‘There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
You might well wonder why Advent Sunday, the beginning of the Christian Year starts off with this mini apocalypse in the Gospel. We come in these weeks prior to Christmas expecting to hear stories pointing us to the birth of a child in Bethlehem. But this apocalyptic vision of the coming of Christ in glory is disorientating. In mentions hope and the coming of Christ but a lot of pain and suffering with it.
Starting the season of Advent by reading Luke 21:25-36 brings multiple contrasts into view: The “signs” that will prefigure the risen Jesus (21:25), juxtaposed with the “sign” that is the infant Jesus himself (2:12). Power and glory on the one hand (21:27), humility and helplessness on the other (2:7). A warning that the “nations” will be “distressed” and “anxious” (21:26), set alongside a message of “good news of great joy for all the people” (2:10). As odd as it might seem to draw these contrasting images together, there is wisdom in it.
“The way we respond to contradiction is pivotal to our spiritual lives.” Paradox requires “both/and” instead of “either/or” thinking.
How can we embrace this “both/and” thinking as we reflect on the birth of Jesus? Then going further, how do we incorporate both/and thinking into our day to day spirituality?
Paradox has been described as “a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.” When we talk about Jesus as a human being like us and at the same time declare him to be God it is paradoxical. A part of our brain says, that’s absurd if you are human you can’t possibly be God. A child like the baby Jesus is by definition helpless and vulnerable. Yet we declare that child to be God with us, Emanuel. These are paradoxes at the very heart of the Christmas story. The great challenge for Christians today is to how do we help people to see the wonderful truth at the heart of this paradox.
The paradox suggested in the Gospel reading that there will be catastrophe in the world and we can remain hopeful seems absurd. The most obvious catastrophe that we face is global warming with the fires, earthquakes, hurricanes and rising sea level that comes with it. We can close our eyes and ears and hope it will go away relying on the belief that all this has happened in the past and will happen again. There is a large element of truth in that belief.
However many of us would now see that as false hope. Christians have sometimes expressed another type of hope that God will repair all the damage we do. Again for many of us we would regard this as false hope.
More and more people have been convinced by the large body of scientists that catastrophe on scales we have never seen before is coming. If we are to hold our heads up as the Gospel says and hold on to hope, then we need to work collaboratively across nations and continents.
Is it possible for us as Christians to recognise the truth in other people’s views and work to together to explore the truth at the heart of the paradox? Yes horrendous storms etc have happened before, and yes God is working in the world bringing wholeness where there has been profound damage. Can we also say, yes we need to work collaboratively as much as anything because that is one of the great works of God in the salvation of humanity. We catch a glimpse of the reign of God when human beings work together using the full potential of their creativity. Perhaps the important role the Church can play is the capacity to bring unity where there has been polarised disunity.
Another great paradox is that the vast majority of humanity wants peace. We all want our kids to be safe and to grow up in a world where they can reach their full potential. At the same time most people seem to believe that it is essential to have big armies, large bombs and the willingness to go to war for that peace to exist. Certainly as you look at the history of humanity there is a lot of truth in this notion of large armies and a wiliness to fight that brings peace. Is it possible for us as Christians to help the world explore a deeper truth that lies at the heart of this paradox?
Closer to home if we all believe the church is meant to be one big happy family where everyone cares for others. And we also want to tell people when they have do things that insult us or hurt us. We know that when we speak out of our pain or anger it leads to division and unhappiness. Again is it not possible that we make a commitment to discover the truth that holds together our belief in church and our need to express unhappiness.
Similarly we all believe that the Church is a place where all are welcome. Yet when we give people a list of some of the possible people who might turn up at church we all admit that there will be some that we will struggle to welcome. Things like someone showing signs of a mental illness or someone who looks dirty and unkempt and smells of alcohol, these people would be hard for many to welcome well. So again if we explore the paradox that all are welcome and we feel there is a risk in welcoming some people; we may discover deeper truths at the heart of the paradox.
The beauty of us delving deeper in these paradoxes is that we grow spiritually and emotional as we explore the truth from various perspectives. As we do this work we also see a greater sense of unity and cohesion in the life of the Church. It is then that we become a real blessing to the wider community as we can model life that grows out of the truth hidden in paradoxes.
So as we begin our journey towards Christmas let’s not focus only on the sweet new child in Bethlehem but also focus on the reality of Catastrophe. Let’s celebrate the birth of God with us while beginning the collaborative work that brings redemption for humanity as a whole. We begin that collaboration in our own families and in our own parish community.
Let’s pray, Lord, help us to be open to the paradoxes of life, with an open mind to the deep truths hidden within.