Advent Sunday: Finding Hope at the End of 2017

advent-week-1.jpgToday is the First Sunday of Advent, and the candle lit today represents Hope—specifically, the hope we have in Christ, that He was born, that He lived, that He suffered, that He died and lived again, and that He prepared a way for us to follow Him. These musings are part of the Mormon Lectionary Project.

“A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man, did he become, from the night of that fearful dream. On the Sabbath-day, when the congregation were singing a holy psalm, he could not listen, because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear, and drowned all the blessed strain. When the minister spoke from the pulpit, with power and fervid eloquence, and with his hand on the open Bible, of the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable, then did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers. Often, awaking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith, and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled, and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away. And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave, a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grand-children, a goodly procession, besides neighbors, not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom.”

So concludes the tragic story of Nathaniel Hawthorn’s “Young Goodman Brown,” one of my all-time favorite reads—in spite of having been force-fed it in junior high, a time when I for some reason hadn’t found it compelling (how could any of us have been bored by a story that involves a Satan-sponsored sin festival in the middle of a midnight forest??). I have since learned to treasure this cautionary tale of cynicism and despair, and I have inwardly observed that 2017 has been for me a kind of Hawthornian night journey, in which “secret deeds” of otherwise trustworthy-seeming people have been laid bare, and I, like Goodman Brown, have been tempted to “behold the whole earth [as] one stain of guilt, one mighty blood-spot.”

How do we trust each other after this reckoning of sexual harassment and assault in Washington and Hollywood, our churches and our workplaces? (This is a question, of course, that the victims of this harassment and assault have already been asking.) How do Americans have hope for the country when even the president boasts of sexual assault when he thinks no one is recording the conversation? How does one retain hope in the Gospel after studying the complicated histories of the church leaders and prophets whom we learned to idolize in our youths as people of impeccable judgment and morality? How do we reconcile hope with reality, optimism with disappointment, idealism with rational judgment? Is it possible to be an optimistic, faithful, and hopeful person without cocked eyes?

wizardofoz

The moment of disillusionment, of secret things revealed and paradigms irrevocably altered. In this story, the moment preparatory to self-empowerment. An evolution of hope.

I want to believe that disillusionment is not a bad thing—that Dorothy’s life[1] is enriched not by meeting the “Wizard of Oz,” but by seeing him as the middle-aged mortal man behind the curtain. I say she is “enriched” by this disillusionment because it leads to her realization that in spite of whether the Wizard of Oz is who he says he is or not, that point is moot because Dorothy has had the power to return home on her own all along, with the shoes that were ever on her own feet. This is the realization that Young Goodman Brown never gets: he concludes that because the men and women he had hero-worshipped in his youth were inwardly sinful and despicable, there must be no hope for goodness or wholeness in the world. Dorothy, however, isn’t looking for perfection—she is looking for home. Although Dorothy, like Goodman Brown, peeks behind the curtain and observes the disappointing flaws of the powerful man she thought could help her, she finds her way to her original destination by using her own feet to take her there.

When Jesus Christ speaks to His disciples in John 14, He promises that although he will one day be physically separated from his followers, they will still be able to access Him inwardly—His Spirit, “the Comforter,” will “abide with [them] forever”: “Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you . . . And that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you” (John 14:16, 17, 20).

This is what Young Goodman Brown forgets. Everything he is shown in the night journey is true: Goody Cloyse, Deacon Gookin—even Goodman Brown’s wife, his own Faith—are all of them imperfect, fallen, and frequently deplorable creatures. But in spite of our own broken world and the sins of our enemies, our neighbors, our loved ones, and ourselves, the promise of Christmas is the promise that the Atonement in Christ brings hope of wholeness and goodness to even the most wicked among us, to even the most despairing. Additionally, it’s because of these revelations of skeletons in the closet and snakes under the rocks that we can properly clean house. Because if the world is truly “one stain of guilt” that we all contribute to, then certainly this world is also one collective beam of light, one cry of pain, one shout of joy. For while we are all of us sinners, we also all of us hope for a better, brighter future as better, brighter selves. Hawthorne’s Satan talks of their shared guilt as a form of communion, and so it is. But so much more important than that is the communion of bread and wine or water shared by Christians around the world, when we repeatedly and collectively promise to take upon ourselves Christ’s name, His message, His body and his blood, in spite of ourselves.

