Usually when the Advent season approaches, I try to commit myself to a daily practice of contemplative silence. I manage to squeeze it in between the frenzy of festive holiday parties, the noise of bustling shopping centers and lines to visit Santa, the stress of family visits and gift exchanges, and the joy of rousing choral rehearsals, concerts, and caroling.
But of course, like so many things in our lives, the global pandemic has interrupted this Advent practice. Now my controlled, timed contemplative silence has given away to an eerie silence. There are no holiday parties, no bustling shopping centers, no family gatherings, no choral rehearsals or concerts. Without these usual distractions, the silence is bewildering, charged with our collective wearied and fearful waiting. “How long will this last?” We ask, “How long, oh Lord, how long?” This Advent, we truly find ourselves in the desert, in the wilderness, where we cannot distract ourselves from our common human fragility, for our need for God’s compassionate mercy. It is in this silence that we hear today’s readings, calling us to be heralds of glad tidings, to comfort God’s people, to speak tenderly.
How are we supposed to do this, we may ask? How are we supposed to proclaim from the mountaintop God’s promise of salvation when we feel so low? How are we to speak tenderly, when our voices feel raw and thin, lost on the winds of all the uncertainty this year has wrought?
In her famous poem “Kindness” Naomi Shihab Nye prophetically observes that we can only learn kindness when we allow ourselves to fully enter our own experiences of loss, suffering, and grief. She writes:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
The global pandemic feels like the desolate landscape where all of us have experienced varying degrees of loss. Our assumed certainty about the future has dissolved. What we have always counted on, the routines and patterns we clung to, have fallen through our hands like sand. The pandemic has driven us into a desolate desert, a wilderness marked by confusion, uncertainty, fear, pain, suffering, death. We feel unmoored in this liminality, where everything feels out of our hands, out of our control. But this, Shihab Nye tells us, this is the doorway to kindness, where we can learn to speak tenderly, to offer comfort, and to cry out with voices of hope “Prepare the way of the Lord! Here is our God! Here comes our salvation!”
But it will require that we, like John the Baptist, like Jesus, go into this desert. We must enter the bewildering silence. This desolate landscape the pandemic has unveiled unfamiliar territory to some of us; by circumstances of privileged positions in unjust social structures, we’ve managed to avoid many of the perils of suffering that are all too familiar to many people in our country and our wider world. The deserts of economic injustice, of violence, of racism, of the great disparity between the wealthy and the poor, existed long before this current crisis and is all too familiar terrain for millions on our planet. The voices of people suffering in these deserts are hoarse and parched, for they have been crying out for generations. Theirs are the voices that we may not have been able to hear in Advents past. Perhaps our greatest hope in this Advent is that maybe, just maybe, we will surrender our false sense of control and the idols of normalcy. In doing so, we will, like John the Baptist, go into the enter the desert, where we will be better able to hear and to heed these voices, so long ignored.
Of course, there will still be the voices who refuse to listen, who refuse to acknowledge the gravity of the pandemic and the heartbreak so many are experiencing. Out of deep fear, and dangerous combination of arrogance and selfishness, they try to escape this desert by any means necessary. Unwilling to face reality, they raise their voices in anger and violence and greed. As an Advent people, we must resist these voices, for their cacophony of denial and escapism only promotes division. We must, in the words of Isaiah, fear not to cry out God’s message of true peace and justice.
This Advent, more than ever, we are called to be both listeners and proclaimers, to be contemplatives and prophets, to let the silence prepare us to speak truth to oppressive power and to speak tenderness to the oppressed. As we continue to wait in joyful hope for an end to this pandemic, may this time of bewildering silence become a holy silence, one in which we hear God speak words of comfort and tenderness. There, in that silence, God will transform our cries of anguish into a chorus of Advent hope so we may proclaim: “Maranatha. Come! Lord Jesus Come!”
Katherine A. Greiner, Ph.D.
Katherine A. Greiner, Ph.D.
Katherine A. Greiner is associate professor of theology at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. She holds a Ph.D. in Theology and Education from Boston College. Her dissertation, “There is a Wideness to God’s University: Exploring and Embodying the Deep Stories, Wisdom, and Contributions of Women Religious in Catholic Higher Education,” focuses on questions concerning Catholic identity, charism, and mission in Catholic colleges and universities founded and sponsored by women Religious congregations. Her research interests include Christian spirituality, lay ministry in the Catholic Church, and feminist and contextual theologies. She currently serves on the College Theology Society Board. She has been regular contributor to the blog Daily Theology and is a regular contributor to Liturgical Press’s Loose Leaf Lectionary.
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