Jennifer spoke to me at the door of the vestry just before the 10:30 Eucharist on the First Sunday of Advent. There had been a shooting in Tacoma this morning: four police officers were dead. Could we pray about this in the Prayers of the People?
We were praying the Great Litany as the entrance, which on such occasions replaces the Prayers of the People. So we observed a moment of silence before we began the procession to remember those who had died, those in shock and mourning, and those caring for people in these dreadful circumstances.
The words of the Litany had special meaning as reached this petition:
“…from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord, deliver us.”
Fr. Chuck’s sermon stressed the counter-cultural call of the Church to Advent observance. We’re called to wait, he said, to develop in our waiting a deeper appreciation for Christ’s Advent. Like Lent and Holy Week, which deepen our appreciation for the suffering of Christ on behalf of ourselves and the whole world, Advent prepares us to appreciate the gift of Jesus’ birth to show us a fully graced human life in union with God.
As I arrived home after the morning of church there was a telephone call. A ninety-eight-year-old woman had just died in her bed next to a window overlooking the gray sea. I’d visited her earlier in the week at the request of a clergy colleague from down south. I drove to the house and presided over last rites, then talked with the family awhile. Two grandsons were there; small boys. They had questions about cremation, which grandma had requested in her will. They just weren’t sure about that. Cremation involves fire, one of them said, and fire is associated with hell. They didn’t want grandma in hell. What did I think?
I quoted the Apostles’ Creed from Rite 1:
“…He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead.”
This is a case where the wording of Rite 1 comes in handy. “He descended into hell” just comes off stronger than “he descended to the dead” in a moment like this. “We needn’t be afraid of hell”, I said. “Because if there’s a hell, Jesus already visited it and ran off with all the locks to hell’s doors. “There is no place God’s love can’t reach us”, I said, “including hell.”
The boys seemed comforted. I pray they are. I'm concerned that there are those who need this kind of basic theological help and don't readily get it.
Sunday evening St. Paul’s choir presented Advent Lessons and Carols. We heard a grand sweep of narrative from across biblical history speaking of God’s faithfulness to Creation. “O come, Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of all mankind”, we sang; “bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be thyself our King of Peace.”
This morning before I left on retreat I saw the spread in the Seattle Times on the murders of four Lakewood Police officers in a coffee shop as they sat undefended and unexpectant. The terrible evil of it shouted at me from the page.
The Christian message is that God in Christ embraces the whole world. God in Christ stares right into the face of evil. God is now present in the midst of the terror and unspeakable grief and anger and shock and dismay left in the wake of one man’s murderous, hellish act. God is present in compassion.
What we wait for in Advent is for the full end of suffering and reproach and violence and hatred. We await the return in triumph of Christ, who is the fullness of God's compassion in human form. We await the reign of peace he inaugurated.
In the meantime, we wait, and we hope, and we do what we can to spread this Good News that God is Love. We need it. The world needs it.