St Augustine of Hippo, the fourth century Bishop of the city of that name is an early church father that I usually love to hate. Augustine has been responsible for much of the fear of women and sexuality that has dogged church teachings throughout the centuries.
BUT Augustine also wrote this memorable phrase about Hope, which is the theme of today’s celebration: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; “ he wrote ( I’ve changed the noun to be more inclusive!) “ and their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” This time he had it dead right. Anger and courage – two of the components of Hope and also two themes running through today’s readings.
Now I’ve been around for many, many seasons of Advent, but this year I feel I need a morsel of Advent hope more than ever.
Last week Heather Mallick, writing in the Toronto Star, summed up some of the reasons why I’m feeling this way: I quote:
“The US has a mean idiot for president, crusted with corruption. He threatens annihilation, starts trade wars, kidnaps and gasses tiny children at the border, lives in bathrobes while waggling his channel changer, has one set of clothes and a yellowbouffant and throws paper towel rolls at hurricane victims…”
and then “How much more chaos can we endure?” she asks.
Well, to add to this chaos there’s the continual doomsday drumbeat of coming ecological disaster. In the weeks leading up to the recent United Nations Climate Change conference in Katowice, Poland, the UN asked people to send in their thoughts on climate change. David Attenborough was asked to occupy the “People’s Seat” at the conference to share the findings.
Attenborough told the world’s leaders that climate change (Quote) “is our greatest threat in thousands of years. The world’s people have spoken.” he added: “ Their message is clear. Time is running out. They want you — the decision makers — to act now.
“Leaders of the world” he added “YOU MUST LEAD: The continuation of our civilizations and the natural world on which we depend is in your hands.”
And what leaders we have now! We’re saddled with a provincial government in Ontario that is back tracking on the protection of the greenbelt when the supply of cultivatable land is fast diminishing; backtracking on sex education just in the time when sexual assaults in elementary and secondary school washrooms are on the rise, and so it goes on…Do we ever need the anger voiced John the Baptist in the gospel for today:
“John said to the crowds, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce the fruit which shows your repentance; and don’t start saying to yourselves,We have Abraham for our ancestor.’ For I tell you, God can raise up descendants for Abraham out of these stones. Yes, even now the axe is set at the root of the trees; and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire.”
Oh my! – just imagine throwing open the doors of the Oval Office in the White House, bursting in and point a finger while shouting “YOU BROOD OF VIPERS! “ at the top of your voice! WOW!
Now it’s easy enough for us to point the finger at our own brood of vipers, whether they’re in the White House, Queen’s Park. But wait a minute: you see, John didn’t just single out the leaders. These words were addressed to all in the crowd. So we’re all part off the problem.
But if we’re part of the problem, then we can also be part of the solution. In fact grassroots actions and movements very well bethe only way forward in the absence of any coherent leadership at the top.
For this, we need Hope’s second offspring: COURAGE – the courage to take the risks and step out of anger into working for hope – even at the risk of failure. This kind courageous risk-taking is actually happening all around us.
Ryan Slobojan, who lives in Pickering wrote an op ed piece last week about how he was moved to take action after the recent attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh. He said it reminded him of the attack on a mosque in Quebec City two years ago. At that time, he mourned but did not speak out. After the Pittsburgh attack, he decided he had to act. So he upped and put on his 5 year old daughter’s mitts, and off they went to the local Pickering mosque, bearing a home made sign saying : FREE HUGS. “To say I was nervous” he wrote “was an understatement.
I had never been to a mosque in my life and had absolutely no idea what to expect.” He and his daughter stood outside the Friday prayer service, but were soon welcomed in to an overwhelmingly positive response. So he concluded: “Let us push back the darkness of ignorance and hate with the light of knowledge and friendship. “Light in the darkness! The courage of a son and daughter of hope lights a candle of hope for the future.
Walter Brueggemann has long been an author from whom I draw inspiration. In his book ‘Hope Within History’ Bruguemann outlines the stages of prophetic courage, as seen in the story of Exodus and witnessed in the prophetic writings of Isaiah and Zechariah that we read today. “When a prophetic cry comes to voice,” says Brueggemann “there is a new ability, courage and will to hope, imagine, design and implement alternative scenarios of how things could be.”