2017 has been a sort of night journey for me. I don’t think I’ll ever look at my religion or my country the way that I used to, once upon a time. But, like Dorothy, I still have hope that there is “no place like home” and that the only way this ideal home and community can be realized is if I get there on my own two feet.

mormon_lectionary-100x100px-rgbaMormon Lectionary Project

First Advent Sunday

The hymn I have selected for this first Advent Sunday is Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” because it is a song that has brought me hope on some of my darker days. One of my fellow BCC bloggers quoted it to me when I was newly postpartum and suffering from anxiety and fear every evening at sunset. The following remains my favorite verse:

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.


The Collect: May we continue to shed light on the secret sins of the world so that we may continue to make the world a better place and to make ourselves better souls to people it. May our hope in Christ not be unfounded; may the Atonement help us meet God halfway. Help us unite as fellow humans during this Christmas season of 2017 with hope that our feet can walk surely in Christ’s path, regardless of who has declared himself or herself Wizard of Oz, King of Westeros, Queen of Narnia. Bless us to help Christ’s work move forward by recognizing Him in ourselves, and us in Him. Amen.

[1] The irony, by the way, is not lost on me that Judy Garland’s participation in the 1938 film of The Wizard of Oz led her into the hands of powerful men at MGM who molested her. This plays into the thesis of this post—how does one continue to love Judy Garland’s performance in this film while simultaneously knowing what damage it caused this actress in her early years because of those who deemed her their property and abused her. I don’t suggest we continue to consume The Wizard of Oz with blinders on, hoping to forget this information. I do believe that this is a question integral to the story of “Young Goodman Brown”: how do we avoid cynicism and despair in the face of disillusionment?

Comments

  1. Thank you, Grover. This is just the message I needed. Bless you!

  2. Thank you! A wonderful addition to the Mormon Lectionary Project’s continuing Advent celebrations!

    I attended an Italian First Advent Service in the freezing cold Inner City Parish Church in Budapest this evening (the oldest Christian Church on the Pest side of Budapest, I’m told, founded in 1064). Despite the chill, both outside the church and inside on this Winter night, and despite not understanding much from the Italian readings and sermons, during the Eucharist the power and venerable tradition of Christianity really struck me, filling me with hope. Also gratitude for the amazing consistency of the Catholic Church’s celebration of Christ’s sacrifice for all of us in its liturgy. It has without doubt brought God’s light into a very dark world these last 2000 years, helping untold numbers of people draw closer to God and experience his grace in their lives.

    The sermon here tonight didn’t ponder hope in the context of the pervasive sexual harassment and assault in our society like yours above. But it examined the First Advent concept in other contextually relevant ways — very uplifting. I’m always impressed at how both Anglican and Catholic Advent services (and other services) are able to make sermons on these liturgical topics directly relevant to key moral issues affecting society and on which Christianity has or should have a leading voice without taking sides by joining one partisan “team” in very temporally and geographically specific culture wars.

  3. EnglishTeacher says:

    Love this reading of YGB. Thank you for giving me something to contemplate during church today!

  4. John F. I’m jealous of your experiences in Budapest! Thank you for sharing a few of the details from the service you attended. I agree with you that Christianity can be an important voice in the key issues of the world without taking political sides (or favoring certain nations over other ones).

  5. Perfect piece. I will ponder it all week. Thank you for the postpartum comment. 22 years ago, at this very season, I was racked by postpartum anxiety. I remember the dread of night. Even Christmas couldn’t wipe the evening onslaught away. Blessed Advent to you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s