“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
As I finish this, Advent is beginning. It is the new year of the spiritual tradition in which I participate, and it is normally my favorite time of year. In week 1 of Advent, the meditation is hope. The invitation extended by readings, songs, and rituals is to dig deep and embrace hope as a way of thinking, of living, of breathing in the world.
But that is not always easy. I have been musing over the words of this piece for a year now. Events that I had initially been responding to now seem like ancient history, and yet still have the power to make tears catch in my throat. Now, as I ponder the theme of hope, I cannot escape the reality that our world is living through intense tension. Political schisms ignite dissonance and disagreement even among close family and friends, refugees are still being displaced by armed conflict, controversy riddles the news cycles, and there is palpable anxiety about plans in the US and abroad that will impact the global economy. Amidst this and more, the space I inhabit as a creative contemplative trying to remain engaged with the world feels cramped.
“Lord, make me an instrument of your Peace....”
Add all of that to a season when days creep into darkness at 3:30 pm, when so many people feel suffocated by loneliness and disconnection, and when comparison and introspection can leave folks feeling grateful, but also inadequate.
To look at these tensions squarely might just be too overwhelming. I empathize with people who, presented with the alternative of binge-watching the latest on Netflix, or distracting themselves with every possible holiday party and sparkle, might choose that over deep examination of the less lovely aspects of life.
“…Where there is despair, [let me sow] hope….”
Dissonance, though, is always an invitation to engage. Especially for artists. Authors J. Nathan Corbitt and Vivian Nix-Early do an exceptional job of articulating the different roles that artists have: celebrants, who help people remember what is noble, beautiful, and worthy of attention; conductors, who gather communities together to orchestrate change; and catalysts, who invite people to look squarely at the unlovely, and then push toward a vision of what is meant to be. In times of great unrest and instability, artists are charged to steward the power of their mediums—music, motion, image, and words—to help people see more clearly.
As a painter, I like using the visual strategy of contrast to help people see. Putting dissimilar elements next to one another—no matter the degree of difference—helps bring definition to edges and creates a focal point, one that often helps make sense of the larger whole.
The most essential contrast is between light and dark. There are theories that we pay attention to this contrast because, on an evolutionary level, shifts in light most effectively alert us to movement and may have helped our ancestors avoid being eaten by predatory animals.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has shone…”
Light pierces darkness. Light exposes what is. It allows us to see, though eyes accustomed to living in the dim and dark may sting until they adjust. In that way, light itself is a prophet—exposing what would like to remain hidden and providing vision.
To hope, we must follow suit: acknowledge what is—the good, the bad, the ugly—and allow our hearts and minds to be captivated by a vision of what could be.
This is: The day after Thanksgiving, over 300 people were killed in the attack on a Mosque in Egypt—in a peaceable place of worship.
This is what could be: “A great multitude beyond counting, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues” gathered in peace and celebration and unified worship.
This is: A critical mass of people are deeply afraid of the long-term impact of economic policies being implemented by political leadership.
This is what could be: A version of economic justice that does not demonize the wealthy and does not ignore or punish the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized, but proclaims that abundance is for everyone.
This is: There are over 20 armed conflicts that continue in our world as I write this, about half of which are worsening.
This is what could be: All of the resources—mental ingenuity, raw and refined materials, and financial backing—used in such conflict reallocated toward cultivating nourishment for the world (food, art, connection). Weapons beat into plowshares.
This is: Divisions and abuses of power at our points of difference seem like they are unending.
This is what could be: A level playing field, where divisions of culture, gender, and economic fluency and the power differentials wrapped up in them no longer dictate how we interact.
This is: Crippling poverty—of relationship and resources. This is—though it may not touch your life directly.
This is what could be: Community—deep, joy-filled, lasting, and with the ability to see and invite all to the table. Connection that causes the word "loneliness" to fade from our lexicon.
I imagine that I sound like an idealist. That’s okay. This week I have been listening to the words of a Jewish prophet named Isaiah. He acknowledges the unlovely, and much of it sounds familiar despite our separation of over two millennia. He spins a vision of the world that calls forth all that could be—a world in which the poor are restored to community, government is not corrupt, and lust for power doesn’t reign, where estranged people are reconciled to one another, nations reconciled to nations, in which the land itself is restored, the hand of God wipes away every tear, and every form of death (disconnection, addiction, disease, and bodily frailty) is overcome with life. Isaiah dares us to hope in a way of life characterized by seeing one another properly—as kin, as belonging to one another, as holy and eternal beings loved by the mysterious, majestic, and infinite God.
When I listen that vision of what the world is becoming, my heart’s response sings more prayerfully:
O come, O come Emmanuel.
This light—the light of life—will not be overcome by the darkness.
May you live in the light, and dare to hope in Isaiah’s vision as we enter a new year together.
Another Advent reflection.
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