Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Hope of Advent

“He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”
John 1:7

The Reverend Luther Zeigler

Come, Lord Jesus, open our eyes to your Light, overcome the darkness that sometimes befalls us, and brighten our lives with the Hope that only you can bring; who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.  Amen.
It is the third Sunday in Advent, a mere two weeks from Christmas, and yet, as we listen to today’s readings, we seem light years from being with young Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem as they expectantly await the birth of their holy child.  If you want your fix of shepherds and angels breathlessly anticipating the birth of a Savior, you’ll have to wait for our service of Lessons and Carols, because today we’re given an Advent message that is distinctly more sober in tone.  Much as we might like to fast-forward to the softly sentimental glow of the nativity scene, the voice of John the Baptist is still crying out to us from the wilderness for another Sunday:  “make straight all the crooked places where the Lord our God may go!”

Messengers play a pivotal role in the gospels.  Indeed, each of the four gospels opens with the appearance of a messenger.  The evangelists differ, however, in who that messenger is and the nature of the message.  In Matthew and Luke, the messenger is the angel Gabriel who comes to Joseph and Mary with the wonderful, if impossibly perplexing, news that Mary will bear a son who will be God himself.  Mark and John, on the other hand, seem utterly disinterested in Jesus’ birth or its circumstances.   The messenger that Mark and John feature in their gospels is John the Baptist, and the Baptist’s message is less about how God becomes one of us than why.  Last week we heard Mark’s account of John the Baptist’s message; this week we hear John’s.

John the Baptist is the first human introduced in John’s gospel and his message is a deceptively simple one:  I am here to be a witness.  I am not the messiah.  I am not a prophet.  I am a mere witness to something remarkable that is happening in the world.  John points not to himself, but to someone else.  He points to Jesus and he tells us that Jesus is the Light of the world.  The world may seem shrouded in darkness, John testifies, but there is a Light that will finally and fully overcome even the darkest forces in this world.  God comes in Jesus to enlighten a world that would otherwise be blinded by darkness.  Jesus is our hope.

That is John’s message.  It sounds straightforward enough.  Yet, it is one thing to hear John’s message of hope; it is another to witness it transform lives.

I was privileged to have that opportunity last February during a visit to Haiti, a visit that forever changed my view of John the Baptist and his message of hope.  I was invited to Haiti by a friend, Roger Bowen, an Episcopal priest whose ministry in his retirement is to establish a network of partnerships between American Episcopal schools and Episcopal schools in Haiti.  Although few people know it, the Diocese of Haiti is the largest diocese in the Episcopal Church.  Amazingly, there are more Episcopalians in Haiti than there are in the diocese of Massachusetts, or Virginia, or New York, or any other single diocese.

At the time of my visit, I was the senior chaplain of an Episcopal school in Maryland, St. Andrew’s.  Roger had persuaded me to make the trip, along with a couple of my faculty colleagues, for the purpose of establishing a partnership between St. Andrew’s and a school in the tiny village of Civol, which lies in a remote hillside region, a few hours north of the capital city, Port-au-Prince.  An impoverished place without electricity, running water, or any of the amenities of modern life, Civol is about as poor and remote a place as one can imagine.   The village is little more than a collection of shacks, at the center of which sits a modest, one-room Episcopal church with mud walls. 

Civol’s school – which serves about 300 children – has no building.  Classes are held outside under a portico adjacent to the church.  The students sit on simple wooden benches.  They have no desks, no supplies, no books.  To say the school is “struggling” fails to do justice to the bleak conditions under which these children are trying to learn. 

Our saintly guide on the trip was Father Jeannot, the Episcopal Archdeacon of the Central Plateau and the Haitian priest who oversees Civol, in addition to fifteen other parishes and schools in the region.  Because Father Jeannot is responsible for so many parishes across such a wide region, he is only able to visit each one a few times a year.  A visit from Father Jeannot is, for this reason, a very big deal for the town, especially when he brings along a foreign guest.

Despite their poverty, the people of Civol welcomed us with great warmth, hospitality, and joy.  During our weekend stay in their village, in addition to meeting the school’s teachers, principal and students, Father Jeannot and I performed a wedding, we sang and danced with our hosts at the wedding reception that went late into the night, and then we baptized 16 town children the next morning during a three-hour Eucharist service punctuated by testimonials and songs from our Haitian hosts.  My faculty colleagues and I were moved to tears when one of the town leaders rose to speak during the service, thanking us profusely for our presence and commitment to a long-term partnership with their school.  “No one has ever visited us before,” he said.  “Even our own government has forgotten us.  You are the first people to care that we exist.” 

