First Saturday of Advent (Memorial of Saint Francis Xavier, Priest)
IS 30:19-21, 23-26
PS 147:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
MT 9:35B-10:1, 5A, 6-8
The readings today implicitly and explicitly name the absence of the experience of God, or better yet, the experience of the absence of God. Imagining God as absent is somewhat out of the norm for most Christians, I think; despite a veritable plethora of Biblical images lamenting God's silence and absence (see, as one example that Jesus himself adopted, Psalm 22:1), our standard religious language imagines God as always good, always loving, and always present. But because of that attribution of omnipresence to God, we can have a hard time when violence and and injustice and destructiveness run unchecked - why is this happening? Why does God not intervene? Where is God?
For some people, this sounds like a dangerous lack of trust in God: God is perfect, we are not, so shut up and remember your place. I disagree; the sense of God's absence is precisely, and only, when the desire for God can emerge. The person who desires God is the person who is haunted by the sense of the lack of God, since desire is predicated on lack. That is, we only desire what we do not already have, like the rumbling of an empty stomach. The person whose guts churn with the feeling of God's absence is the one who has enough desire to call God to act again for our wellbeing, in a sense, to be God again. That desire opens up in the readings into hope - the training of the imagination to see a future that is different from the present, above and beyond the "facts on the ground" in front of us. The first reading, for example, offers an imaginative rendering of a future of abundance: clean water, fertile harvests, well-fed livestock, and an intimate and life-giving relationship with God. But to feel the need to craft such an image of the future, life for Isaiah and his community must have been very different: scarcity, fear, the silence of the absent God.
The Church frames Advent as a season of waiting, of anticipation and preparation for the coming of the reign of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. But if God is here all the time, always obviously available and in reach, what are we waiting for? If we feel God's presence all the time, what are we anticipating? What do we desire? Nothing - because again, desire is only desire for what is absent. Perhaps Advent gives us permission or even demands that we pay more attention to where God, or at least God's dream for human wellbeing, certainly seems to be absent from the world: systematic racial injustice, religious bigotry, homophobia and transphobia, misogyny, untrammeled ecological devastation, and more. Jesus' desire for the presence of God to be made clear is on full display in the Gospel today; he sees people who are lacking the fullness of life that the reign of God entails - "sheep without a shepherd" is precisely a metaphor of the absence of God - and his response is the churning of his guts (the literal translation of "his heart was moved with pity") -- as in the Beatitudes, Jesus' stomach rumbled with hunger and thirst for justice!
We can imagine God as always at hand but still be hungry with desire for the coming of a better future - the presence and absence of God, the "already but not yet" of the reign of God. The future (in French, avenir) is that which is yet to come (a venir) but which we pray for and work for and hope for in a particular way during this season. Come Lord Jesus, viens, oui.
Patrick Cousins works in the Department of Campus Ministry.