“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,” the prophet Isaiah exclaims in the first reading on this First Sunday of Advent. Lord, that you would rip yourself away from your heaven, that you would tear yourself from the lumenocity of the eternal, and descend into the muck of our mortality…
Today's Psalm is just as bold in its entreaty: “Rouse your power, and come to save us” (Ps. 80:3). Here, one senses the same urgency the apostles must have had on the stormy sea, as Jesus lay there, asleep in their midst, and their barque battered by wind and waves seemed doomed in the dark night. How often do we share in this sentiment: Wake up, Lord!
Yet the prophet Isaiah reminds us of something that is very close to our experience. He says, “We have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind. There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you.” As much as we want the Lord to rouse His power and come, we, in our pride-laden sin that withers us and carries us along, that weighs down our faces, are often at least halfway grateful that He doesn't rend the heavens and come down. In his 1923 study on the philosophy of religion, Rudolf Otto points out that the mysterium tremendum (tremendous mystery) of the divine presence has always both attracted man and woman, and made them tremble in fear. But sometimes I wonder if the hesitation or even repulsion toward God we experience today is not something entirely other than the understandable humility Otto was getting at. In today's workaday world of the self-made man, in this culture that seems to even reject the idea of God (at least in its day-in and day-out operations), we often don't really want God to come, to influence our plans and projects, to cause us to relinquish control. Isaiah highlights this tension: we want God and His power, and at the same time, we don't. We like our own power and its mirage. Taking one more step, we can simply say that we are afraid to be loved by God. Like Adam and Eve, we are afraid of what He might see when He encounters us in our present state.
This season of Advent, with its customary sense of urgency, challenges us to let go - now! - of that prideful repulsion that amounts, in the end, to a sort of apathy. May we rouse ourselves to call upon him once again, our voices united with the Church, who with her first words in the new liturgical year, as she cries out: “To you, I lift up my soul, O my God” (Ps. 25:1). And may we not waste any time in doing so.
“The days of Advent are like a quiet knocking at the door of our smothered souls, inviting us to undertake the risk of stepping forward toward God’s mysterious presence, which alone can make us free.” -Ratzinger