Advent brings hope and light at a time of crisis, division

December 11, 2018

The Christmas tree is seen as Pope Francis leads the Angelus prayer from the window of his studio
overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Dec. 2. The tree from northern Italy is nearly 76 feet tall and weighs 4.5 tons. CNS photo.

Usually, Advent seems to sneak up on me, but not this year.

This year, I find myself longing for it so that my thoughts and emotions can be reflected in the wider world. As many of you know, Advent is not just about preparation, but more fundamentally about hope — hope against darkness. And these days, it seems like there is more darkness than usual.

Whether it be from the rhetoric of our national politics or the seemingly perpetual unveiling of a Church in crisis; many faithful people are asking how are we to keep the faith in times such as these? 

There is a line I frequently quote from a Basilian priest, Father Edmund McCorkell, who passed away many years ago: “The secret to getting what you desire, is to desire the right things.” In a similar way, I think the secret to keeping the faith is to make sure our faith is in the right person. Of course, the person is Jesus. However, I think we sometimes forget that this is a particular kind of faith, and a particular kind of hope. 

In the Scriptures, we find Jesus is the bridge between who we have been and who we are called to be. In our sacramental life, Jesus is the literal embodiment of transformation. This sacramental worldview is a demanding one, for it tries to discipline us to see beyond the surface; beyond the skin tones; beyond the economic-status; beyond the nationalities; beyond the sexual orientations; beyond the political agendas and affiliations; beyond the actions; so that we may see the soul within. 

In the Eucharist, we learn to see and know the presence of God in a little white wafer. Every time I celebrate Mass, my prayer for myself and all those present, is that this piece of bread that becomes the Body of Christ, can help us see beyond the issues to the people behind them. Because I fear that if we are too quick to “solve the problem,” then we might overlook the story that we need to hear — the story that moves us beyond resolution to the conversion that lasts so much longer. 

When we place our hope in Jesus, we must simultaneously let go of what has been and what is. We cannot live with hope and be defined by our past, and by who we have been. I know many people who are not simply angry because of what is happening, they are sad because they feel powerless. In my many conversations with students, they feel they are inheriting a world filled with problems that cannot possibly be solved. Yet our faith tells us that solutions are not often what we imagine them to be. Most of the time our solutions are more like stories that we pass down so that we may learn from others. We don’t solve them, so much as we grow beyond them. 

However, I also understand that people want the Church to solve its problems. We want clarity and certainty because the Church should be better than this. It is a thought I have had more than a few times myself; but then I remember that the Church is really more like a family than a business. That when I read through the Bible, approximately two-thirds of it is about loss, suffering, confusion and exile. 

Why do I think I am exempt from this? At the same time, what our faith and science both tell us is that there is a difference between curing and healing. Even once a disease is cured, the process of healing takes time. The same is true in our Church and country today. 

And this is why I need Advent so much this year. Because Advent is about hoping for the fulfillment of a promise, without understanding what that fulfillment will be. It is a season of poetry, rich and layered; much different than the prose to which we are accustomed.

Advent is a season of the impossible becoming reality — the return from exile, healing of suffering, peace that overcomes fear, the breaking down of division between those who have power and those who do not. 

In this moment of crisis, I keep the faith because I recognize that we have been entrusted as stewards of something that is not our own. We are bearers of light, but not the light itself. This demands both responsibility for doing our part while we can, and the willingness to let go so others can give of their gifts to do their part. 

Not that long ago, I was discussing this moment of crisis with a dear friend. It occurred to him that the saints assumed their responsibility with a deep trust even when it was not clear whether their hope would ever be realized. He spoke of how St. Catherine of Siena died before the Avignon schism was repaired; and St. Edith Stein and Father Alfred Delp, SJ, similarly bore burdens of their times without knowing if the hope animating their writings or resistance would survive. 

These examples merely mirror the reality of Jesus on the cross, who had to die before new life could begin. Then and now, we are reminded that the generational work of disciples is not a productivity the way the world understands it, but a persistence that makes the space for grace to complete the incomplete, and make real the unrealizable.

And this is why Advent is so timely this year. May the same flames of faith we light this season bring us hope, and make room for the incarnation of God in our world anew. 

Father Christopher Valka, CSB, is the chaplain, director of The University of St. Thomas Donald S. Nesti, CSSp, Center for Faith & Culture and campus ministry  at the University of St. Thomas.