By Father Frank D. Almade
Each Advent, we usually reflect on variations on common themes: prayerful reparation for the coming of Christ, or excited anticipation of the arrival of our savior, or patience practiced by pregnant women. But in this uncommon year of 2020, my thoughts gravitate to a theme rarely explored by Christian preachers—exile.
Exile is what happens when powerful authorities or dire circumstances force us to live in a strange place, far from those we love. Large portions of the Bible tell of the terrible mass exile of the Jewish people in the late 7th century B.C. when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded the city of Jerusalem, destroyed the great temple and forcibly deported most of the Israelite nation to what is now Iraq. The pain of this banishment from their ancestral home is captured in Psalm 137. “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept….How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
For three generations, Jews remained in exile. Eventually the Persian ruler Cyrus released them to return, some to their homeland in Palestine, some to cities north and west, such as Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria, and Tarsus in Galatia. Their freedom from exile is well expressed in Psalm 126. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Israel/we were like those dreaming/our mouths filled with laughter/our tongues with joy.”
But prophets such as Haggai, Zechariah and Joel reflected on the shattering experience of exile and attributed this horrible act as punishment for unfaithfulness to the covenant with the One God Yahweh. Some called for more fervent sacrificial worship in the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. Others urged a change of hearts and anticipation of a messiah who would bring forgiveness. All the prophets were required to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
The reality of exile is not just a historical fact. It is also a social, religious and spiritual point of reference for Jews and Christians to this very day.
In this year of the coronavirus pandemic, I feel very much in exile and an exile—socially distanced from family, friends and neighbors, from sporting events and artistic performances. Also, religiously restricted by “COVID counts” in our churches and prohibitions on meetings for ministry, education or fundraising. And, spiritually separated from the comforting routines of Sunday Masses and annual parish celebrations.
The experience of exile is not just one of place but also of time. Exiles look backwards with rose-colored glasses and long for “the way things used to be.” Exiles have a hard time adjusting to the current realities, with changed patterns of behavior, limitations on freedom from outside authorities and the nagging sense that this moment just doesn’t feel right. Of course, they look expectantly to a future without separations or anxiety. Exiles are constantly wondering, what is the “correct” mindset I should have today. Are not these our feelings, too?
The season of Advent both affirms our sense of exile and offers comfort to the exiled. Thoughtful Christians know that these December weeks are more than the cultural shallowness of indulgent shopping or even the gaiety of attaching colored lights to our homes. These weeks are a time for serious re-examination of the mystery of the Incarnation. It is a time to ask, who do I believe Jesus Christ is and how much do I allow him to impact, even change, my life? Am I exiling myself from Jesus, or drawing closer to him?
The figure of John the Baptizer looms large in Advent. He resides in the harsh desert (an image of exile), isolated from the pleasures of healthy food, safe housing and the emotional support of family. He deliberately lives austerely so that he can point to what is truly real and essential.
John offers forgiveness in the washing waters of the Jordan River, yet he is forthright in saying he is not the savior. “One greater than I is coming, for whom I am not worthy to untie his sandal straps.” From his voluntary exile in the wilderness, John gives hope of divine forgiveness to those of us in the city who know we are sinners. Prophets in exile demand attentive listening.
Mary and Joseph walk the literal roads of exile, in Luke’s gospel from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the Savior’s birth, and in Matthew’s gospel from Bethlehem to Egypt, carrying Jesus away from the dangerous king. Through these difficult journeys the holy family is in spiritual solidarity with all exiles, displaced persons and migrants seeking a new home, ancient and contemporary.
Aren’t all babies symbols of human hope? The Christ Child is given to Mary and Joseph for temporary parental stewardship, and to us for eternal union with God through the Church, its sacraments and its grace. We may be for a time in exile on earth, but we are never far from the One Living God, who is always with us in Christ his son.
Let us hope this Advent season for a virus-free future, following the Savior who leads us safely to peace on earth and an eternal dwelling in heaven. As the psalmist sings, “Those who go out weeping/bearing the seed for sowing/shall come home with shouts of joy/carrying their sheaves.”