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Thursday, December 4, 2014

God's Unfinished House

In Advent 1999, another lectionary year B, St. Anne was at the end of a process of consultation, revision, fundraising, and building that reshaped the entire campus. We built an entire new church building, with all original artwork and statuary, incorporating some design and material elements from pre-existing structures, rebuilding the school, and transforming the 50-year-old church into a beautiful daily mass chapel. We expected to celebrate Christmas in the new building, but unforeseen delays prevented that from happening, and we settled for first masses in the new space on Ash Wednesday, 2000, with dedication on the 2nd Sunday of Easter, which was on April 30 that year. 

I wrote this article for the bulletin, trying to bring Advent insight into what was happening for all of us. I think it reads pretty well today, too, even if we are still paying for the building! Or, even if your building is already paid for.

It seemed perfect, didn’t it? We would walk into our new church on Christmas eve, and begin a new era in the story of St. Anne Parish on this holy evening. It would be God’s Christmas present to us, just the right size, just what we asked for. Just what we thought we needed.

Then, right in the face of all our expectation and excitement, came the awful news that finishing the construction would take a few more weeks than expected, and coming into the new space would be delayed into the new year. Coal in our karmic stocking, as it were. Bummer. Another Christmas in the gym.

As I was reflecting on all this, I was re-reading the readings for Advent and for Christmas, the season for which Advent prepares us. Those Christmas readings speak of sentinels shouting for joy because “directly before their eyes, the Lord (is) restoring Zion.…All the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.” Now, prior to that restoration came a lot of suffering. What is our Zion, our Jerusalem, that is in ruins and awaiting God’s arrival? Might it not be our dream of a peaceful world, a world of equality and justice and security for all people, and for all children, where want and fear and violence are neither known nor remembered? Isn’t our hope for the new millennium fired by our desire for a world that knows God together, for an earth that is a new Eden, where we walk as sisters and brothers in the cool of evening with one God?

We wonder, with Isaiah, why God lets us wander from the Torah, the way. Can it be that God has left us here and forgotten us, we ask? Surely, if God remembers us, then we will act like we ought to. God must be hiding, or things wouldn’t be so bleak in the world. 

Advent offers us this reason to hope: God will do what God has promised. Christ is already born. Jesus lived, taught, gave an example, died and was raised from the dead. The Holy Spirit has been poured out upon the world in the Church and in a myriad of other unknown ways. While we wait for the fullness of the arrival of God’s revelation, we “are not lacking any spiritual gift” that we need in life. If God seems to delay, Paul says, it is really God being patient with us until we “get it,” until we change our hearts and live the mission of Jesus.

Instead of changing, though, we tend to make Advent a kind of historical pretending. We pretend for four weeks that Jesus isn’t born, and then pretend that he is born on December 25. Or we try kind of theological pretending that we’re waiting for Jesus to come again in glory, but since he doesn’t, we settle on his arrival on Christmas as a baby (again!). But faith can’t be about pretending, can it? We need Advent as a time of honesty, a time to see where Christ is (and he told us where to look) and where Christ isn’t. We’re not so adept at looking for the places where Jesus promised to be present, here and now, and looking for signs of our absence from him. How is our sight impaired so that we don’t see Christ in the hungry, the prisoner, the naked poor? How is our hearing impaired so that we don’t hear the cry of so many for food, water, justice? How is it that we can’t get these sin-hobbled legs of ours to respond to those so near who need our help?

In God’s day, when salvation arrives, those un-Christ-ed places will be completely healed. Isaiah announces that that day is coming, and his proclamation of a new heaven and new earth rings down the ages every Advent, every Christmas. John the Baptizer comes to announce that the day to decide for God is today. One hearer who heard John preach and believed and acted on his preaching was his cousin Jesus, and what a difference his decision made! Mark proclaims the beginning of a gospel, literally, a proclamation of a victory in a military campaign. In the wilderness, at the border between the known and the unknown, between civilization and chaos, the evangelist announces that the victory over oppression, false religion, and inequality is already won. Is it possible for us to believe it, and start living that way?

On the 4th Sunday of Advent in the first reading, David, from the comfort of his new palace, feels guilty that he has a beautiful house to live in, while the ark of God, symbol of the presence of God in Israel, dwells in a tent. David resolves to build a house for God. But God tells David that he’s got it all backwards: it is God who built David’s house, and only God can keep David’s house intact through the generations. God will build God’s house in God’s time. That house will be built one baby at a time, beginning with a royal heir for David. We have come to believe that, baby by baby, through famine and plenty, exile and restoration, war and peace, God kept the house of David alive right through Mary and Joseph and Jesus, and continues to build that house today in us, the people of God. 

So we don’t have a house for a few more weeks. That’s all right. It gives us time to remember that we are that house. God’s unfinished temple. Apparently, God will build the building in God’s own time. In the meanwhile, we await the Light that will awaken us to the beauty that already resides in us. We await a dawn when Light will gleam off the golden cross of us, the copper trim of us, and pour like wine and honey and seawater through the stained glass of us and we will be the house that God intends us to be. Then we the blind will see Christ as Christ is, and feed the hungry and visit the prisoner. Then we the deaf will hear the voice of Christ, and offer the drink, and clothe the body. Then we the lame will leap and dance, and run to the aid of the sick and the lonely. We await the Light, and the prophets and the liturgy tell us that the Light is already here. This Advent, while we wait for the doors of a new church to open for us, let us pray together for the grace to open our eyes, and let the light in.

“Christ, be our light.
Shine in our hearts, shine in the darkness.
Christ, be our light.
Shine on your church gathered today.” (Bernadette Farrell, “Christ Be Our Light”)