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Advent: the lonely season

Fr. Lou DelFra | Wednesday, November 30, 2011

As is well known, our human story, from a faith perspective, begins in Eden, where we enjoyed perfect relationship with God, one another, and all of Creation. A snake and an apple later, however, all had been lost. The opening story of the human drama ends with the dramatic final lines of Genesis 3:

“So the Lord God banished them from the Garden of Eden … And after God drove them out, God placed on the east side of the Garden, cherubim and a flaming sword swinging back and forth, to guard the way back to the Tree of Life.”

It is that penultimate phrase — “to guard the way back” — that most disturbs me. In fact, it makes me wince; it is such a terrible, definitive separation. God not only casts Adam and Eve out from their home, but also closes the way back.

So, if this is our story of origin, then what is the human condition, based on such a story? It becomes one of “separation,” “homelessness,” “alienation.” Ours is a life of “wandering” and “seeking,” of longing for what we once had, of longing for our home — yearning for right relationship with God, with one another, with Creation — a recovery of what we have lost.

If the Church has been accused from time to time of repressing our deepest desires, she certainly must be acquitted in regards to Advent. If one of the fundamental truths about our human reality is the end of Genesis 3 — “and God banished them from Eden and guarded the way back” — then at the core of our existence is separation, alienation, homelessness. But there is also the longing to overcome these realities.

Surely this last piece — the longing — must be present in us, or God would not have had the need for those nasty cherubim with the flaming, swinging sword. Perhaps God knew that we would spend our lives — sometimes tenaciously and heroically, sometimes lukewarmly and dejectedly — trying to return.

Advent is a season when we, among other things, bring to conscious light this deep, and sometimes deeply buried — because it’s painful — reality: that we are not one, that we are not at peace, that our world is not at peace. We are alienated, but we deeply, deeply long not to be.

How did Jesus in his life acknowledge our fundamental separation from what makes us whole? One passage that draws me powerfully is Luke 5:16. It reads simply, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places to pray.” For someone who reveled in the company of others and was fully immersed in a life of active service, it’s a curious line. Why the need to spend time, “often” in “lonely places?”

I have usually, conveniently, misread this line, choosing a more comfortable reading than perhaps is warranted. I usually have interpreted this line to mean, “And Jesus would frequently get so tired by his service that he needed to withdraw from time to time in order to re-energize.” There are, however, many times when Jesus needs to do precisely this, and Luke phrases those withdrawals differently, without that stark phrase “lonely places.” The most conspicuous is after the feeding of the 5000, an obviously draining event after which Jesus would have needed a break. Luke says there, in 9:10, “After they had fed the crowds, Jesus took his disciples with him, and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida.” There’s no mention of that haunting word “lonely” — with all its Adventine connotations of separation, longing, homelessness. No, when Jesus needs simply to rest and rejuvenate, he normally withdraws with his disciples, and they rest and rejuvenate.

So, I wonder if Luke is being very deliberate about his word choice when he says, “And Jesus often withdrew to lonely places to pray.” If Luke is being deliberate, then I wonder if Jesus is not engaging in a spiritual act of Advent in such moments. That is to say, I wonder if he is not momentarily withdrawing to lonely places precisely so that he can feel lonely — not so that he will become depressed and gloomy, for which the Gospels give no evidence, but so that he can stay in touch with one of our most basic human realities (especially before his death and resurrection): that we are cut off from home, that we are separated, that we are alienated from God, from others, from Creation. Doing so perhaps made Jesus even more attuned to human suffering, and even more compassionate and zealous in his ministry to those in need.

If we don’t have times and seasons when we get in touch with this uncomfortable, agitating reality — that we are separated and long to be whole again — we actually become less human. Advent, if we are to take it on its own merits and not skip right to Christmas, is the season to allow this constantly throbbing reality, and our corresponding longing for right relationship, its full expression.

This week’s column is written by Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, Director of Pastoral Life for ACE and member of Campus Ministry. He can be reached at delfra.2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.