First Sunday of Advent
30th November, 2014
Fr. Joe Britton

“What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:37)

It has not been a quiet week. Not in the nation or the world, and not in my own heart and mind—perhaps you have felt that way as well.

First there was the news on Monday that the grand jury in Missouri would not indict the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, and announcement that was predictably followed by riots, protests, and demonstrations.

Then a fatal suicide bombing on a mosque in Nigeria contributed to the escalating violence that is sweeping across the northern part of that country.

At the University of Virginia, meanwhile, a brutal gang rape of an 18-year old freshman at a frat party made the news. And    then on Friday a gunman opened fire in downtown Austin in a suspected anti-government rampage.

212 people were murdered this week by guns across the US; and if you include all gun-related deaths, there were more like 615 fatalities.

Violence is an enormous problem. In fact, it is shocking—and rather unnerving—what an understatement that really is. Perhaps it would be better to say that violence is the human problem. Certainly our Christian faith points in that direction: after all, what is the first crime recorded in the Bible, but the violent murder of Abel by his brother Cain in a fit of fraternal jealousy? Or think of how much of the Great Litany with which we began this service is concerned with praying for such things as deliverance “from violence, battle, and murder.” Or even more strikingly, ask yourself what is the central symbol of Christianity, if not an image of the bloodied and broken body of Jesus, nailed to an instrument of violent torture and execution?

So today, the First Sunday of Advent, as we begin once again to tell the story of how God inserts the divine presence into the violent predicament of the human condition in the person of Jesus Christ, we ought to pay attention to the watchword he gives us in the gospel lesson: keep awake. Keep awake—an admonition that in the Greek is expressed by the verb gregore’o, which means to be vigilant, to pay attention, to take heed, to be on the lookout. It’s the same word Jesus spoke to his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane before his betrayal and arrest: watch with me. It is more than just staying physically awake, in other words: it is also about seeing things as they are, and for what they are. It’s about not falling into the trap of simply taking life for granted, as if nothing can be done about such things as the scourge of violence which we confront day in and day out.

Now, there are several tacks we normally take to try to deal with the reality of violence. On one hand, we can try to build up security systems of one form or another that attempt to insulate us from violence. But in the long run, those systems nearly always fail, because the human proclivity toward violence is so deep and so pervasive, that while we may be able to shield ourselves from one threat, another looms just around the corner.

Or, we can try to turn the tide of violence away from ourselves by retaliating in kind. But as human history and our acquired wisdom have repeatedly demonstrated, violence only begets violence: as Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary while the evil it does is permanent.”

But these two types of responses—either security or retaliation—are founded upon a sort of binary thinking that supports a calculus of violence which assumes a zero-sum game in which there are only perpetrators and victims, winner and losers. In the reports of the altercation between Michael Brown and the Ferguson police officer, for instance, the policeman is quoted as saying that in the end, he believed “it was either him or me.” Perhaps that is true, perhaps it is not.

God’s way of dealing with violence, however, suggests an alternative way of reckoning. If Jesus nailed to the cross is the paradigmatic icon of what human violence can do, then his response is a completely abnormal and totally unexpected refusal to accept the role of the victim. When Jesus speaks words of forgiveness from the cross for those “who know not what they do,” he both acknowledges the reality of the violence done against him, and at the same time declines to allow that violence to determine the nature of his response: he will not play the victim. And here’s the key: what emerges out of Jesus’ position, is that the forgiveness he extends to those who persecute him turns out to be larger and more capacious than the violence they do to him. Their violence is swallowed up in his mercy. In Jesus, in other words, God deals with violence by absorbing into himself, and then returning it in an entirely different and unanticipated currency: forgiveness, restoration, and renewal of relationship—a strategy that is ultimately vindicated by Jesus’ resurrection.

Rowan Williams, I think, had this model in mind when he wrote a little book called Writing in the Dust shortly after the attacks of 9/11. In it, he speculated what it might have looked like if, rather than rushing to war, our nation had paused to consider more carefully what might motivate such an attack in the first place—or at least what alternatives we had open to us of how to respond, other than with retaliatory violence. Williams suggests that by so quickly taking on the role of the victim, as a nation that felt attacked and aggrieved, we trapped ourselves into simply “striking back without imagination.” There was no room for absorbing the painful and horrific consequences of that day, and to consider responding in a different currency other than violence.

“The hardest thing in the world,” Williams wrote, “is to know how to act so as to make the difference that can be made; and to know how and why that differs from the act that only releases or expresses the basic impotence of resentment [that is bred by violence].”

To keep awake, to see things truly for what they are, forces us out of what we presume is the inalterable calculus of violence (which thinks only in terms of attack and revenge), and pushes us toward the possibility that an alternative reckoning can be made based on mercy and transformation (or “making the difference that can be made,” as Williams puts it). We learn from the cross—that place where the decisive transaction between human violence and divine redemption is made—that God’s way of dealing with violence is not violence itself, but compassion, mercy, and truth. And that is a lesson which we as Christians believe is applicable to the streets of our neighborhoods, to the interactions of cultures and  peoples, as well as to our most intimate relationships with friends and family. As the psalmist sings, “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”

If nothing else, this past week has reminded us of how much we need the season of Advent. The world will not be saved by retail sales; it will not be comforted by 24/7 Christmas music on the radio; it will not be redeemed by even a forest of cut pine trees. Rather, Advent calls us to a renewed contemplation of the truth that Jesus Christ comes not to condemn the world, but to save it. Violence, remember, is not of God’s making, but our own; and yet it is only God’s example of mercy on the cross that can save us from it in the end. Surely that truth is the meaning of the today’s collect, where we prayed: “Give us grace, almighty God, that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.” Lord, give us such light in these, our dark nights of injustice and violence. Amen.

© Joseph Britton 2014