This week marks the beginning of Advent, a time of anticipating and hoping for the promise of the Messiah while fully recognizing the reality of our broken world. As a community, we are marking this season through our second annual Advent series, featuring reflections here on the Intersections blog and content delivered exclusively through emails every Sunday throughout Advent. The first email went out this past Sunday, but it’s not too late to sign up for the remaining weeks. Here, Jessica Hoekstra, a second-year MA in Counseling Psychology student, wonders about how to approach a season of anticipation and arrival in the midst of such widespread pain and injustice.
I recently visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, where I stood in the room where Dr. King took his last breath and read the eulogy that was recorded and played at his funeral, which he himself wrote, so inundated by threats of death that he anticipated this tragedy.
“Yes, if you want to, say that I was a drum major. Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all the other shallow things will not matter.”
Moments later I stood looking out the window from where Dr. King’s assassin is believed to have shot. It was a chillingly quick shift in perspectives and in that moment, I was struck by the familiarity of that kind of violence and racism 50 years later. I was convicted by my own complicity in the systems that have perpetuated what Dr. Willie Jennings called “the permissible death of black people.”
The day before I looked up to the balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, I received the alert on my phone that there had been a series of attacks in Paris. And in the wake of this tragedy, suddenly many people denied the call to hospitality and welcome that is so central to an embodied gospel.
I find myself entering the season of Advent with these devastating realities at the forefront of my mind. Like many others, I am reminded that the Messiah entered the world as a refugee, a homeless baby, and the target of Herod’s violent pursuit. This is not a truth I am often mindful of in the Christmas season. But it seems especially apt that we would be forced to consider the notion of welcome as we move through the season of anticipation and arrival. If this is the way set before us, how does the paradoxical entrance of Jesus into our midst completely upend our sense of hospitality? How are we collectively embodying the role of witness, advocate, and neighbor?
It seems especially apt that we would be forced to consider the notion of welcome as we move through the season of anticipation and arrival.
I am saddened by my own failure to embody this radical hospitality and angered by the Christian community’s failure to even note the critical resemblance of the God incarnate and the people we have rejected, ignored, and condemned.
More times than not, I am struck by the dissonance in the Christian community, which has left me feeling distant from the church and hungry for an encounter that would remind me of God’s hospitality and faithfulness in spite of our lack. I was at a church recently where I went forward to participate in the Lord’s supper, opening my hands to receive the bread in a gesture I only ever make in this sacramental ritual. The cleric placed an enormous piece of bread in the palm of my hand. Without much thought, I shoved the whole thing into my mouth, nearly choking on the body of Christ. While comical, there was something poignant about this moment that forced me to slow in my ritual. It was as if my body needed and couldn’t take in quick enough this symbol of the holy and sacred, this bread emblematic of the Jesus I had sorely missed encountering in my days. I was moved by my stumble with the bread of communion and what felt like Christ’s own reaching toward me, startling me out of my acedia-state. The great God who measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, who held the dust of the earth in a basket and weighed the mountains on scales—that same God meets me, even as I stand at a distance, wanting and yet wrestling.
Like many across the country, last week I watched a wave of anger and heartache sweep across my home city as the police video of the shooting of 17 year-old Laquan McDonald was released, his tragic death now witnessed by millions. My heart has ached to be with my Chicago community as they have marched for justice, for the young black boys who become hashtags. The voice of the prophet Isaiah has been ringing in my head all week: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’” The prophet responds to the command, asking, “What shall I cry?” The voices of many cried out in a collective witness this week, weeping and calling for justice. Later, Isaiah gives further instruction to shout, “Here is your God!” My initial response to this was doubt. But then I remembered just how Jesus entered the world—as Immanuel, God with us. I have to believe that our paradoxical God lay beside Laquan McDonald that night. And as I envision the crowd marching for justice down Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, I can imagine the voice of the prophet crying, “Here is your God! Immanuel, the One who is with us.” We—the collective witness and community of believers—embody the spirit and hope of a paradoxical Messiah.
I have to believe that our paradoxical God lay beside Laquan McDonald that night.
As we march and limp our way to the beat of a crying heart, to the reverberating drum that rings for justice and peace, may we do so with an orientation toward welcome, toward the God who startles us with his presence.