Tuesday, November 29, 2011

what are you waiting for?

We are waiting for peace to break out
we are waiting for flowers to bloom
we are waiting for the moon to come
from behind the clouds of war
We are waiting for the light
We are waiting
and as we wait we sing songs of celebration
We are waiting
and as we wait we hold out our hands in love and friendship…
…and as we wait we dance: we dance with the cold east wind
and the creaking singing branches of giant firs
we dance with the devils
of dust and the angels of clouds
We are waiting
and as we wait we are learning the language
of burning roses and sunflowers slowly turning
toward the sun…
(Carlos Reyes)

I’ve been carrying that above poem around with me for a couple of years now. In our tradition we are beginning the season of Advent, a time of waiting, and this poem seemed particularly salient for that. It’s from a collection called “Poets Against the War.” What really strikes me about it is the “while we wait” part. It reminded me of the words we say after the Our Father at Mass: “…as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ.” But in this poem, while we wait we are doing something. It’s an active waiting; there’s motion in our passivity. That made me ask myself this question and I pose it to you too: What are we waiting for? You could ask that question in two ways, first of all as a real interrogative: it’s good for us to define what exactly it is that we are really waiting for in Advent, to remind ourselves again. And the question could be asked kind of rhetorically: “Well, what are you waiting for?” In other words, “Get going!”

A couple of anecdotes came to my mind concerning the beginning of Advent. (I’ve written about them in previous postings.) First I was remembering how when we were at Sabbath service in Jerusalem, and as the service was beginning the whole congregation turned to the door and sang this song (in Hebrew):
To southward I set the mystical candelabrum,
I make room in the north for the table with loaves...
Let the Shekinah be surrounded by six Sabbath loaves
connected on every side with the Heavenly Sanctuary.
Weakened and cast out the impure powers, the menacing demons
are now in fetters.

Rabbi Paula, who was one of the leaders of the pilgrimage, was so excited because this was a song that she had taught her congregants as well. And then this same song came up again a few days later when we were in the town of Zefat in northern Israel. Many of the Sephardic Jews settled there after Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain in the 15th century, and they brought with them the teaching of Jewish mysticism––the kaballah, especially the teachings of this one man named Isaac Luria. It is this very same Isaac Luria who had composed the song that we had sung the last Sabbath. It’s a song welcoming the Sabbath, but the Sabbath is welcomed as a bride, because she is also representative of God’s shekinah–God’s power. Our tour guide took us to a steep side of the hill overlooking the valley where Isaac Luria’s house was, and told us that every Sabbath people face the direction of that house and sing this song, welcoming the Sabbath as a bride, welcoming the power of God’s shekinah. Rabbi Paula was all excited again and explained to us that is why we all faced that certain direction at the synagogue in Jerusalem––that everyone in Israel, whether they know why or not––sings this song facing Zefat and the place where they believe the Sabbath comes from each week.

There was one other Sabbath custom too that we experienced that very day in Zefat. I was walking down this narrow street that has artisans, artists and craft shops on either side, when suddenly this old man approached me from one of the shops and started speaking to me in Hebrew. When it became clear that I didn’t understand Hebrew he asked me in English if I wanted him to tie the tefillin on my arm. When I looked confused he asked me, “Are you a Jew?” I said no and he said, “Oh, okay,” and proceeded to show me some other things in his store. A little while later two other, younger men approached me and again asked me the same thing, first in Hebrew (I assume that’s what they were asking me) and then in English. This time I said right away, “Sorry, I’m not Jewish.” I think he thought I was actually apologizing because he said, “Oh, that’s alright” and then handed me a booklet about the coming of the Messiah. I was confused about the whole thing so I asked one of our Jewish friends afterward what this was all about. He told me that it was common for people to ask you if you want them to tie the tefillin for you before Sabbath. He said the first guy was probably trying to sell me a set (that’s why he brought me into the store to look at other things afterward), but the second guy was preparing for the coming of the Messiah. The belief among some is that if they could get every Jew to observe the Sabbath faithfully, it would hasten the coming of the Messiah. They’re not just waiting for the Messiah––they’re hastening his coming.

