Wholehearted Advent: Groaning & Hope

Advent is the season of the Christian liturgical year that plunges us into expectation and longing for a Messiah – both remembering the coming of Jesus celebrated at Christmas and looking forward to the promised second coming at the end of the age. In remembering and looking forward, we journey through this dark time (often symbolized with the colors purple or dark blue) tuned into all the ways the world is not as it should be and longing for God’s intervention to set things right.

On the first Sunday of Advent, a single candle is lit: the candle of hope. A small amount of light breaking into the darkness reminds us that even as we look around and see injustice and suffering, we lean into the expectation of liberation. Against all odds, we hope. After all, the God who spoke light into existence in the first place is with us. Remember:

“The Children of Israel groaned from servitude, and they cried out; and their plea-for-help went up to God, from the servitude. God hearkened to their moaning, God called-to-mind his covenant with Avraham, with Yitzhak, and with Yaakov, God saw the Children of Israel, God knew” (Exodus 2:23-25).

“YHWH said: I have seen, yes, seen the affliction of my people that is in Egypt, their cry have I heard in the face of their slave-drivers; indeed, I have known their sufferings! So I have come down to rescue it from the hand of Egypt… So now, here, the cry of the Children of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them” (Exodus 3:7-9).

“God said to Moshe: EHYEH ASHER EHYEH / I will be-there how so ever I will be-there. And he said: Thus you shall say to the Children of Israel: EHYEH / I-WILL-BE-THERE sends me to you… That is my name for the ages… I have taken account, yes, account of you and of what is being done to you in Egypt, and I have declared: I will bring you up from the affliction of Egypt” (Exodus 3:14-17).

The above translation is by Everett Fox, who notes of this passage, “When Moshe asks God for his name in 3:13, he asks for more than a title… Moshe foresees that the slaves will want to be able to call on this power that has promised to deliver them… What does ehyeh asher ehyeh mean?… There is some scholarly consensus that the name may mean ‘He who causes (things) to be’ or perhaps ‘He who is.’ Buber and Rosenzweig, taking an entirely different tack… interpret the verb hayoh as signifying presence, ‘being-there,’ and hence see God’s words as a real answer to the Israelites’ imagined question – an assurance of his presence.”

Two aspects of Fox’s translation have captivated me. In the encounter between God and Moses at the burning bush, the language of the Israelites’ cries “going up” to God and God hearing and “coming down” provides a striking image of God being moved by the voice of suffering lifted up. Also, Fox’s translation of God’s name as “I will be-there” further strengthens the image of God being moved by Israel’s oppression: God’s response is to show up, to be-there. God comes down like a mama bear answering the cries of her cubs.

Advent anticipates God-with-us, showing up embodied, launching a liberation mission. And it starts with our cries for justice rising up.

“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God… We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves” (Romans 8:219, 22-23).

In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann roots “prophetic ministry” in “the covenantal tradition of Moses.” “The ministry of Moses… represents a radical break with the social reality of Pharaoh’s Egypt,” countering Egypt’s claims to power and its “politics of oppression and exploitation.” The alternative reality of liberation and justice is made possible when: (1) criticism of the dominant reality dismantles the dominant consciousness and (2) an alternative consciousness energizes people “in the intentional formation of a new social community” marked by a “politics of justice and compassion.”

Reflecting on the passage from Exodus shared above, Brueggemann emphasizes the importance of Israel’s groaning: “[T]he narrative of liberation begins with the grieving complaint of Israel.” We must recognize that “the real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve because that is the most visceral announcement that things are not right… And as long as the empire can keep the pretense alive that things are all right, there will be no real grieving and no serious criticism.” The empire does everything it can to silence the groaning of grief because in doing so, it can erase “that things are not as they should be, not as they were promised.”

Groaning is critical – absolutely necessary and an insistence that something is wrong. Brueggemann writes, “But think what happens if the Exodus is the primal scream that permits the beginning of history… Bringing hurt to public expression is an important first step in the dismantling criticism that permits a new reality, theological and social, to emerge.” Thus, the most faithful way I see to enter Advent and embrace hope in God-with-us coming down and showing up to liberate all creation is to offer my groans, to lift my voice with all those crying out for justice.

O God who promised to be-there, how long?

How long must I suffer the pain of being pushed out of my family, my friendships, my church because I am gay? How long will this ache of loneliness press on my chest as holidays approach – as I watch others gather, embrace and celebrate – as my wife and I cling to each other in shared grief? How long will people choose beliefs and politics and attitudes that inflict so much harm, that destroy life?

How long must I feel the burn of anger in my gut as I watch my friends torn apart by churches who promise love but deliver spiritual trauma to the most vulnerable – women, LGBTQ folks, BIPOC, persons with disabilities… the list is so long. How long will people choose privilege and power over people’s lives and well-being? How long will they mock with “all lives matter” signs and “love the sinner, hate the sin” memes?

How long must I endure the anxiety of COVID-19 variants making their way around the globe, threatening further suffering, sickness and death? How long will my confederate flag flying neighbors spit in our faces with their anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-any-social-measures-to-end-this-pandemic tantrums? How long will those most at risk with the least healthcare resources suffer the consequences of science-denying and conspiracy theory fundamentalist actions? How long will politicians sacrifice lives for reelection? How long will white evangelical Christians bow down to Trump and those following in his footsteps?

How long, God-with-us, until you show up? Until we show up? Until I show up? How long until I break free from my numbing and looking the other way to feel and see? To grieve with all those already grieving? To join in doing justice with all those already in the fight? Already and not yet: I am being liberated and yet cry out for liberation. O God, your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Come!

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