Cambridge, MA. This is the second of my Advent reflections, occasioned by the Sunday readings, reflection on the state of my soul and our souls, and other things as well. (See the first here.)
I just finished – on CD, while driving home from my parish - Jennifer duBois’ fine first novel A Partial History Of Lost Causes. It involves Irina Ellison, a young American woman who at age 30 discovers that she, like her father before her, has Huntington’s disease, and Aleksandr Bezetov, a former world champion chess player turned politician and questing to challenge Putin’s hold on power and the presidency of Russia. By improbable turns their stores become interwoven; like a chess player astute enough to know she is losing but not strong enough to change the outcome, both Irina and Aleksandr ending up working together in his losing campaign for the presidency of Russia, and pondering how one is to act when defeat seems sure. Driving the novel is a question Irina, like her father before her, poses to Alexsandr: “How do you play a game when you know it is lost from the start?”
“Still playing when you know it is a lost cause” rings true today, perhaps bitterly so, for many who are staunchly and faithfully Catholic and love the Church irredeemably, but hope for it to change on matters of import such as the ordination of women and liturgical reform. I think of my fellow blogger Raymond Schroth’s very widely read recent blog on Father William Rowe in Illinois, removed as pastor because he changed words in the new translations, and adjusted the prayers to make them more accessible to his people; Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois, excommunicated, laicized, and expelled from Maryknoll for his support of women’s ordination; Father Bill Brennan, that 92 year old Jesuit banned from public celebration of the Eucharist because of concelebrating with a female Catholic priest; and Lennon Cihak, 17, barred from Confirmation in his parish after making known his opposition to a ban on same-sex marriage in Minnesota. Surely they knew, more or less clearly (Lennon is so young!), that they were challenging positions unlikely to change now – even, perhaps, in Lennon’s lifetime – and yet they did not step away from their positions, but in momentary and long-term ways, resisted, even when likely to lose.
Say what you will about the issues involved — this quickly written blog is not a place for theologizing in that way — but I found that continuing to play even when it seems likely one will lose is a theme for the Second Sunday of Advent. We tend to think of Advent as a quiet time of peaceful waiting, deep longing and desire for God’s coming, hope that will eventuate in Christmas, when Christ, born anew, makes all things new. But today’s readings also speak of hope in the face of likely loss. The first reading is from the Book of Baruch, attributed to the scribe who had also written down the prophecies of Jeremiah – those dire prophecies about the fall and destruction of Jerusalem that came true in all their dire details. It is in the face of destruction and the seeming end of his people that Baruch gives a different message: “Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look towards the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them. For they went out from you on foot, led away by their enemies; but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne. For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low? and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.” (Baruch 5.5-7) (Tradition has it that Baruch, like Jeremiah, died in exile.)
And then there is St. Paul, writing movingly tender words to his friends and disciples in Philippi, full of hope for all the good that he prays will follow — precisely when he finds himself in prison in Rome, his travels halted, his ministry seemingly at an end. Punishment by the Roman authorities by no means ended his ministry, “for it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.” (Philippians 1:13-14) But even if he has come to his own end, but he has no doubt that the mission will continue. (This hope will comfort him as the hour quickly arrives for his death by stoning.)
And then there is John the Baptist, to whom the Word of God came in the desert. We do not know why John is in the desert; Luke, like the other evangelists, does not tell us. But Luke 3 is detailed in its mention of the powerful leaders of the day: Tiberius; Pilate; Herod; Anna and Caiaphas. Perhaps John had decided early on that with such figures in power, no change could come, no recovery of the ancient faith. Perhaps such figures were mountains he could not cross, valleys into which he dared not descend; and so he stayed outside, self-excommunicated, in the desert. But improbably the Word still comes to John, quoting Isaiah 40, remembering Baruch: “‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3.4-5) Whatever stood in his way is now pushed aside; John returns from the desert, to announce that God is returning, to bring down the high places, and clear a path forward for his people. (John had a couple of years, at least, until he was beheaded.)
I know by now that some readers will be quite put off by my implication – it is only that – that Baruch and Paul and John, and the very spirit of Advent itself, should be linked with William Rowe, Roy Bourgeois, Bill Brennan, Lennon Cihak and, I would say, a host of others who love the Church enough to argue with it. But these are figures in our Church, and though pushed aside or down, they are not unheard. Some will object to the very idea that one might find common ground, in the Church, with Irina and Alexsandr, continuing on even for the sake of the “lost causes,” as if the Vatican were some latter day Kremlin, or the regime of Tiberias. To assert this, I agree, would be pushing the analogy far too far — but nonetheless the thought does occur. Other readers may object rather to my implication – it is only that – that women’s ordination, a renewal of the reform of the liturgy, and a host of other issues, are “lost causes,” even if sacramentally powerful lost causes, in our day and age; they might well ask, "Is not the living Church also thriving outside the Church?"
But my Advent thought is about who and how we are this Advent: It is a fact of life that there are courageous people who love the Church too much to leave it, and who are suffering the rulings and decisions of the Church right now, staying and suffering for the sake of (lost) causes they won't give up on, while others – the vast majority of us, even those who agree with the causes – hold back, keep silence, look the other way, perhaps waiting until the lost cause is not quite so lost. This is not the first time this has happened, nor the first Advent where shadows and reflections of dark and light play out in this way inside the Church; and all of this is with us in church when we pray in December 2012. But take heart: even the prophets of lost causes show us where the Messiah is to be born.