I never understood the penitential aspect of Advent until tonight.
When I was very young, Advent and Lent were both purple penitential seasons with little to distinguish between them. By the time I was in college, the seasons had been successfully distinguished as part of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II: while Lent was a call to repentance, Advent was a season of expectation and hope, often combined with a focus on social justice. I was surprised when the experimental shift to blue, Mary’s color, as the liturgical color for Advent was rejected and the traditional purple (for royalty, they told us, rather than penitence as in Lent) was affirmed.
But I never understood the penitential aspect at all. Until tonight.
Tonight, as we sang psalm 80, I could see in my mind’s eye images from the Ferguson protests, the peaceful protestors met with military equipment, with dogs and with tear gas and with rubber bullets, as we sang,
O shepherd of Israel, hearken,
from your throne upon the cherubim, shine forth.
Rouse your power,
and come to save us.
Images of protesters marching, standing, sitting, kneeling, with their hands up, chanting “Don’t Shoot,” chanting “Black Lives Matter.” Of protestors lying on the floor of shopping malls in die-ins.
Once again, O LORD of hosts,
look down from heaven, and see;
take care of this vine,
and protect what your right hand has planted.
Images of white people responding hatefully to black cries for justice, cries of pain.
Lord, make us turn to you
show us your face
and we shall be saved.
Now I understand.
The penitential aspect fits right in with the eschatological hope and the work for social justice: because we are so far from where we are called to be. Our world is so far from the reign of God.
The gospel reading exhorts us to Stay Woke:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.
It is like a man traveling abroad.
He leaves home and places his servants in charge,
each with his own work,
and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.
You do not know when the Lord of the house is coming.
Each with his own work. Each of us, with our own work, laboring for the reign of God, laboring in the vineyard for the harvest of justice.
If Jesus came back today: what would he see? How would he find us?
#StayWokeAdvent is an initiative that integrates the struggle for equality and justice with the liturgical season of Advent. It is “an experiment in spiritual honesty during a time of the year that is often covers up the pain and struggle of the world with a giant glittery bow”:
This is the time, the time of Advent, to stay alert…to “stay woke”…to your senses, your mind, your body, your feelings, your spirit to where to Spirit is stirring and leaning. Stay woke….to the impact your life has on others…Stay woke…to the injustice that we either contribute to or diminish…Stay woke….to the groanings of the world…Stay woke…to the humble, radical, empire-upsetting ways of Jesus…Stay woke…to the darkness…Stay woke…to the light…and to the sacred and profane in both.
On a practical level, you can follow #StayWokeAdvent on twitter, or at the curated collection of submissions. It is following a synchroblog format, so if you have a blog or other form of online expression, consider participating by sharing your own reflections, prayers, art, or music and submitting them.
I will close this post by sharing a musical setting of tonight’s first reading from Isaiah by John Foley, S.J., a member of — oh! of the St. Louis Jesuits — I never parsed the name before to actually associate them with the city of St. Louis.
I learned this piece in college, played and sang it often, never without weeping. It is the most powerful musical expression of lamentation that I have ever encountered in my American Roman Catholic tradition. It is titled “Redeemer Lord.”
Listen, sing, weep, and pray.