There was one other thing that got mentioned in this regard, and that’s the influx of evangelical Christian money into Israel and Palestine. Some Christians believe that the Second Coming of Christ can’t happen until the Jews totally occupy all of Palestine again, and so they are pumping money into the settlements that Orthodox Jews are building in the disputed territories, the occupied territories––whatever you want to call them––the land that the Palestinians hope to have as their state. In this way these Jews and Christians hope to have more “facts on the ground,” as they are called, so that the Palestinians will leave, and then when the Jews have all the land again it will bring about the second coming of Christ. Of course what everyone notes is so strange about that is for the Christians this would mean that all the Jews would convert to Christianity or be killed in the final battle, but that doesn’t stop the Israelis from accepting the money; even though they have different ends they have the same proximate goal. Apparently also certain evangelical Christians are working with some Jews to try to breed the red heifer that is necessary in order to build the Third Temple, which they think in turn would hasten the second coming of Christ. (I assume would also mean the destruction of the Muslim holy sites already on the haram al sharif–the Temple Mound?)

What I was so impressed with about all this is how industrious these folks are. They are waiting, but they are not waiting. And there is this sort of mixed message in Advent for us too. Even the opening prayer at Mass for the first Sunday of Advent has got that tension in it; we pray that God would Grant us the resolve to run forth to meet the Christ with righteous deeds––so that we may be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom. We aren’t simply waiting to greet Christ: we are preparing for it with righteous deeds. We aren’t simply waiting to possess the heavenly kingdom: while we wait we are actively seeking to be worthy.

So I ask the question again: what are we waiting for? We’re waiting for the coming of Christ. So, if that’s what we’re waiting for, what are we waiting for? What are we doing to bring this about? How are we going out to meet the Christ like the Jews welcome the shekinah each Sabbath? We’re waiting for the coming of Christ, and while we wait, we are doing righteous deeds. What are we waiting for? What are we doing to be worthy of this coming or, as St Therese of Avila would say, what are we doing to make pleasant shelter for Jesus to dwell––while we wait…? We pray several times every day, “Thy kingdom come!” Well, what are we waiting for? “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven!” God’s kingdom comes every time the Holy Spirit is ruling over our hearts, every time God’s will is done in me. We pray that we may come to share the divinity of Christ who came to share in our humanity. What are we waiting for? Why don’t we share this divinity of Christ that is offered to us? We hear in Scriptures that we are meant to be participants in the divine nature. What are we waiting for? Why aren’t we participating?

Even more important than facing the direction of Zefat, more important than tying the tefillin and observing the Sabbath, as beautiful as those traditions are, and certainly more important than breeding a red heifer or human rights violations in the name of a dubious interpretation of biblical prophecy, is preparing the wilderness of our hearts. I wish that we could be as industrious about preparing for the coming of Christ in our hearts as these folks are about the coming of the Messiah or the second coming of Christ in time and space. Concentrating on a physical place, concentrating on some kind of definitive break in history or, I think Jesus would tell us, too much concentration on any of the external things is nowhere near as important as preparing our hearts, preparing this house––the house of our very being. And that coming of Christ could take place at any moment, in any place––at evening or midnight or at cockcrow, with the snap of a twig in the forest, like a thief in the night, between your first and second cup of tea in the morning. And while we wait––the words from Matthew’s Gospel some weeks ago––we are “sober and alert.” The images that we use for meditation all come to mind: as the Buddhists say, we pursue enlightenment sitting on the meditation cushion as if our hair were on fire. This waiting is not just a passive thing. We sit in prayer like a cat before a mouse hole––perfectly poised and perfectly ready to pounce at any moment. And––while we wait––we are feeding the poor, clothing the naked, not oppressing the alien, we’re caring for the earth; and while we wait we are kind to each other and honest, while we wait we are doing God’s will, doing the work of God’s kingdom. When we do those things, when we live that way, we are actively bringing about the reign of God, in our hearts and in our world.

So, while we wait in joyful hope, let’s pray once again this Advent season that we would have the resolve to run forth to meet the Christ with righteous deeds, with ready hearts, so that we may be worthy to possess and embody the reign of God.