Rejoicing With The Consoler - Advent Retreat 3
The most unforgettable smile I have ever come across was in a leper colony in Manchuria many years ago. I was in China to preach a retreat to some extraordinary sisters who, at one point, led me to visit this colony and introduced me to an old man who spent his days sitting on a bed because his limbs had been amputated. He had lost most of his eyesight and was reading a small book with the help of a magnifying lens. The nose was gone too. The moment I touched his shoulder, he turned towards me, his face lit up and a ray of infectious, uncontaminated joy flashed across it. The positivity he radiated was coming from a deep place within him. No wonder the sisters were so fond of him.
This memory returns to me each time I come across Paul’s invitation to “rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5.16) which would otherwise strike me as the typical preacher’s hyperbole nobody could possibly take seriously.
Is unending joy possible or even desirable? The contrived perpetual smile on some politicians’ or TV presenters’ faces strikes us as deeply inauthentic.
We have the right to be sad sometimes.
According to psychology depression itself should not be judged negatively since it usually signals that transitions to a deeper inner integration are underway.
When it comes to our faith, in particular, how is it possible to rejoice when we are exposed to the painful experience of the absence of God? We cry out to him and we have no answer, we suffer and do not receive any consolation. We ask him for something in prayer and don't receive it, despite his promise: “Ask and it will be given to you” (Mt 7.7). We helplessly witness the spread of evil, but the Lord does not intervene. No surprise then if we start doubting that the Lord exists or thinking that he inexplicably hides himself, is absent, ignores us. Perhaps he is indifferent or cannot intervene or is not as omnipotent as we believe. These are our temptations.
Instead of joy, we experience desolation:
God, though to Thee our psalm we raise No answering voice comes from the skies; To Thee the trembling sinner prays But no forgiving voice replies; Our prayer seems lost in desert ways, Our hymn in the vast silence dies.
(Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Nondum’)
A moment comes when God’s voice disappears.
All day long we are surrounded by voices, often too many. We have to filter them and decide which ones are worth listening to and which ones we’d better ignore. Voices that we recognize and trust have a great deal of power over us, can lead us in the right way, comfort, support, and give much needed validation to us.
Despite this abundance however, like Gerald Manly Hopkins, we long for another voice – a voice from the skies, a forgiving voice. And we experience a deep sense of grief when this voice does not reply to us, seems gone, and we wonder if it had been an illusion all along.
This perception, however, starts to change when we become aware that it might be even truer in the reverse, from God’s viewpoint, in his relation to us. To his calls “no answering voice comes from the earth”, his pleas seem “lost in desert ways” and his appeals “in the vast silence die”. It is not just us who sing hymns and psalms to God. God too pleads with us, he too raises psalms to us:
Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away. O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the crannies of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. (Song of Solomon 2.13f)
Let me hear your Voice. This is the Lord who speaks to us. He desires to see our face, to hear our voice. As for a father and a mother with their child, as a bridegroom with his bride, as a friend for his or her friend, for him our voice is enchanting, cherished, one would be tempted to say comforting. Nothing gives more pleasure to him than joining us for a friendly stroll in the cool of the day. Nothing pains him more than our fear of him, just as when, immediately after the man and woman had betrayed his trust and gone into hiding, the Lord God called them saying "Where are you?", Ayeka in Hebrew.
Everything God says through Scripture can interpreted as the echo of this cry Ayeka -‘Where are you?’ - he uttered that day for the first time. Since the call of Abraham and throughout the thousands of years in which God ceaselessly tried to establish a lasting relationship of covenant and friendship with humanity, he has kept repeating this Where are you? Every day, even now, in this instant, the Lord continues to ask to each one of us: Where are you?
Behold, I stand at the door and knock;
Come to me all you who are weary and oppressed;
All day I have stretched out my hands to a disobedient and rebellious people.
Through Scripture God looks for us, waits for us, comes to visit us behind our closed doors to wrestle with our doubts about him; is not put off if we do not recognize him; he is not resentful if we have betrayed or ignored him. Tirelessly, tenderly, patiently, he leads us to love him and trust in him.
