Second Sunday of Advent
A week ago Saturday, I heard myself mumble “so much for Thanksgiving.” We gathered with new friends, a family in many respects the mirror image of our own, and we had eaten like princes, albeit a feast we (or, certain among us) had a significant role in preparing. The people Jaimee and I once mentioned we should incorporate into our celebration for fear they had nowhere else to go conveniently dropped out of mind in the later stages of planning. Our habit of pondering how good it would be to reach out to the lonely has not yet become a skill for making it happen. Or, perhaps, such skills are subject to perpetual atrophy.
It may be that my Thanksgiving dinner, however sumptuous, unsettled me because of what I was bringing to the table. Instead of the labor of lovingly preparing food together with others, during the days leading up to the holiday, I was sequestered with my computer grading papers, worrying about what my students and colleagues were thinking of my performance during the first months on the job. The pear cobbler that likely evoked shared experiences for those who worked together in its preparation, for me was just a delicious thing to be consumed. Forgetfulness of the lonely, lack of preparation and crude (unsocial) desires for comfort food: “three strikes,” I hear the umpire say, “you’re out!”
I wonder to what extent my Thanksgiving experience represents what many of us have been formed to experience as “family comfort” in advanced capitalist societies. Theologian David McCarthy, in his book Sex and Love in the Home, tells how as family life in the last century and a half has become less a part of a wider social economy, it has become more a place focused on consumption. Our very neighborhoods, “homes set apart in a neighborhood tied together by recreational interests and practically oriented to the outside world through contracted services, salary/wage earning, and consumption,” symbolically reflect a conception of comfort tied to consumption.
The trend of the “closed home” makes an ideal of family “self-sufficiency,” aided by professional expertise and bureaucratic management. The habit of contracting with others to meet our needs frees us from deeper, interpersonal entanglements with others outside the home. Other people, like material goods, are like objects of consumption to us. And yet, he notes, it is such entanglements that give one a richer identity.
Comfort, O comfort my people…
In this week’s reading from Isaiah, the comfort God offers Israel is set within the story of their exile, suffering and penance. Their relief, we might say, is intimately tied to “doing time” in exile, from receiving their due punishment from the Lord. They have prepared by suffering. The suffering, in a sense, is the preparation.
Furthermore, two stories, two kinds of “time,” are being brought near to each other. On one hand, there is the time of Israel’s efforts and her sins, which comes and goes, flowers and fades, like the grass in the fields. Like all people, and indeed all creation, the Israelites come into being and pass out, grow up and wither away.
The word of the Lord is the true source of hope here. In contrast to Israel’s attempts at constancy, this word lasts. We need both dimensions of time in order to really penetrate the text and to understand how the Israelites understand themselves. Their experience of living and doing, their efforts at doing well, are carried along, underwritten we might say, by God. The God who has revealed himself as their savior underwrites their present and their future.
In the 2 Peter reading we find a similar sensibility regarding present sufferings and future hope, trial and comfort. As difficult as may be this church’s striving to overcome jealousy and in-fighting, persecution from without, they do it in the light shed by their hope that God will bring, is bringing, “a new heaven and a new earth.” The waiting is infused with the peace. For the time of waiting is not so much delay of Christ’s return as a form of it. “Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”
Well, what does these Advent scriptures say to those of us caught up in our pursuit of the ideal of self-sufficient families? What comfort might we find here?
On one hand, I suggest, it must be a comfort that unsettles the comfort of consumption. To those of us caught in the rut of luxury and forget the deep injustices on which our lives depend, Advent proclaims a straight-up message: “Wake up!” “Repent!”
Yet neither are we to be left hopeless, as a batter who realizes that was the third swing and third miss. The church is a people aware it has been given a second chance. Indeed, second chances are built into what we call freedom.
My god may have been my belly on Thanksgiving, but what might God have yet in mind for me, for us? We are made sleepy and numb by our complicity in injustices our own mistaken ideals sustain. But through Scripture, God calls the church to wake up, and shake off this false comfort.
Moreover, we are called to transform this phony comfort into something truly redeeming, the genuine friendships and koinonia that typify the kingdom God is bringing. We begin by rousing ourselves from our slumber, by making peace and purifying ourselves, “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God,” so that “we may be without spot or blemish” when he comes. (2 Peter 3:12)
“Hastening and waiting” can be our response to Isaiah’s announcement of a “second chance” comfort. We will join in this good news?