The Word Engaged
Sorrow and mourning will flee. (Is. 51:11)
The days of Advent wore on slowly for me (in 1997). It was not like waiting for some promise. I was dreading a disaster.
My sister had been brought low near Thanksgiving by a stroke that would revisit her twice in the next month. Advent, thus altered, was not anticipation. It was worry. And it seemed never to end, not even well beyond Christmas. My sister would spend months in the hospital, many weeks in intensive care.
Rather than the glories of Isaiah, we faced sorrow. Not blooming, but fading; not splendor, but weakness; not strength, but feebleness; not firmness, but frailty. Eyes saw less; ears heard less. There was no leaping. Singing was difficult; joy and gladness, rare.
It was one family’s way of suffering hardship—not the dramatic and terrible losses that so many millions feel, but a searing pain nonetheless. We were blessed by family and friends, attended by medicine with its high technology and personal care, but we fought anguish.
The words of St. James seemed a cool rebuke, if not a cruel joke. “Be patient. See how the farmer awaits the precious yield of the soil. He looks forward to it patiently while the soil receives the winter and spring rains. You, too, must be patient. Steady your hearts, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.”
Yet patience just did not work. My sister was the soul of patience—she had abundant gratitude for the slightest things—but each day seemed to get worse. Hospital windows seemed to sprout bars. Intensive care was a sentence without parole, without promise of deliverance.
When John the Baptist was in prison, he heard about the things Jesus was doing; so he sent his disciples to inquire: “Are you ‘he who is to come,’ or do we look for another?” Jesus said to tell John “what you hear and see: The blind recover their sight, cripples walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, dead are raised to life and the poor have the good news preached to them.” But this particular cripple did not walk; she did not even get up. Every attempt brought a setback.
Still, Advent makes promises. God will hear the cry of the poor. The small, the broken, the weak, the needy will have their time to rejoice.
The first changes came in us—we, the solicitous but powerless. Seeing my sister in her weakness and suffering unblocked some new pulse in us. Never was it so clear to our family how much our hearts went out to her. Surely we care about parents, brothers, sisters, and children, but it is often only in their poverty that we realize how much we love them. Two brothers agreed one day that they had never fully known how much they loved and admired their sister. Thus they experienced the ways that, even in our poverty (perhaps especially then), a love that can only be called godly is born. We, the image of God who made us, are touched by the poor beloved.
In some way, Advent never let go of us (that) year. True, in the spring we would later celebrate the Christmas we had missed. But the hold of Advent remained. This is a truth I will not forget. It is a truth that all of us on this earth must acknowledge, whether we are numbered among the “poor of the world,” or whether our poverty is revealed only in our illness, our aging, or our dying.
We humans will always be in Advent. A year’s Christmas may come, regeneration may occur, but at the core of our being is an endless waiting. We are utterly indigent when measured by eternity. “Come, Lord Jesus” is a song not only for December. It is a refrain for our entire lives, all our days.
For the world and all its life is only Advent. It is a creation unfinished, a groaning for another wondrous coming, a second birth. Our final happiness and healing, rich or poor, will not be quarried here. We who believe that heaven once came down to earth also believe that every grace of the earth will be lifted to undying life by our God made flesh.
And for my sister, who revealed the deeper mystery of Advent to me, she is given yet another Christmas on earth. This and every following Christmas will occasion fresh gratitude. Although she had seemed so caught in winter, the spring did come. There has been healing, and in her healing we saw a courage and strength previously untapped. The prolonged process of recovery and regeneration gave birth to new depth and resilience in her. Things unseen before were now recognized and named. Words previously unsaid and unheard were given utterance. The voiceless spoke. Stricken, she walked again.
Even if the healing had not been launched by the turn of spring, even if Advent had never really ended for us, a new incarnation had taken place. We had found more good to love than expected. We had seen more truth to know than once imagined. And the word of love had again been made flesh, having germinated in the somber days of a long winter.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University