Sadly, in response to God’s call, appeal, and longing, we withdraw, remain turned in on ourselves, self-absorbed, suspicious, fearful. We answer as Adam did: I heard your voice in the garden, I was afraid, because I am naked and I hid.
The joy promised by God does not reach us because we hide from him!
In this time of Advent, we are offered the image of Jesus’ mother, Mary, and are invited to consider the role she had in welcoming God, in her bosom but much more so, in her life. Luke’s version of the moment she was visited by God’s messenger depicts her as the exact opposite of Adam and Eve: Mary is not afraid of God, does not hide from him, nor ignores him. She was blessed with consistent openness to the Lord and kept trusting him even when she did not understand, even when what the Lord himself had given was taken back from her, even when he seemed absent or gone. The angel’s salutation is particularly interesting in this regard: “Hail, thou that art highly favoured”. The Greek word for “highly favoured” is kekaritomene, which means the “lavishly graced’, the creature who -unlike Adam and Eve- is not afraid of being naked in God’s presence. At the risk of sounding slightly irreverent, I like to think that kekaritomene also means the “Unashamedly Naked”.
When I joined the monastery aged 18, I was quite taken aback when an old and normally wise monk one day during confession told me that I should cover the images of saints and of our lady in my monastic cell when I was taking off my clothes before going to bed in the evening. Nakedness was supposed to be offensive to the saints. It certainly isn’t for God, at least if we believe the Letter to the Hebrews where it says that “being naked and exposed to God’s eyes” is the sign that we are welcoming God’s Word as it should be (Heb 4.12).
So, today, through his Word, the Lord keeps asking us: Where are you?
Nakedness comes in many forms. All have in common that we feel vulnerable, guilty, ashamed. This might be understandable in our relations with each other, but not with God.
He died naked, so he gets it.
No reason for us to hide from him anymore, whether because of our guilt, our loneliness, our fears or, as for Jesus, of our failure. Even in the areas of our life where we hide from ourselves, we can now let God in and allow him do the job of reassuring us and of winning our trust.
Patiently, the Lord stands at the door and knocks. What we consider to be the absence of the Lord only is a form of respect for us, his concern not to impose himself, his patient waiting at our door. To the Lord who asks us: Where are you? we have an example in the way Mary did not hide from him, overcame her fear and freely replied Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy Word.
The Orthodox tradition has interpreted the whole scene as an invitation to rejoice in the famous hymn called the Akathist to the Theotokos which translates the angel salutation with the word Rejoice and repeats it thirteen times, each time giving a new reason why Mary -and all of us with her- should rejoice:
Rejoice, thou through whom joy will flash forth!
Rejoice, thou through whom the curse will cease!
Rejoice, revival of fallen Adam!
Rejoice, womb of the divine incarnation!
Rejoice, thou through whom the Creator becomes a babe!
This is a kind of joy that, as Paul says, can last through any adversity because its roots are not in us but in God, because it does not depend on the events of our life, but on what God does for us. This must have been the secret of the Manchurian leper’s smile.
Paul suggests that the root of this continuous joy is prayer: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5.17). By ‘prayer’ here he does not mean ‘prayers’, the many things we say to God, but an awareness of God’s presence in us which is so tangible, so affirming, that it feeds our joy from inside and becomes coextensive with life. It is the same special kind of joy that we experience when we encounter recognition. The impact and pervasiveness of this joy depends on how meaningfully and unreservedly we have been affirmed by the people we have met in our life, especially our parents, our educators, our friends, our employers.
God’s advent affirms us, embraces our whole being, “spirit, soul and body” and “preserves us blameless” not thanks to our own efforts but because “the one who calls us is faithful” (1 Thessalonians 5.23f) and the source of our joy: “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul” (Is 61.10). Freely we receive this joy, freely we are called to give it (cf. Matthew 10.9) through unreserved recognition and love of everyone we meet in our daily life.