Sunday, December 13, 2009

the arc of history

There is a creative force in the universe
working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil,
a power that is able to make a way out of no way
and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.
Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long
but it tends toward justice.
(Rev Martin Luther King)

There’s something sober about the season of Advent. That’s one of the reasons I am such a Grinch about Christmas decorations and music and shopping right after Thanksgiving––they take away from the sobriety of Advent. I tend to think liturgically, and liturgically we are not in the Christmas season yet. We are in the season of Advent. The weather this week has been perfect for it. It has been so chilly and foggy and overcast. Out in the woods my main source of heat is the fireplace, so I have had many perfect long Advent mornings with the weather keeping me indoors, a fire crackling all morning and part of the afternoon, inviting me to go inward as well. I’ve also been listening to the new Christmas album by Sting (forgive the commercial), which someone kindly bought for me. I’ve been describing it as “brooding,” and that is kind of what Advent is to me, a brooding season. It’s not somber in the penitential way Lent is; it’s a season of making quiet interior preparations. Just like at Mass during this season: the readings in the early weeks are a little dour, and the music is a little more low-keyed; we don’t sing the Glory to God, for example.

But then there is this third Sunday of Advent that is a little taste of sweetness and light ahead. It’s called Gaudete Sunday because the first word of the entrance antiphon in Latin is taken from the same reading from the letter to the Philippians that we hear today: Gaudete in Domino semper––Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! Priests are invited today to wear, not pink, mind you, but rose-colored vestments. It’s almost as if we are also invited to look at the world through rose-colored glasses today. We hear so much from the prophet Isaiah in this season, but today we switch to Zephaniah, and this marvelous optimistic passage filled with hope and promise.
Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!
Sing joyfully, O Israel!
Be glad and exult with all your heart!
Fear not, O Sion, be not discouraged!
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
you have no further misfortune to fear.

This is a specifically Judeo-Christian thing, this hope and promise. We are built on it. I often like to say that compared with other spiritual traditions that believe that time goes round and round in circles going nowhere until we escape, the Abrahamic religions––Judaism, Christianity and Islam––are built on this marvelously optimistic sense of time, a sense of time as a sacrament, a belief that time is going somewhere, and somewhere good at that. It’s going to the reign of God, to a time when God will be all in all in Christ.

President Obama often references a phrase of Martin Luther King Jr. during his speeches, and did so again this week when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, and that same reference stuck with me as I was pondering the scripture readings this week. The line of Dr. King’s is this: “The arc of history is long and it bends toward justice.” In an earlier speech he said it another way: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it tends toward justice.” This is an optimism rooted firmly in the Bible, in prophecy, and is somehow the core of what Advent is supposed to inspire in us again.

It’s not always easy to believe that though, is it? In this day and age, when many people are still facing the dire circumstances of the economic crisis; when we are involved in two wars; when we see violence and terror all around us: it’s not easy to believe that we are going somewhere good, or that the arc of history is tending and bending toward anything good.

The command we hear today is to rejoice. It’s in the imperative mood. Rejoice! That’s an order, because in some way it’s a choice. And rejoicing, choosing to rejoice, will be our strength. We don’t rejoice because we are strong; faith tells us that in our rejoicing we are made strong; in our hoping we are given hope; in our loving we are filled with love. And you know other than that, the weird thing is the demands are not that lofty: what does John the Baptist tell his followers? Simple things: take care of the hungry and the naked; he tells tax collectors simply to stop cheating. He doesn’t even tell soldiers to stop fighting; he just says, don’t extort, don’t lie, and be satisfied with your wages. Paul is even simpler: The Lord is near: be kind! Rejoice, and be kind. It’s as simple and quiet and boring as a seed falling into the ground, so is the Word of God that comes to us wanting to take root in our humble broken silent available hearts.

Advent is not only about being optimistic concerning the world in general. It’s also optimism also about ourselves, our personal development and our own growth toward God, the arc of our lives. I had a friend who told me he used to get up every day and say, “Is today the day Lord? Is today the day you’re going to shatter my blindness? Break through my deafness? Is today the day I’m going to finally give myself to you?” That’s why there’s something good about the quietness of Advent. Alongside all the images that we hear in the Christmas carols later about Jesus being born in the stillness of the night––that same stillness is what we are supposed to be cultivating inside of ourselves. That’s our poverty, that’s our virginity, our chastity, this inner quiet that is a tapping into the stillness and peace, the quiet darkness that is the essence of our being, that’s where the strength and the hope come from that are the root of our rejoicing. It is that inner stillness––our inner stillness––that will save and transform us, and thus transform the world, as opposed to the power of evil, which is so gaudy and noisy. I think we are often more cognizant of evil in the world specifically for that reason; it’s more apparent because it makes so much noise. While Satan is knocking down big buildings, we will be blazing thousands of well-worn paths between humble cottages.

“Rejoice! You have no more evil to fear.” Let me quote the whole section of Dr. King in this context:
Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in the universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long but it tends toward justice.
(MLK, August 16, 1967)

I don’t think that Dr King would mind if I do my own riff on his theme and say, let us realize that the arc of history is long––but it tends toward Christ and all that Christ is. That’s what Advent is about. The arc of history is long, and it tends toward our transformation and union with God.