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Advent, Hope, and the Chicago Cubs: a Devotion on Devotion

14572263_10154092126768214_5738134130707280860_nHope deferred makes the heart sick,
    but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. (Proverbs 13:12)

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for
    and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1)

 

With the dark days of a Chicago winter upon us, hope can feel in short supply. Add in the most divisive political season most of us can remember, and despair can make the heart sick.

In the meantime, you’ve almost certainly heard the news: last month the Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908! I’m fairly certain the cry of joy could be heard from outer space. I know the gathering of five-million people celebrating in Chicago was seen from the skies—the seventh largest human gathering in all history.

It was difficult to carry on normally during those weeks, due to the agony of near defeat, the tension of games too close to call, the ecstasy of victory. And the fact that I was unwilling to wear anything without the Cubs logo emblazoned on it (preferably Cubbie blue).

You might have asked yourself: all this for a ball game??

Well, not exactly.

There’s some powerful alchemy that goes into the emotions we feel around something like this; a recipe that gets at what we humans are to the core and what inspires us to move forward. It’s about individual and community identity, about our placement in the world and in time. It’s about the deeply physical, social, and spiritual elements of hope.

The last time the Cubs played in the World Series (and lost), the year was 1945. World War II had just ended and my Cubs-cheering Dad was only four months old. The last time the Cubs won the World Series it was 1908. World War I was still in the distant future. My dad—and his dad—weren’t cheering because they weren’t born yet; my great grandfather probably wasn’t cheering either, having just immigrated from Sweden and busy setting up the family farm.

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The baby in the high chair is my dad, the year the Cubs last played (and lost) the World Series

That’s a lot of generations ago. That’s a long time to hope for something unseen.

And so, entire generations of Cubs fan were born into families long-hoping for victory, only to live their entire lives and never see it. They birthed children who were taught to do the same, for generations. By the time my children were born, they were handed not only the words to the song “Go Cubs Go” but the weight of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents who had waited, and hoped, and died without seeing their hope come to fruition.

Yes, but it’s just baseball. They weren’t hoping to see peace come to their homeland, a return from exile, or the coming of God’s final redemption—as so many have throughout human history. That’s true. This is a baseball sized hope.

But when you have the privilege of witnessing something your father’s generation longed to see, and your grandfather’s, and great grandfather’s—and they didn’t, but never stopped hoping, and passed the dream on to you—well, that becomes something bigger than just a ballgame.

This is about loving each other through the ages, and not just today; about faithfulness when it’s difficult and not just when its easy. It is the deep love and loyalty that families feel for each other, the longing one generation has to be united to the ones that come before and behind. It is where we find the strength to move forward, to train up our children, keep the faith, work for redemption and a world made new. There’s power when you believe an ancient dream may finally be realized. It’s about a heart sick from hope deferred, now rejoicing in a tree of life.

The very biggest and best stories are passed down this way; the most transcendent hopes are woven through the generations.

Outside of professional sports we have real lives, with real hopes long deferred. We look at the legacies entrusted to our generation, and wonder if we’re worthy to pass them forward. We trudge through suffering and wonder if we’ll see these longings fulfilled. So we stay faithful in the little things: getting up each morning, caring for family, friends, and neighbors, serving in our jobs, seeking after God, keeping the faith. We long to believe that this everyday-faithfulness is worthy of the legacy of hope, that we are keeping the course for those that came before and those that came behind.

That’s why these small tastes of victory mean so much to us. Spoilers that hint at the end of the story: the ancient hope of our mothers and fathers is alive, even if we won’t taste the fruit in our lifetimes.

There’s a wall at Wrigley Field where fans have chalked the names of their loved ones who hoped to see this day but passed on months ago, years ago, decades ago. Those who have gone before us. Sons and daughters have travelled to far-off cemeteries to listen to Game Seven with the mothers and fathers who longed to listen to such a game their entire lives. Friends are getting tattoos in honor of dearly departed loved ones they wish had lived to see this day.

It is this sweet fulfillment of generations longing together that was tasted, in a small but meaningful way, by millions of Cubs fan now, finally, in 2016.

