Thursday, December 17, 2009

12-13-2009: Third Sunday of Advent (C)

Third Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-18/ Isaiah 12:2-6/ Philippians 4:4-7/ Luke 3:10-18
It would be quite a coincidence if one day archaeologists would uncover evidence that Jesus’ birth really did take place in the darkest weeks of winter, deep in December. Perhaps finding something akin to our church baptismal registers, listing date of birth, the name of the young mother, and as for the father, the Latin designation - pater ignotus - a not so subtle attempt to protect from the shame that such births seem always to engender.

A coincidence, precisely because no one knows when Jesus was born. It took the Church centuries before she began to celebrate Jesus’ birth, celebrating instead his manifestation to the Magi – the Epiphany – Little Christmas. When the church finally did settle down for the birthday celebration, she chose this dark time of year, near the winter solstice, when days are shortest and the darkness of night seems way too long. Then, recalling the star of Bethlehem, a slice of light and the longed-for dawn appearing on the horizon, became the theme of Christmas. It’s an obvious use of metaphor, alluding to that primal human need to see – or at least to glimpse – so we might hope and not despair.

The metaphor is likewise applied to that inner darkness where loneliness and a sense of abandonment can do terrible things to people; or make them into something extraordinary. One of the mysteries of Christianity is that it isn’t so simple. It promises light, while steadfastly refusing to curse the darkness. If you’ve read the recent biography of Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light, you might agree that she knew of that darkness, intimately:

"The darkness … surrounds me on all sides…no light enters my soul. Yet deep down somewhere in my heart that longing for God keeps breaking through the darkness…I have come to love the darkness."

Notice she doesn’t say that God breaks through the darkness; it is her longing that makes the breakthrough. Christmas, the mysterious way in which divinity made itself manifest, started in darkness, not light. Remember: Mary’s initial reaction to the angel Gabriel was one of fear, and the dilemma that her unexpected pregnancy provoked must have been a very dark time for all involved. Christmas, though celebrating the coming of divinity, is in a real sense the sacrament of absence as well.

In our most skeptical age, when faith has been relegated to the back room of daily experience and the practice of religion considered a remnant of an unenlightened past, surprise is perhaps the only “proof” that still has the power to melt away doubt and despair. Surprise is the manifestation of the unexpected with all its awe-ful terror and awe-filled wonder. Most of us are not in the same league as the Virgin Mary who accepted Gabriel’s proposition, or Mother Teresa who claimed to receive a call within a call on her fateful train ride to Darjeeling in the 1940s; but we can be surprised nonetheless. One of the earliest documentaries of Mother Teresa’s life and work recorded an interview with a Loreto nun who lived with Mother Teresa for some twenty years when she taught Geography at a girls’ high school in India and before she left the convent to begin picking up the dying on the streets of Calcutta. The old Irish nun recalled that Mother Teresa was no different from any of the other sisters in the convent; matter of fact, the nun said, we thought she was a bit on the delicate side.

Can you picture the delicate Mother Teresa as she picked up the maggot-ridden bodies of the dying and the dead, washing their putrefying bodies, cleaning their open sores – for fifty years. Delicate indeed. But that’s the kind of surprise that makes you step back and wonder, despite (or is it because) the darkness seems at times so deep, how such things can happen.

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