Looking At and Looking Beyond – Pastor’s Reflection (November 29, 2015)
In the weeks ahead, how many things, and how many people will demand that we look at them. “Look,” they cry, “I am all decked out.” “See,” they say, “I am defying the darkness with lights and tinsel.” How do you look at all the holiday splendors, the lights and the ornaments, the fashions and foods, the gifts and the parties? Do you find it all exciting or banal? gorgeous or tacky? Abundance to delight in, or excess to avoid?
We are in for weeks of looking: what then is our way of looking? If I pause in my walk at a merchant’s holiday window, consider the options that are mine. Maybe I will take the decor head on, and come out with, “lovely,” “too much,” or, “wrong colors.” That would be looking at. Perhaps I will look away, edit out the decorator’s work, and focus on the merchandise. I could also take a defiant tone and look through to the merchant’s attempt to manipulate me – I will not allow this corporate giant to trigger my consumer impulses. Finally, I could connect to the window as art, and ask, “what are they trying to accomplish with this?” Thus I could look beyond the lights and ribbons to the creative endeavor itself. Of course, I cannot make this connection without looking squarely at the elements of the window: I must look at in order to look beyond.
Looking at to look beyond makes for a Catholic gaze upon reality. At every Mass we look at the Host and beyond it to the Body of Christ, and thence to the mystical to its mystical unity, that is Christ and His whole Church. If this visual stance becomes a habit for Eucharistic people, the season of Advent hones the habit, by pushing it to its radical applications.
Here come the prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist, to show us the most piercing mode of looking at and beyond. They have from God the uncomfortable gift of looking straight on at the dead ends of the created world and the human heart. But for both of them the barrenness of the inner and outer landscape provides an opportunity for God to amaze with fruitfulness and forgiveness. Yet we do not perceive the gift as such unless we also name the futility the gift overcomes.
Lent looks through us; it discerns the fakery of our compromises, and our capacity to undertake growth through discipline. Advent speaks directly to the struggling and stuck human heart as it seeks to bring fruitfulness to the created world, justice to human relations, constancy to the life of the individual. Over and over we seek perennial goods and turn up with inveterate failures. For two millennia we have proclaimed a life-giving Gospel, and yet people are still hungry and still angry. Believing hearts still yield to fatigue and anxiety, and so we turn up again at the confessional bearing the weight of our mysterious compulsions.
I wonder how we will look at what the year 2015 has on display in its window. If I look at the window I see violence and dislocation. Even in America it is hard to look away from this window because I must see the homelessness right in my fine neighborhood. I can try to look through these terrible events and find someone to blame. While I might find the perpetrator of a given cruelty, I will be more hard pressed to name what set him, her, or them in motion so terribly and tragically. Here St. Paul writes with telling precision in the Letter to the Romans, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope.” (Rom. 8:20) Paul’s insight echoes that of the prophets. God somehow allows us to feel the limits of created things, not so that we would yield to despair, but precisely so that we would look beyond them and hope.
Hope is the disposition of soul that looks to the fulfillment of things in God, even when things seem irretrievably broken, and hope dares this because God is God. Hope dares even to look into the difficult window of 2015. It looks without rose-colored glasses at the tragedies on display there, and it also looks beyond them to what faith discloses, which is the capacity of God to bring forth the good from His limitless store.
Hope rejects the denial of looking away and the cynicism of looking through. It requires the courage of looking at, and it goes beyond courage because it perceives that where human endeavor has met its limits, there is God. The brokenness of the world is very near to us. Perhaps Jesus can speak to our Advent, “In the world you will have trouble, but fear not, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) Taking assurance for a foundation, we can make a habit of looking beyond, so as to look truthfully and mercifully upon the world as it is, to have hope and to share hope. The Church takes this tone as she begins Advent with the entrance antiphon for the First Sunday of Advent. “To you, I lift up my soul, O my God. In you, I have trusted; let me not be put to shame. Nor let my enemies exult over me; and let none who hope in you be put to shame.” (Cf. Ps. 25)