“O, come, Desire of nations, bind In one the hearts of all mankind; Bid thou our sad divisions cease, And be thyself our Prince of Peace. “
“Sad divisions,” deep polarization, conflict and war too often mark our time on earth. In a corner of the world which has laid a claim on my heart and life, violence recently demanded top billing in the news cycle as Palestinians and Israelis have once again resorted to violence in their decades-old conflict. And with it, some of us feel deep pain as we have friends on one or both sides of this conflict. Even absent personal attachment, we sigh, resigned to the perpetual cycle of violence, followed by calm, followed by violence. We wonder, is peace possible? Or in our weariness we just assume it is not. But this is too important a question to leave unconsidered. As Christians, we know that the true shalom of God will not come until Jesus has returned and brought with him his kingdom in its fullness. But in this age, this space in between, are there places so broken that they are beyond redemption?
This and others like it are appropriate questions to ask for those who follow Jesus. He who said “blessed are the peacemakers” either understood very little about the ‘real’ world, or he in fact knew something truer still, something in the world of Narnia C.S. Lewis called the “Deep Magic.”
These questions of peace and peacemaking in a fallen world come to us most powerfully at this season of Advent in which we prepare for the coming of the very Prince of Peace, knowing that he has come but is coming again. In that place in between—what the theologians call the “now, but not yet”—it is ours to be about the business of redemption and restoration in the broken places of our lives and of the world. We do this while living in hopeful expectation that one day all things will at last be made right.
If we have eyes to see our own fallenness, and if we can make ourselves open to the pain and brokenness around us, this place in between is often no easy place to be. A friend has left his family, domestic bitterness has spilled out into public view, and a home is crumbling. Another friend stands vigil beside her terminally ill father whose robust health was suddenly overtaken by a virulent cancer in a manner of weeks. A traffic accident claimed the life of a young college student and a family did the hardest thing imaginable when they buried their child.
Stories like these—experienced against the backdrop of a world in which war, natural disaster, disease, greed, injustice and corruption are too commonplace—are as much a part of our lives as the things we celebrate. The joys we experience, the mountaintops we inhabit from time to time—these provide us a taste of how life was intended to be in the original Creation. And they give us a pale but true image of how it will be again when the thin veil is removed, when Emmanuel has come and united heaven and earth.
But for now we live in between the two Advents where much of what we do is wait. We wait for that perfect and satisfying job, for healing, for companionship or for wholeness in our important relationships, for relief from financial strain. We wait for a reign of justice, for wholeness and peace.
Advent is about waiting, but it is not about an ‘empty waiting.’ Advent reminds us that because we are followers of Jesus, we wait in expectation and in hope. For me this hope is deeply connected to my understanding of that first coming, when the Word became flesh, when God himself saw our brokenness and was himself broken by it.
Several times each year, my vocation takes me to a place that is half a world away and yet in some ways familiar even to those who have never been there. I visit the land of Jesus, places like Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Cana. (Yes, these are real places, and each of them remains home to a faithful remnant of believers who are the descendants of those first Christians.) On a few occasions I have visited the village of Bethany where John tells us that Jesus wept (John 11:35). God cried, deeply saddened by the way we as men and women experience death and loss and sorrow. Bodies fail, health slips away, accidents happen, innocents suffer. And to the extent that we are alive and human, we too weep when these things happen. I am grateful that John tells us this story.
Likewise, another of my favorite spots is a small garden on the Mt of Olives where stands today the Church of Dominus Flevit. There’s not much remarkable about the site itself, except for the view it provides of Jerusalem just across the Kidron Valley. But what happened there tells me something very important. It was here, with that incredible Jerusalem vista before him, that Jesus wept for the city (Luke 19:41), and by extension, for the mess we have made of our communal lives throughout the ages. He wept over the way we allow injustice to take root; the way we ignore the poor, the marginalized, and those who are least among us; how we fail to love our neighbors as ourselves; how in our pride we imagine we are masters of all we see; and a million other ways in which we often live selfish and destructive lives together.
And I have sat in that spot and surveyed the modern Jerusalem skyline, knowing something of the holiness and profanity, the joy and sorrow, of this sacred and ancient town, and I have understood why Jesus cried. The mess we have made of the world he created made him weep, and I am again so grateful that he did, because it makes me weep, too.
And so we wait. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. But we wait not in passive resignation or despair. Expectant and hopeful waiting requires that we pray. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” And it requires us to be agents of that kingdom. In Advent we neither ignore the brokenness in us and around us, nor do we ignore the transformative power of Christ and the flowering and the beauty of a new way of doing business. We wait in hope, knowing that the Jesus Kingdom will one day bring about a restoration to the way the world was meant to be. We love deeply. We advocate justice. We feed the hungry and clothe the naked. We love deeply and give sacrificially. And, as the Psalmist admonishes us to do, we seek peace, and pursue it (Psalm 34:14). We do all of these things in the power of the First Advent and in the hope of the Second. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
Todd Deatherage is co-founder of the Telos Group, a Washington D.C. -based non-profit organization dedicated to educating American leaders about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the pressing importance of working for its peaceful resolution.