As we returned to the airport in Port-au-Prince at the end of our visit, we decided to stop by Holy Trinity Cathedral – or what was left of it after the devastating earthquake of January 2010.  The Cathedral’s sanctuary had been renowned for fourteen glorious interior murals, which had been painted in the early 1950s by some of Haiti’s most respected artists. 

As we arrived, we could see that the once majestic, spiritual home to Haiti’s people was now a heap of rubble.  Only one corner wall of the Cathedral was still standing.  As we approached the wall, we could see the outline of one of the few remaining murals that survived the quake:  a colorful depiction of the Baptism of Christ by the great Haitian painter, Castera Bazile. 

At the center of the mural is Jesus, standing ankle deep in the River Jordan.  Next to him, standing on a rock in the middle of the river, is John the Baptist.  In his right hand John has a pitcher of water, which he is pouring over Jesus’ head.  But it is his left hand that catches my eye.  With this hand, John is pointing, pointing directly at Jesus’ face, as if to indicate:  This is the Way, this is the Light, this is the Truth, this is our Hope.

That image of John the Baptist pointing to Jesus has become an iconic prism for me through which I have come to interpret my brief experience with the people of Haiti.  Seared into my memory is the spirit of the people we met in that tiny village:  their joyfulness, their faithfulness, their gratefulness, but most remarkably, their hopefulness in the midst of utter bleakness.  And, as we worshipped together with our Haitian friends, we could see and feel that the hope at the center of their lives is precisely the Christ to whom John the Baptist points.  Their hope is for the coming of a new reality, when, as the prophet Isaiah foresees it, the Lord “shall build up the ancient ruins,” “raise up the former devastations,” and “repair the ruined cities and the devastations of former generations.”  Isa. 61:4.   Their hope is for a resurrected Haiti.

Hope is the enduring theme of Advent.  Hope is what gives meaning and purpose to the expectant waiting we do during this season.  Such hope is more than mere optimism.  The optimist seeks to feel good about his predicament by denying the reality of the darkness around him and by imagining a better world.  The Christian, on the other hand, honestly confronts the darkness of our world, but places her trust in a promised light that she knows eventually will overwhelm it.  To hope does not mean to dream ourselves into a different reality, but to embrace the promise – God’s promise in Christ – that our present reality, suffused with suffering as it sometimes is, will ultimately be transformed into God’s new world. 

As the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf explains:  “For Christian hope to be authentic, we must acknowledge and not deny the darkness; otherwise, we will never be truly redeemed.  But the good news is that those who hope can confess the dark side of their history because the divine promise frees them from captivity to the past.  Authentic Christian hope is about the promise that the wrongs of the past can be set aright and that the future need not be a mere repetition of the past.”

In this sense, Christian hope is not passive, wishful thinking; it is, rather, an activity that sustains and animates at the same time.   Think of hope as a verb, not a noun.  We strive for peace, struggle for justice, comfort the disconsolate, and heal the sick, all because we trust in the person to whom John the Baptist points and because we trust in His promise that these activities are the core realities of the Kingdom to which He calls us. 

To paraphrase the late Peter Gomes:  The activity of Christian hope is to contend with the world as it is in light of the world as it is to be.  We do not despair over the suffering and struggles that confront us because we have some idea of where we are going.  We are headed into the fullness and presence of God’s time.  The hope of Advent rests upon the assurance that the God who formed us out of his love, and lived among us, will not abandon us in that future into which he calls us. 

It warms my heart to report that since we returned from Haiti in February, the students, teachers, and families of my old school, St. Andrew’s, have raised nearly $50,000, with which our friends in the tiny village of Civol are building a new school.  They hope to break ground next month, and St. Andrew’s students will visit for the first time in February.  This small step toward a better future for the children of Civol is not primarily a testament to the goodness of St. Andrew’s students and families, although they certainly are good people.  Nor is it primarily a testament to our wonderful Haitian friends, whose spirit-filled lives provided the catalyst for this generosity.  Rather, this transformative moment in the life of Civol is primarily a testament to the reality of the Christ to whom John points and to the power of His coming. 

My prayer for us all during this season of Advent is that we may rekindle in our own hearts a true hopefulness in the future, not a complacent hopefulness that merely gives us comfort, but a vital hopefulness that propels us forward in struggling for justice, seeking peace, and discovering Christ’s presence in everyone we meet.  Come, Lord Jesus, open our eyes to your Light, overcome the darkness that sometimes befalls us, and brighten our lives with the Hope that only you can bring.  Amen. 

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