The words that our Lord speaks to his disciples in today’s Gospel reading are chilling; they are disturbingly applicable to our world. This talk about “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars” may well have been a long-issued warning about the vengeance of nature that we are already beginning to experience in the form of climate change. We know what the Lord means when he speaks of the “dismay of nations,” for what can better describe our shock and helplessness at the escalation of meaningless violence all over the world?
In other words, things look like they’re falling apart–as a result both of the laws of nature and human freedom. How can you defy gravity, and how can you stop people from hurting one another? The problems that our world is facing today are of such a magnitude that one can’t help but feel helpless–even hopeless–about them.
And that’s just on the global level. For some of us, many things could be going wrong as well in our personal lives: a career or project that’s not quite getting off the ground, a failing relationship, or even just an incapacity to overcome despondency when things are, by all standards, actually going well.
We can react in several ways whether we find ourselves dealing with global issues or deeply personal challenges. The first reaction is to get all upset and anxioius over the situation. The problem with this response is that it almost always leads to jumping to catastrophic conclusions that only succeed in making us feel worse, increasing our helplessness and hopelessness. This is not the way the Lord wants us to respond.
A second and less painful reaction is denial and indifference: Just pretend these things aren’t happening–or if that’s too hard to do, pretend that we don’t care. It’s actually a pretty reasonable and attractive temptation if you ask me. Why get all anxious about things over which we don’t have much control? What’s the point of allowing these issues to ruin our day? It’s best to forget about them if we can. There is great value in making sure we spare ourselves from unnecessary anxiety, but there’s a danger that we might get too carried away in shielding ourselves from reality. This is the “drowsiness of the heart” that our Lord warns us against. It is important to be concerned about real problems, whether big or small, and denial and indifference have a way of eliminating legitimate concern.
Compared to these two extreme opposite reactions, our Lord offers a third way. “When these signs begin to happen,” he tells us, “stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” In other words, don’t be caught by surprise. Be prepared. But what do we prepare for? We prepare ourselves to welcome the coming of the Lord, for he comes not only in times of peace, but also in the storms of our lives. It is Christ who will still our storms, both around us and within.
In his epic poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, drawing from eyewitness accounts from survivors of a shipwreck, speaks of a nun, who drowning in the turbulent waters, cries out, “Christ, Christ, come quickly!” As we observe the beginning of Advent in this season of turbulence, let us pray that whatever turmoil it is that we are most concerned about, God will give us the courage, the faith, and the desire to stand before him with welcoming arms.