Two stories for Advent
November 28th, 2016
By Sister Eloise Rosenblatt, RSM
Can we feel both terror and consolation at the same time? How can such completely opposite feelings co-exist? How can we endure Isaiah’s consoling vision of concord, anticipating the peace of the King’s rule, where the wolf lies down with the lamb – and moments later, abide John the Baptist’s condemnation of his visitors, “You brood of vipers ...” who will “burn with unquenchable fire”? We sense we are living two stories at once – one of peace, one of war, one of remembering wounds, one of healing.
As a family historian, I discovered, in a collection of my deceased grandmother’s photos, a black and white glossy dated April 1945. I view this group of 16 well-dressed adults mostly single women in their 20s, with one blond-haired baby girl in a mother’s arms. This is a celebration so elated, the photographer didn’t have to say, “Smile!” because they already are. I immediately understand the moment: The war is over. By this time, Germany has been bombed into retreat, its Luftwaffe air power broken, Russians moving onto Berlin, Hitler trapped, and the major battles against Japan in the Pacific theatre won, assuring a victory for the Allies. So this chapter of the story begins with a promise of peace, like Isaiah.
Yet there has to be anxiety. WWII is over, but still not done. There are five men, 11 women. Most of the brothers, fiances, husbands, and boyfriends are still at the front, at sea, on maneuvers – still in danger. Will the end of war see their return? So there are two stories – the joyful smiles and collective relief mask a dread for which this moment is a balm of distraction.
These Advent readings help us navigate between stories which set off competing emotions – dread and joy, anxiety and hope, paralyzing anger and energized action. Isaiah’s consoling poetry is an ecological vision of peace among human beings reproduced in the harmony of nature. No more war. No more enemies or predators, only neighbors in calm co-existence.
But Isaiah’s poetry of peace is only one story. John the Baptist, son of the honorable priest Zachary and well-born Elizabeth, has proved to be a renegade. He shouts out a different story – the religious institution is corrupt, society is compromised and people’s personal lives are crooked and misdirected. He calls for interior war, an ax laid to the root of the trees. He’s a turn-coat to his parents’ complacency, damning his generation’s values as corrupt and unredeemable. “You brood of vipers” must have shocked his hearers who were neighbors of his parents. His story is one of fundamental protest – he’s traded the desert for a house. He’s become a vegan. Locusts are not tended and wild honey is not cultivated and neither is ever a Temple offering. He’s even rejected clothes, making himself naked like an animal. He rejects theological platitudes – don’t presume salvation is yours because you call yourself children of Abraham! It’s a non-stop rant, a diatribe, a castigation, a threat, a summons. The beginning of this new story is “Repent!” Change yourselves. Change what you have been doing, thinking, feeling, and expecting.
The end of the story of Isaiah is a world at peace because it is filled with the knowledge of the true God. The story of John the Baptist is an interior, personal war against tradition and corrupt institutions. He foretells the end of the story – a baptizing, winnowing, threshing, sorting and clearing led by Jesus.
Which story is mine this Advent? How does it begin, and what end do I hope for?
Sister Eloise Rosenblatt, RSM, is a Sister of Mercy and Ph.D. theologian. She is an attorney in private practice in family law and works in San Jose.
From December 1, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.