Advent: A Season of Surprise (in 3 Parts)

This chapter from THE BEST OF BEING CATHOLIC, originally published in ST. ANTHONY MESSENGER, takes on new meaning as Pope Francis calls God a surprise…

During an Advent session at Mater Dolorosa Parish in San Francisco, one lady stoutly maintained she hated surprises. During a raffle afterwards, she won the turkey!

Such unexpected events help prepare us for Advent, the season of a surprising spirituality. God who could have become human as a respected philosopher like Plato, a military leader like Alexander the Great, or a beautiful queen like Cleopatra, comes instead as a helpless baby. All the Beauty and Power in the universe becomes vulnerable and dependent. Furthermore, God pitches a tent, not only “among” us, but “in” us, as some translations say. What an odd residence for the King of Kings!

As Gaudium et spes says, God “has in a certain way united himself with each individual. He worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will and with a human heart he loved.” (22) Advent is meant as a time of preparation for that incarnation event, but how can we prepare for something so impossible to imagine?

One answer lies in the direct interplay between scripture and our lived experience. It seems as if God always make an entrance through the door behind us, the place where we weren’t looking. That pattern, also found in the Bible, sensitizes us to look beyond the tried-and-true, socially sanctioned, boring, repetitious rut. As some say, God lurks in the cracks between certainties.

Promise came to the Samaritan woman in a surprising way (John 4: 7-42). She trudged to the well as she had nine million other times, but there she met a stranger who snagged her attention. His request was preposterous: this guy without a bucket wasn’t supposed to use the vessel of a less orthodox Jew! Nor was he supposed to talk with a woman in public. He didn’t make a demand, but suggested a possibility: if only you knew the gift of God…

It’s the kind of tantalizing potential children suspect before Christmas. If only you knew what was in that large box with the intriguing tag… How could the woman at the well resist such a mysterious invitation?

Until then, she’d probably done what she had to do to survive: endless drudgery, reliance on men since she had few rights, enduring the sneers of self-righteous, married-only-once women. The stranger offers her another way, an inner source of vitality that will never dry up or disappoint. He presents God’s life in terms she understands. Who appreciates a fountain more than a desert dweller? She can practically taste fresh drops on her tongue.

Jesus himself isn’t immune to the effects of a long, hot walk. Angels don’t rush in with iced pitchers and shading umbrellas. Like us, he depends on human beings to relieve his human needs. In the architecture of John’s gospel, the request recurs during the crucifixion (“I thirst.” –19:28). Furthermore, he doesn’t use flowery camouflage, but speaks the need, simply and directly. As St.   Augustine pointed out, Jesus’ weariness may spring symbolically from his long journey into humankind, with its flaws and evils.

We all function in familiar grooves; it’s how we organize our time. Especially during this super-busy season, various chores compete for our attention, screaming, “Attend to me!” “No, me!” “I’m next!” Like a chorus of toddlers, all those jobs demand time and energy. It’s tempting to strangle those who want us to be still and quiet in Advent prayerfulness.

And yet. Scripture scholar Thomas Brodie in The Gospel According to John says the woman at the well was too preoccupied with daily necessities. She had to learn to relax and enjoy God. For people obsessed with responsibility, as many are before Christmas, it’s wondrous relief to let God be God. And one of God’s hallmarks seems to be this propensity to surprise.

In the final judgment scene, both the “sheep” and the “goats” are surprised by the king’s words (Matthew 25: 31-46). Apparently what they thought important isn’t, and vice-versa. “You mean that pbj I made my daughter? That tea I gave the repair man? That’s where you were? Not in the church attendance, the solemn committee meetings, the dutiful donations?”

What may block our awareness is the same demand that swamped the Samaritan woman: intense, seasonal. Picture them jostling, all contenders for our attention, but ultimately imposters. Someone must muscle them aside if the King is to claim the throne, centrality in our lives. Then, as the Buddhists say, if we think we’ve achieved that, we probably aren’t there yet. Surprise!

To be continued…

One response to “Advent: A Season of Surprise (in 3 Parts)

  1. Could the surprise du jour be reading Hidden Women of the Gospels at Adoration today about Martha, who in our modern world would be CEO of General Motors … the day after Mary Barra was the first woman named CEO of General Motors?
    I believe so…(smile)

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