 

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Good News of Great Joy

I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. Habakkuk 3:18
The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great
joy that will be for all the people. Luke 2:10
From the very first moment, the message of Christmas has been one of rejoicing.  Joy is interwoven everywhere in the story. The angel Gabriel greets Mary with a word that literally means “Rejoice.” When Elizabeth approaches Mary her baby leaps in the womb for joy. The song Mary sings in response is full of joyous pronouncement. The declaration of the angels to the shepherds is that their news is great joy to all people. The shepherds respond with joy upon seeing the new baby. And when the wise men see the star, they rejoice with exceedingly greatjoy.Why so much rejoicing at the arrival of a baby? To these men and women who lived so long ago, what did this baby mean? In the songs of Mary, Zechariah, Simeon, and the angels – through the pronouncements later on of John the Baptist and Jesus himself – and through the ancient prophets long before them – we discover the source of their joy. As Zechariah sang “because of the tender mercy of our God/ whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high/ to give light to those who sit in darkness/and in the shadow of death,/ to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The nation of Israel had been waiting for generations. As the prophets declared they were “waiting in darkness to see a great light.” They believed that the One who created the cosmos and called Israel to be a nation had entered into an irrevocable covenant with them – to bring justice and unity, to bring light into darkness, to make crooked paths straight, to bring good news to the poor and freedom to the captive.

Hundreds of years previously, the prophet Zephaniah urged the people of Israel to sing aloud and rejoice with all their hearts. “The Lord your God is with you” he said, “the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” He prophesied over them, capturing their national identity and hope in declaring “I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles…at that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home says the Lord.

When the Gospel characters – Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna, and the Shepherds heard the news of this child, they heard it within this context. The centuries of hopeful imagination and trust in Yahweh’s covenant with Israel and creation was coming to fulfillment in the birth of this baby. The Messiah, the anointed one, the long awaited one, has come. Israel will be delivered. Creation will be redeemed. God is with us. This is the joy that comes from a thousand year expectant hope come finally to fruition.

Thousands of years later, we still carry this same joy into the world, through the celebration of Christmas. God has come to our world, and he has come to redeem and not to destroy.  We know now with certainty that he has been and will be faithful to his covenant, to the plan he laid out before the creation of the world.

God’s plan of redemption is underway. He has not forgotten us. He is still faithful to the relationship with creation inaugurated at the dawn of time. In a world of pain and darkness, his plan for unity and justice will prevail.

This is the good news of great joy that we receive at Christmas.

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Advent and Solstice: Waiting for Light

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.
– Psalm 27:1, 14
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 
– John 1:9
Thousands of years ago, during this cold, darkening season, Germanic people wove evergreen wreaths to express hope in life’s ability to withstand winter and be made new in springtime. These green living circles symbolized the constant cycles of life, and they decorated them with lit candles during the dark, frozen December days. This was their expression of hope that long winter nights would not last forever, but warmth and the sun-filled days of Spring would return once more.
In Scandinavia during the long dark nights, ancient worshipers removed their wagon wheels and placed lit candles upon them. In this way they beseeched the god of light to turn the wheel of the earth back again towards the sun, to lengthen the days and restore warmth again to the earth.
These ancient communities of northern Europe knew just how dark darkness could be – how cold, how lifeless.  The coming of the solstice contained the promise that darkness would not last forever – light and life were coming tangibly back to the world.
It is no surprise that in the first centuries Western Europeans began to celebrate Christ’s birth during this same season. Centuries of reflection on the darkness of early winter coupled with the certainty of hope in light and life breaking through found their fulfillment when the true light that gives light to everyone came into the world.  The redeeming light celebrated at the solstice became Christ, God-with-us, along with the return of the sun. These hopeful, expectant weeks of waiting in darkness found new significance for the community of believers as the season of Advent.
Today, in the darkness of early winter, the Christmas season still begins with waiting, with hoping. I carefully place candles on a wheel of evergreen boughs and light one each Sunday of Advent with my children. It is Christ we are waiting for. Even though the reality of history is that the Messiah has come, and therefore he is here now and always, within the celebration of Advent he is coming and therefore we are waiting.  We are waiting for Christ, for Emmanuel, for God-With-Us. During these weeks there is a tangible sense of entering, of expecting. There are mysterious and majestic things to ponder and simply speaking or hearing them will not do – the message must sink down deep into our hearts, our minds, our choices, our songs, and our dreams.
In this wintertime season the world is covered in darkness and lifelessness. No one needs to be convinced that something is off kilter in our lives, our families, our communities. We know how dark darkness can be. There is pain and suffering, we are hurt by others and hurt others in turn.  The Good News that we are straining to hear during this Advent season is found in a newborn baby, but it is neither weak nor helpless. This Good News, this light that has come into darkness, has the strength of God grafting us into his family, of sending neither a sign nor a prophet but coming himself, as one of us.  There is no darkness past, present, or future that can hold a candle to this light.
Praise be to God for his indescribable Gift.
 

