The sun is setting. The night has begun. The season of Advent marks the start of the new Church year, and, like the Jewish day that begins once the sun has descended, our year begins with the night season.
Advent is a season of looking ahead. We anticipate the coming of the Lord both in our looking forward to the commemoration of his birth, as well as our hopeful belief in his coming again. It is, therefore, a season of the affirmation of our Christian faith and joy.
But the night is dark. The night is cold, and lonely, and we have not been given leave to rest until the warm embrace of the new dawn. Indeed, it is exactly the opposite. Christ gives us the order: “Keep awake.”1 Our Lord gives us this command, to keep watch at the door for his return. He does not even give us the time of his coming back, assuring us only that “about that day or hour no one knows.”1 There is no known end to the tunnel, no hour at which we can punch out and leave our shift at the night watch. We simply must watch, and wait. And lest we think we might have the sweet comfort or stimulating diversion of impermanent things, Christ tells us that “heaven and earth shall pass away.”1 All things will crumble; all things will fade.
In a fit of desperation, I asked God for a sign. A light, a feeling, a sound in the dead of one cold November night. I got nothing. But that nothing is the moment I have pointed to, for years, as the beginning of my conversion. Because, in retrospect, I don’t think I received nothing. I think I received silence.
“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” It is easy to hear this question harshly. It is easy for me to imagine Jesus asking this, vexed, frustrated, indignant, angry, at his wit’s end. And that’s a challenge. If Jesus really came into the world to save sinners,1 to show the utmost patience and mercy,2 to be our most steadfast friend and companion3…where are those qualities in this question?
Perhaps it might be helpful to engage in some self-reflection. How do I feel when I’ve experienced conflict with friends? When I’ve hurt a loved one, I may get defensive. I may conjure up offenses, real or imagined, that that friend has committed against me. I may feel the need to deflect responsibility, or engage in a perverse game of score-keeping; somehow, in these moments when I finish tallying the friendship score, I always seem to come out ahead. These feelings and behaviors, though, do not get at the heart of the issue. What really worries me when I’ve hurt a loved one is that I’ve created an irreparable breach, an eternally broken communion. It is a profoundly uncomfortable experience; I feel lonely, claustrophobic, anxious, and weary.
Feast of Mary Magdalene
Throughout the gospels, Jesus comes again and again with a simple message: do not be afraid. Sometimes he says this himself, and sometimes he sends a messenger. At his conception, the angel said to the Virgin Mary, “Do not be afraid.”1 At his birth, the angels announced to the shepherds in the field, “Do not be afraid.”2 When Jesus first called Peter, John, and James from their fishing boat, he reassured them, saying, “Do not be afraid.”3 At the Transfiguration, when the same three disciples fell over in terror on the mountaintop, Jesus told them, “Do not be afraid.”4 This is, no doubt, meant as a sweet comfort. But it is also a teaching, and a command. Christ even goes so far as to fundamentally juxtapose fear and faith: “Do not fear, only believe.”5
Our world paints weakness in a very bad light. It’s seen as something to be exploited, or mocked, or—at best—pitied. But today’s Gospel reading flips that script. I think this passage is a very clear example of the necessity of weakness with Christ.
Zacchaeus was the chief tax-collector in Jericho. He was a Jew who had decided to collaborate with the Roman Empire for his own wealth and power. Many of his fellow Jews saw him as a traitor. Not only that, but tax collectors were widely—and often, correctly—seen as corrupt, willing to abuse their power for personal gain. The average person on the street in Jericho would have been very likely to view Zacchaeus as a treacherous thief.