In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths. For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Isaiah 2: 2-3
“I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven.”
It is the beginning of Advent. For some of us there have been many Advents, and yet, it can seem as if we must again learn to wait, as if for the first time. The waiting to which Advent calls us is a stance of being in and before the world in faith, hope, and love. It is a standing reading to welcome the Lord who is always coming to us, not primarily in the old and familiar ways of our cultural and religious habits of mind, but rather in the depth of each moment as it truly is. The summons of Advent to wait on the Lord is always surprising, however, because presence to the moments of life as they are and so waiting on all they offer us is not our typical mode of presence.
In Maxim 9, St. John of the Cross writes:
Preserve a loving attentiveness to God
with no desire to feel or understand
any particular thing concerning him.
As we read today the story of the Roman centurion whose faith, Matthew says, amazes Jesus, and as we hear again the familiar words of Isaiah of that time when “all nations shall stream toward . . . the mountain of the Lord’s house, “ we are challenged to recognize how our desire to feel or understand things about God stand in the way of receiving God’s presence. What makes the kind of waiting that Advent calls us to so difficult is that it is a waiting without “desire to feel or understand any particular thing concerning God.”
Today it is impossible to read the prophecy of Isaiah 2 except in light of the political reality of the Temple Mount. It is the focal point of the intractable conflict between Jews and Muslims. It is a place to which each tradition claims exclusive right religiously and traditionally. It is not what Isaiah proclaimed, the place to which all nations will stream in order to be instructed in God’s ways and to walk in God’s path.
Most of the time we are not present to life in a way in which we are waiting for the moment to instruct and lead us. Rather we are present, as Louise Gluck writes, with minds “filled with the past.” There is no room for what is new and inspiring to touch us and summon us to new life, for we are filled with judgments about the present reality that are formed by our experiences of the past. This is why Matthew describes Jesus’ response to the Roman centurion as “amazed.” The centurion is prepared to trust Jesus merely on the basis of his word. The centurion makes no demands that Jesus behave in ways that will reassure him. He is rather prepared to trust in Jesus’ love for his servant and desire to heal him.
Both as individuals and as communities and collectives, we have a tendency to grow sclerotic with age. Our modes of thinking and our habitual ways of being tend to become hardened. This is, in fact, how we as individual persons and as cultures and societies tend toward dying in spirit before dying in body. The recurrent call of Advent each year to learn again how to really wait is a therapy for our hardening of mind and heart. Perhaps the simplest way to speak of this is to rediscover how to be surprised.
A few years ago, circumstances, as well as choice, required that I move away after spending most of my life in a single community and in a life’s work. While attempting to be hopeful about the change, I had very little truly positive anticipation. Even before beginning the new life and work, I had created in my mind a sense of the coming years as a kind of parenthesis in my life. I would put in my time and do my work as dutifully as possible, but I would basically live in the expectation of returning to something and someplace more familiar when my temporary exile had ended.
Without at all diminishing the loss and the loneliness that the displacement has brought, I find myself greatly surprised by the unanticipated gifts of friendship, of challenge, and of new self-understanding that have come to me unbeckoned through the course of the changes. I had been certain that I was too old, that my life had taken on too set a form to really be changed. And yet, through circumstances and especially through persons I have come to know my life, my desires, and my aspirations in new and surprising ways. As one of my friends has recently pointed out, whatever our age and stage of life, we are always “just beginning to learn” what life has to teach us and ask of us.
When our religious and spiritual lives become merely cognitive structures meant to serve our desires to feel or understand particular things concerning God (and life), they become but sources of conflict and violence. The Temple Mount becomes just a sacred place for our own kind and not a place to which all the nations are to stream. When our habits of mind and ways of being are merely protections to reinforce our own gratification and our own perspective on the world, then we are no longer standing ready to be surprised by the more that God offers us in life. The world as it is, in its sufferings but also in its blessings, cannot penetrate our mind when it is “filled with the past.” Until our last breath, God is always coming toward us. As the centurion, we must “wait” without our preconceptions and repetitive habits so that we may be surprised at the form God’s love and call takes.
So, it is Advent yet again. The call to a new beginning can seem quite ironic in light of how many Advents have gone before in our lives and of how often we have heard the summons to wait. Yet, as St. Paul reminds us, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” (2 Cor. 4:16) While our bodies may feel the wear of our many years, our spirits are ever young. Life is ever new and constantly filled with surprises of the new and life-giving ways that God is always coming to us. What is asked of us is to wait upon life, as it is and not as we would make it, that we might receive the newness of life being offered to us at each moment.
How heavy my mind is, filled with the past.
Is there enough room
for the world to penetrate? It must go somewhere,
it cannot simply sit on the surface—
Stars gleaming over the water. The leaves piled, waiting to be lit.
Insight, my sister said.
Now it is here.
But hard to see in the darkness. You must find your footing before you put your weight on it.
Louise Gluck, from Autumn