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Christmas and Newtown, CT

I’ve been mulling over the old song “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” For some time I’ve thought that the most poignant words were “For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will towards men.” Poignant because it is so true; not the deepest truth, as the song goes on to illustrate, but yet so very true.

More recently, however, I learned that the version we sing is missing two verses of the original. Written during the American Civil War, this song as originally sung does not merely give a hat tip to hatred and despair, but is centered on the very real experience of darkness and its powerful hand.

I appreciate narratives that hold both the joy and the pain of life together as one, which is how we receive them in our daily lives. So this song is even more meaningful to me now that I realize the author was far closer to the hate he describes than I can imagine. The Good News is powerful not because it is the only news, but because the earth is saturated with so much painful news that came before it, and groans for redemption.

As I write this, our nation is griped in shock and grief as the news pours in of nearly thirty innocent people, mostly small children, violently, purposely shot dead today in an elementary school. The world has gone mad, we are broken, so very very broken, and there is no way anything we do will ever put this to rights ever again.

I am reading the horrible, painful news as Christmas music plays in the background and it is at once a jarring and poignant juxtaposition. The mythical version of Christmas where all is peace and jolliness is simply of no use at a time like this; it smacks of the sort of naivety that leads quickly to its counterpart, cynicism, both of which are useless to stem the tide of evil and suffering.

But the real Christmas story, the one in which God himself comes and takes on flesh in the form of a baby, a human, a fellow sufferer, with all that this entails; and that he does so to set into motion a path that leads to the redemption of earth and body and soul – this is the good news that is being sung in my Christmas songs, and it is the sort that we need today and every day.

This news is not good because it puts a candy-coating on life to avoid seeing the problems. This news is good because it has looked so deeply and entirely at the pain and answered back with a force every bit as loud and strong and life changing.
I heard the bells on Christmas DayTheir old familiar carols play,And mild and sweet the words repeatOf peace on earth, good will to men.
And thought how, as the day had come,The belfries of all ChristendomHad rolled along the unbroken songOf peace on earth, good will to men.
Till, ringing, singing on its way,The world revolved from night to day,A voice, a chime, a chant sublimeOf peace on earth, good will to men.
Then from each black accursed mouthThe cannon thundered in the South,And with the sound the carols drownedOf peace on earth, good will to men.
It was as if an earthquake rentThe hearth-stones of a continent,And made forlorn the households bornOf peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair I bowed my head;’There is no peace on earth,’ I said;For hate is strong, and mocks the songOf peace on earth, good will to men.’
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:’God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,With peace on earth, good will to men.’
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

No one needs to be convinced today that something is off kilter in our lives, our families, our communities. There is pain and suffering, we are hurt by others and hurt others in turn. The Good News that we are straining to hear during this Advent season is found in a new born baby, but it is not weak or helpless; this Good News has the strength of God grafting us into himself, of sending not a sign or a prophet but coming as one of us.

There is no darkness past, present, or future that can hold a candle to this candle.

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My aim is to awaken myself and others to the creative, redemptive work of God in this present moment. I am striving to see beauty, learning to expand my perspective, praying to keep my eyes and heart open.

Connect with Catherine at www.catherinemcniel.com.

 


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