Advent is a season of transition, marking the movement from the ordinary time of the year toward the festival of Christmas. And it is often noted that the readings from scripture move from a period of turmoil and darkness often associated with the end of all things of earth, toward the dawning of new life in the woe begotten region of Israel. Advent is most often called a season of Hope, but there is more to the story. The season also speaks to the necessary disruption of the routine of life, the clashing of agendas of power, and the call to renounce our conventional presuppositions and plans in favor of allowing God to come forth. It is a season of holy impatience and holy anger.
My mention of anger may sound a discordant note. We’re not accustomed to think about anger as anything but a destructive and disturbing force. We may think we’ve left behind the notion of an “angry God” who is quick to punish those who disobey and wander away from the covenant. The so-called “God of the Old-Testament” in favor of the “God of Love” brought forth in Jesus. But in the tradition of the prophets continued in the disruptive preaching of John the Baptist is any indication, God has plenty to say about the failure of so many in the world to “repent and believe,” and to the extent that we can rightfully attribute human emotions to the absolute mystery at the core of all creation, it seems appropriate to consider that God is really pissed.
We human beings tend to have a lot of trouble with anger. Often there is too much of it, resulting in abuse and even trauma. Anger isn’t pretty, and no one enjoys being on the receiving end of it. On the other hand, sometimes there is too little anger, resulting in passivity and complacency. I think it’s the latter that God and the prophets are most inclined to confront: challenging those who have acquiesced to the way of the world and dulled their minds and hearts to the suffering around them. There is something known as “righteous” anger, not to be confused with “self-righteous” anger or the narcissistic attempt to control and have one’s way above all others. Anger can be a power that oppresses, but can also be an energy which directs us to do what is right to do, and to defend what should be defended. Holy anger is a force to be reckoned with. Of course, whether we judge another’s anger of even our own as bad or justified depends very much on our particular biases. We may watch a televised political rally with distain, yet view an angry protest of immigration policy with greater identification and sympathy. But one way or another, there is no avoiding the fact that the United States has been experiencing a “season” of anger.
In my psychotherapy practice, I sometimes see people who have difficulty with an excess of anger. Sometimes they come seeking “anger management,” which usually means they want to learn to corral the beast within. But often the beast must have its day. When we get angry, we are often responding to something that is legitimately an insult to ourselves or others. It’s the right feeling to have. It’s what we do with it that makes all the difference. I see many more people who have the opposite problem. Their anger is repressed, often masking as depression or self-defeating behavior. In either case, the goal is not just to encourage people to go into some room or isolated woods and yell their head off, or enact their fantasies of retribution against those who have wronged them. Rather, it is about finding ways to do something to address what is wrong, even if that means a degree of acceptance of the things that cannot change.
As we heard from Baruch:
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
And put on forever the beauty of the glory of God.
Put on the robe of righteousness that comes from God;
Put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;
For God will show you splendor everywhere under heaven.
For God will give you evermore the name:
Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.
Prophets come among us not merely to give us comfort but to stir things up. They tell us of how things really ought to be. When I hear words of mountains and hills being leveled and valleys being filled, I imagine more than God just making things easy. We might hear this as an expression of Godly force which seeks to re-shape the world. But the physical changes mean nothing unless we are changed, allowing God to level and fill whatever within us which makes us somewhat lumpy and complacent. In the end, anger is only useful if it leads to corrective action, a restitution, a relief.
How can we not be angry with the knowledge of how refugees are treated at our boarder and vilified in the rhetoric of certain individuals, let alone the persons and forces which caused them to be on the move in the first place? Why wouldn’t we feel outrage at the way in which environmental protections are being randomly but systematically dismantled? We should feel anger that our schools are so overwhelmed and that so many are hungry or without a place to live. How can we be still in the face of overt racism or discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons? The list is long… Would that we had more of the energy of John, crying out in the face of every injustice: Prepare the way of the Lord. Live according to God’s justice. But feelings of anger, guilt or even just sadness are of little use unless to leads us to the active chance of changing our hearts and lives. And I do believe that every act of justice, every act of basic kindness, really does change the world.
And yet, there is more to the mystery celebrated in every Advent. For once we are confronted by our own failures and called to stand up and recognize again the failures of others, once we realize both our power and our powerlessness, we are called to Christmas. For God does not bulldoze the world and burn it all down…though who knows if that might not still happen. Rather, God surrenders to the world by becoming human flesh. “Surrender” is another one of those ideas we might have a great deal of difficulty with. Surrender may imply a kind of giving up, a defeat at the hands of an enemy. But in a deeper sense, surrender means a kind of radical acceptance of what is and cannot be changed by force or will. Here’s the paradox: Even as we are challenged to awake from our passivity and confront all the ways in which we avoid taking action, we are also asked to embrace what is beyond our control. If God really wanted to set us on the right path, a baby in a manger would seem to be the least effective way of accomplishing that. Yet Christians believe that this baby will grow to be an adult who will preach the gospel of God, overturn the tables in the Temple, confront the hypocrisy of those in power, and eventually surrender to death on a cross. This only makes sense if we can understand God’s way of creating and redeeming the world. Everything around us is beautiful in God’s glory, and terrible in the limitations of sin and the precariousness which comes from being human. All of us are sinners, yet magnificent in grace and robed in righteousness. Each of us are powerful in some way, and powerless in so many other ways. The trick is to figure out the difference between what we can change and what we cannot not. We are, at times, angry, sad, discouraged, doubtful…and also hopeful, confident, enlivened and at peace. This is the mystery of human existence in Christ which marks the journey of Advent and the walk along the pathway which is both crooked and straight; bumpy and level. The pathway that leads us our of anger and hopelessness, into the divine light of the most Holy One.
Prepare the way of the Lord, so that all flesh may see the salvation of God.