If you love domesticated animals like cats, dogs, and horses, or even some unconventional critters like monkeys, beavers, and squirrels, you have probably run across a website called ‘thedodo.com.’ The Dodo serves up emotional, visually compelling, and highly sharable animal-related stories and videos with the aim of making the care of animals a viral cause. The videos that bring a tear to the eye of a sensitive guy like me are the dog rescue videos. There are countless versions of this scenario: someone comes across a mangy, emaciated pup, that is tired, scared, weak, and not far from death. Animal rescuers are called to gather the animal, carefully and patiently doing what is necessary to subdue it while protecting themselves from the pups self-preserving, fear-filled growls, yaps, and snaps. Ultimately, the animal resigns and is taken to a veterinarian for rehabilitation with the hopes of finding it a forever home. The dogs are bathed, shaved, treated for mange, parasites, and other injuries, fed and nourished. Each video is a brief time-lapse record of its recovery, ending with the dog fully recovered, happy, and unrecognizable from the condition it was found in; it’s disposition one of unreserved love and affection.
In our lessons appointed for today we hear classic themes related to Advent such as waiting, the call of the prophets, and that ever-famous ‘r-word’: repentance which is the act of turning away and walking in a different direction. While our Collect sums up these themes in prayer, it was a different ‘r-word’ that caught my attention this morning: Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer. While we normally focus on the act of repentance during this season, ultimately it is for our redemption that we immerse ourselves in the signs and wonders of the season, heeding the call of the prophets and changing our direction.
The word redeem exhibits slightly different hues depending on the context in which it is used: to repurchase; to win back; to free from what distresses or harms; to reform; to repair or restore; to free from a lien or remove obligation of payment; to exchange; to fulfill; to expiate; and to retrieve.[i] These definitions are rooted in its Latin origin redimere meaning ‘to take or buy.’ The videos on ‘thedodo.com’ are iconic of redemption. The suffering animal: abused, injured, mistreated, perhaps misunderstood is left abandoned with no way to care for itself. It is lost in an abyss of darkness waiting, not for rescue, but for death. Instead, a stranger shows up on the scene and does for the animal what its previous owner would not and the dog obviously cannot do for itself. Advent is that dark time where our futures are uncertain and like the Psalmist we cry: How long, O Lord will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long shall I have perplexity in my mind, and grief in my heart, day after day? How long shall my enemy triumph over me?[ii]
In her book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, theologian Fleming Rutledge speaks to this in a section entitled: Looking into the heart of darkness. She writes: “It might be said of Advent that it is not for the faint of heart. To grasp the depth of the human predicament, one has to be willing to enter into the very worst. Entering into the very worst means giving serious consideration to the most hopeless situations: for instance, a facility for the most profound cases of developmental disability. What hope is there for a ward full of people who will never sit up, walk, speak, or feed themselves? Tourists go to the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau and take pictures, but who can really imagine the smells and sounds of the most depraved of all situations? The tourist can turn away in relief and go to lunch.”[iii]
Indeed, it is all too easy to turn away from the reality of the deep darkness and evil in this world; to place it to the left or right of our vision and focus on what delights us. In our modern time it is understandable that we desire our Christmas trees earlier and earlier each year; to rinse the bad taste of all that troubles us out of our mouths, replacing it with the taste of peppermint and the sight of beautifully decorated evergreen trees topped with angels and stars that point to an innocent baby lying in a feeding trough, adored by humble parents. But to do so, we fail to understand the significance of the redemption to which we have been called. The prophets cry: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valleyshall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
The reality is that, like the animals in ‘thedodo.com’ videos, we cannot save ourselves. That is the ultimate darkness of our reality. Yet, in contrast, we do have a part to play. It is the part of cooperation. In the book Spiritual Readings for Advent, our founder Richard Meux Benson writes: “(The act of redemption) was not an arbitrary act of divine power to set free the unworthy, but it was an act of divine merit wrought in our nature, manifesting to God a love worthy of Himself, and winning from God the right to communicate His love to all humanity if they will but accept that act of redemption as the law of their own life.”[iv] Jesus Christ came to redeem all of creation by the giving of his life on the cross; to taste the darkest and foulest despair, to experience the most excruciating passion, and die a lonely death in order to be raised, bearing the wounds of our self-preserving, fear-filled growls and bites, in an act of healing and restoration of the divine image in us all. The light that allows us to see into the heart of darkness is that of the Jesus who is the human face of God. This same Jesus who healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, instilled hope and promise in the downtrodden, has restored in us an awareness of our own power to do the same. But we cannot follow the way of Jesus unless we are willing to look into the heart of darkness and exhibit compassion (a word that means to ‘suffer with’) with those we meet there, our brothers and sisters who also bear the divine image.
As Advent continues in the celebration of the first appearance of Jesus Christ, let us heed the call of the prophets, turning towards the suffering of this world, resolving to accept the call to communicate the light, life, and love of our Creator, committing to engage with God the healing of this dark world, so that we may be ready for the future coming of our God, lavishing our unreserved love and affection to the one who is restoring us all to an eternal life of abundance.
Lectionary Year & Proper: The Second Sunday of Advent, Year B
[ii] Psalm 13:1-2
[iii] Rutledge, Fleming. Advent: the Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018.
[iv] Benson, Richard Meux. Spiritual Readings for Everyday: Advent. J. T. Hayes, 1879.
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