by Vitor Westhelle
Professor of Systematic Theology
"Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer." Ps 19:14
We live by faith not by sight! Right? By faith we live, not by sight, because what we see is dismal, frustrating, disappointing. Or is it really? I was wondering about this gospel text where words like "sign," "see," "look" are repeated just about every other verse, and not a single word about faith. Why are we invited to behold and expect to see this apocalyptic cosmic calamity, when we already live by faith? Things don't look so bad after all. We believe, and that is more than enough. And every year at this time of advent Christmas decor give colors to the great season, family visits are waited for, a break in a busy schedule is expected, all preparing us to sing Silent Night to welcome the sweet babe Jesus.
So, I ask myself: What is an apocalyptic text proclaiming fear and forebodings doing in a nice cozy season like advent? Have we not seen enough already? Still engraved in our minds are the scenes from the twin towers being hit by airplanes. And where was the triumphant and glorious return of Jesus for us to rejoice? But, thankfully, it did not take long for the media to cleanse the images, keep them out of sight; and faith abides.
Yes, we heard about soldiers dying in Iraq or Afghanistan, but the bodies, the caskets were kept from our gaze and orderly interred somewhere and we are spared from the carnage; and faith abides. Yes, precise and clear computer graphs of the plunging market at Wall Street last year were telecast for all to see, but in fact it is not with the same definition that we have seen the actual victims and casualties it brought about; and faith abides.
Yes, we might have seen some red lines in our school's budget and read the announcement of others being sold and people losing jobs, but we are assured that this is an opportunity to re-invent ourselves while the market bounces back, all the while keeping out of sight the victims and casualties of this "war"; and faith abides.
Yes, we have heard about global warming and watched Al Gore's documentary telling us of the apocalypse, but we don't see with the same resolution those who have been first affected, already afflicted, and will continue to be those who will pay the highest price for the carbon monoxide emitted; and yet faith abides.
Yes, we indeed see many things, but are awesomely helped by an engineered tunnel vision aimed at fostering what has been called, "the culture of official optimism." And the beautiful affirmation that we indeed live by faith not by sight, becomes a mockery, and faith is hope deferred. Monty Python's movie "Life of Brian," is a sarcastic parody of the life of Jesus, but in fact is much more a sardonic commentary on the present culture. At the end of the movie, Brian, the main character, with dozens of others being crucified start to jingle in chorus while trying a dancing movement: "Always look on the bright side of life." (If my memory serves me right, those were not exactly the words of Jesus on the cross.)
Tradition has it that advent was instituted into the church calendar as a response to the mockery the small and persecuted Christian communities suffered when people guffawed at them and their apocalyptic imagery, as the one in the gospel of today, saying: "That will never happen, so Jesus won't come." The cosmic catastrophe was made into a comic fantasy. And it continues to happen through means and devices that create shows and displays that shield us from seeing the apocalypse now, which means, the revelation of the Christ in the midst of the crises of our days. We are skilled in hiding these crises. We hide them so that we don’t see them, while being entertained by distractions that keep us from seeing what is indeed happening amidst us where lives are damaged and creation violated.
We need to remember that this text of the gospel presents words of Jesus said on the eve of that great cosmic calamity that we call the Passion, the apocalypse of Jesus Christ, when the very sun lost its light and the earth shook. And that very generation saw happening what had been foretold barely some days earlier. Indeed that generation did not pass until that happened.
And the community to whom Luke was writing, remembering the words of Jesus, was a community living in persecution and martyrdom. They knew what was being said because they were living what Jesus had told would happen to them as well. That generation also saw what was foretold. The future tense in Jesus' words on the eve of his passion soon came to pass for him, and the same words became the present tense for the community of the cross to whom Luke was writing.
The point of the gospel is no longer the time it will happen, but when is the moment we are ready to see where Jesus the Christ comes, where the Christ event takes place in our midst. In the calamities he comes; in the margins that we hide he comes; in the pain of the world he comes; into the room of an ill child he comes; into prisons and hospices he comes. Even into our tombs or the ashes of our cremation he comes, for he has descended into the dead. Even there he comes, there is advent.
Indian poet and Noble laureate of a century past, Rabindranath Tagore, could not be more Christologically grounded (and Lutheran for that matter) when he wrote this poem:
Have you not heard his silent steps? He comes, comes, ever comes.
Every moment and every age, every day and every night he comes, comes, ever comes. Many a song have I sung in many a mood of mind, but all their notes have always proclaimed, "He comes, comes. Ever comes."
In sorrow after sorrow it is his steps that press upon my heart, and it is the golden touch of his feet that makes my joy to shine.
It takes faith to have sight! It takes courage and attentiveness to see that from which we flee. It takes resolution and alertness not to beautify, to give a face-lift to the apocalypse in the midst of which we live and have our being. It takes indeed the boldness of trust to look at the revelation of the Christ now in every place where the Christ in the flesh indwells, as once it happened in a barn among dung, flies, stinky animals, not to mention a crying baby in dirty diapers. Indeed he comes and keeps coming and this is what we celebrate in advent, that which comes and reveals itself in the midst of the apocalypse.
This is the message of advent: It is not "wait in expectation", but rather awaken, be alert, take heed of the signs of the time and never forget to be attentive to the signs of the places where the apocalypse is taking place, revelation is happening (and not postponed or deferred) because there we meet our God in the flesh, in the stuff of this world.
Salvation there is in store for those who, because of their faith, are able to see. There we meet our redeemer in the midst of the entrails of this world. This is what it means to live by faith not by sight; or rather we live by faith in order to see, not a distraction, but a promise that this generation of you and me will not pass for those who are awake and attentive to see what takes place and trust the glory that comes from the unexpected.
Be ready to meet God in the midst of the filth of a barn crying in dirty diapers. God keeps coming; she ever comes. And there is God's advent, which might be here, beside us. In this we truly rejoice. And we confess, as Simeon did in looking at the poor little bastard child: "my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples." (Luke 2:31) In this faith there is sight.