And he continues, “Juices are set free, which enable those those who have not hoped for a long time to hope, those who have not imagined for a long time to imagine.”
So – Ryan Slobojan and his little daughter pluck up their courage to risk going off and to offer free hugs at the mosque. What happens? They’re invited inside! They’re invited back.
Maybe some new juices of solidarity and hope are set free!!
Maybe she’ll invite her best friend next time. Imagine where this might lead! A bunch of little girls in the mosque come to push back the darkness of Islamophobia, and may be even push back the boundaries on gender equality!!Forgive me as I can’t resist paraphrasing today’s reading from the prophet Zephaniah (3:14-20) “On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: do not fear O Zion, do not let your hands grow weak. God is in your midst…”
SO: “On that day it shall be said to Pickering and to Toronto: Courage Canadians! Do not let your hands grow weak! Yahweh your God is in your midst, in Mississauga, Toronto and Scarborough too. In mosques and synagogues and churches, your creator will rejoice over you with gladness, renewing you in love and exulting over you with loud songs as on a day of festival!”
But the boundaries of Advent hope and courage now stretch way beyond the boundaries of the GTA, or even of the earth itself. Advent hope has always been cosmic in scope. Stars, light and dark, the Winter Solstice… But now, science has gifted us with proof the cosmic dimension of God’s creation. I give thanks every day for the gift: the revelation of the true nature of the cosmos that we are part of and infinitely connected to. The Creator’s dream for the cosmos is mirrored in the light that the view from the cosmos now sheds on the unity of our beautiful blue planet.
David Saint-Jacques, who’s the latest Canadian astronaut to be rocketed up to the International Space Station just last week, has described the sense of awe and wonder he is experiencing in orbit. “ It is just a never-ending sense of awe looking at our blue planet” he says, “this thin blue line in the atmosphere, that colour, that flash of blue – its very touching and very humbling.” and he adds: “it makes you want to go back to earth and help make it better.”
And making it better, according to John the Baptist again, is simple yet radical: “Share what you have; give a spare coat to someone who has none; be just in your business dealings; and live within your means.”
Isn’t that what Advent and Christmas are all about? To gaze at the beauty of the stars, the darkening sky as we approach the winter solstice, and to know that the light is coming – always coming back… And each year, we can hasten the coming of the light. The cosmos, the abode of our living and loving God surrounds us with majesty, beauty and awe. The cosmos and its Creator are on our side. So I tell myself not to succumb to the psychic numbing that sometimes affects me at least when I get overwhelmed by yet another lie propagated by fake news.
God is already here: But the life and energy of God needs to be incarnated – enfleshed – anew in the context of each year. That where we come in. Every time we muster our courage to work for change, Christ comes again: whether this be in the public witness of groups like Kairos or the Homeless Vigil; or sponsoring yet another refugee family in defiance of those who would like to close our borders; or joining in prayers with Muslims; or quietly welcoming and feeding the hungry and marginalized here and elsewhere. And so we bring our candles of hope to shine in the darkness. Each one of our local acts of justice, inclusiveness, forgiveness and healing gives birth again and again to the quantum energy of the Creator, the Christ and the Spirit of God who are all around us.
So to celebrate the coming of Christ anew this Christmas let’s commit ourselves once again to walk together God’s field of love, in the words of the poem by Bruce Sanguin
Let us walk together in this field of love
that is the presence of Christ around us.
Let us gather ourselves in and discover
who we are when we are not afraid –
when the universe is known as Friend.Yes, and let us discover who we may become
when just two or three of us
share a common mind and a common heart,
willing to be made over and anew
by the One around whom the whole cosmos spins
and throws off star fields –
sparks of future possibility
that now shine out from us and as us.
Take these stardust forms, these latent dreams of galaxies
now alive with conscious intent,
and fashion another future
from the radiant field of our collective yearning
for some unimaginable future
that is the dream of those who walk with Christ.
We gather to witness to this kind of love,
this kind of power.
We are alive with hope!