believing this ordeal would be short-lived, we had hoped for a swift return at long last to what was familiar and predictable. We cannot deny we are exhausted and eager for good news, that we can finally set aside our fears, drop our guard, pick up where we left off, and go our merry way or live happily ever after, whichever we prefer.
But if the past 2 years has exposed just how far off course modern civilization has strayed, for the most part it is those who truly believe life was already grand before COVID who will be content to simply return to life as it was before, like some mighty oceangoing vessel resuming a routine journey after dodging a dangerous storm or sea monster inconveniently obstructing its path and impeding its progress. We would be wrong to think everyone is equally content to just return to life before COVID or before the last presidential election or before climate change or religious extremism or illegal immigration or the opioid epidemic or clergy sexual abuse or Roe v. Wade or AIDS or some other scourge in history that has profoundly altered our calm idyllic landscape. Simply returning to that very same life at any one point in history will likely still leave a significant portion of society immersed in untold darkness and hardship and grief. The desire to just return to what we consider normal is comforting only to those for whom normal was acceptable. Conversely, a radical disruption and overthrow of what we consider normal might sound more like good news for those already facing harrowing adversity under tremendously challenging and unjust conditions.
When in the gospel we read about terrifying signs shaking the heavens leaving nations in dismay and people dying of fright in anticipation of widespread chaos, we might see these disruptions as threatening and unwelcome. If we ever were content living in our present situation, we would consider turmoil of any kind to be bad news. But for people living every day with overwhelming fear, senseless suffering, and unrelenting injustice, for people weighed down every day by crippling poverty, the constant threat of violence, and a glaring lack of opportunity, any disruption of their daily soul-crushing normal would be the long-awaited answer to their prayers.
When you have a pounding migraine or a bout of food poisoning, all you want is peaceful sleep. When bombs are falling all around, the dark night will feel endless while the dawn that heralds a new day can’t come soon enough. And when you’re drowning in wave upon wave of inconsolable grief, death’s embrace may feel as a welcome friend.
In the face of Israel’s devastating defeat and exile and with nowhere else to turn, the prophet Jeremiah spoke of God’s steadfast mercy and consolation, that God would fulfil his promises to restore a broken people to safety and security. St. Paul encourages the Christian community of Thessalonika to hold fast to the instructions he had given them on how to live in a manner pleasing to God despite the hardships and injustices they endured. When we admit defeat and welcome despair, we compound our fear and helplessness. We declare that our ancestors were misled all along and our children should do well to abandon the faith in which they were raised. But Jesus reminds us to stay the course, stand tall and confident, and brush aside indifference and anxiety. “Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Perhaps Advent is a reminder that we should not get complacent. With the news of a new COVID variant, we are in for another terrifying wild ride. We will demand healthcare professionals continue making enormous sacrifices while some among us spread misinformation or complain that we must shoulder our share of inconvenience. And despite a guilty verdict victims of senseless violence will still not go home to their loved ones. And a wrongly convicted man who spent 43 years behind bars is ineligible for any state compensation despite that miscarriage of justice. There will be a lot of yelling and screaming, denunciations and divisiveness. And some people will use the opportunity to feed the flames of hatred and incite the mob to violence. But you and I can choose to remain calm. Much more work gets done when your heart isn’t racing, and your hair isn’t on fire. And we might more genuinely recognize the deep darkness and senseless suffering and overwhelming injustice that many others around us live with every day. We can hold firm and strengthen one another. Despair and defeat are not welcome among those who call themselves disciples of Jesus.
And we won’t just long for a return to normal anymore because when normal wasn’t acceptable for many before, it still won’t be acceptable to just go back. We cling to hope and pray with our sisters and brothers who must endure suffering and injustice that God’s promises to his people will be fulfilled. And with the first candle of the Advent wreath we declare that we accomplish far more by lighting a candle than by cursing the darkness.
Rolo B Castillo © 2021