post

Popping the Lid Off: AIDS, Advent, and Hope

All I want is a cure and my friends back.

The list is long – breast cancer, world hunger, or what Dwight D. Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.” In a deeply patriarchal, violent world of unrelenting corporate profiteering, I want a cure for all those maladies and more.

aids_ribbon_earthOn this 25th anniversary of World AIDS Day, I’m thinking especially about HIV. When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1991, I saw those simple yet poignant words on a t-shirt: All I want is a cure and my friends back.

Perhaps that’s just too much to hope for. Yet, tomorrow also marks the beginning of Advent, a Christian season perfectly suited for wildly peculiar hope. Both wild and peculiar especially on the first Sunday of Advent, when most Christians will hear, not about Christmas, but about fantastical world-ending scenarios in apocalyptic biblical texts.

That’s certainly peculiar, but is it hopeful?

The word “apocalypse” has its origins in a rather ordinary Greek word that referred to a cover, like the lid on a jar. The ancient Greeks may have used the verb apocalypto when they opened something. It just means “to take the lid off”; we usually translate it as “to reveal.”

I like that image for sifting through biblical texts and Christian history in search of vision to feed our hope. Here are just a few things we might find when we pop the lid off:

Hope for the Nations
Readings for the first Sunday of Advent will sometimes include something from the last book of the Bible. There are lots of nasty bits in the Revelation to John, completely unsuitable for young chiltree_of_lifedren. In the last chapter, however, there’s no more Armageddon, no more terrifying horsemen, no horrific tribulation, but instead an amazing vision of the City of God. A river flows from that city, and on the banks of that river, a tree. The leaves of this tree, John writes, are for “the healing of the nations” (22:2).

John did not say that those leaves are for the healing of “Christian nations,” or “nations that we agree with,” or “nations that never committed war crimes,” or “nations never guilty of slavery or colonialism or economic imperialism,” or “nations that we might like to visit as tourists on vacation.” Looking forward to healing rather than vengeance surely qualifies as a counter-cultural hope.

Hope for Gate-Crashing
Not long after John’s revelation, a theologian by the name of Origen took the lid off again and found the irresistible love of God. The love of God, Origen declared, is so compelling that not even the Devil and all his fallen angels will be able to resist that love forever. Eventually, Origen believed, everything and every creature would find a blessed home in God.

That’s a compelling vision indeed – so compelling that just a few centuries later the institutional church condemned it as heresy. They put a lid on it. And that’s not so surprising. If an institution understands itself primarily as a gatekeeper, it won’t look very kindly on those who insist that there’s no longer any gate to keep. Gate-crashing is a deeply hopeful spiritual discipline.

Hope Beyond Hope
Fast forward a few more centuries and we find the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, who lived at a time when bubonic plague was decimating most of Europe in ways difficult to imagine. Anyone who lived through the early years of the AIDS crisis has a sense of what Julian must have witnessed – bodies suddenly and mysteriously falling ill; bodies falling all around her; bodies dying in such numbers that they literally piled up in the streets with no one to bury them.

In the midst of that devastation, Julian had some visions. The lid popped off and this is what she wrote: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Was she just delusional? Julian herself wondered the same thing. She was surprised by these “showings,” as she called them, these mini-apocalypses. “This can’t be true,” she wrote. “Holy Church teaches that sinners are condemned to hell.”

But the showings persisted: “All shall be well.”

These irruptions of wild hope and fantastical visions throughout Christian history emerged from a truly impertinent question: Can God be trusted? Will God really keep faith with us even with bodies falling all around us?

That was playwright Tony Kushner’s question in a moving prayer he wrote in 1994 for the National Day of Prayer for AIDS: “Must grace fall so unevenly on the earth? Must goodness precipitate so lightly, so infrequently from sky to parched ground?” Can you be trusted, God, really?

Kushner speaks for so many when hope seems little more than a bread-crumb trail in a messy life, or a glimmering ember in the fireplace teetering on the edge of going out.

It’s the rare individual who can summon a hopeful faith alone. The rest of us need some help. We need those fantastical visions that sprout up quite unexpectedly in the middle of troubling biblical texts, or those moments of stupefying hope punctuating a disturbing Christian history.

aids_ribbon_candlesProbably most of all, we need each other. When my faith is weak, I need people whose faith is strong; when my cup overflows, I can share it with others.

I was reminded of this just last night at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco during a lovely event honoring two colleagues and their remarkably hopeful work to end AIDS and comfort the grieving.

That event was “church,” a reminder of why I keep doing what many Christians do on a Sunday morning. There are many reasons. But on the first Sunday of Advent, I need a community that isn’t afraid to say wildly peculiar things and find it hopeful: All I want is a cure and my friends back.

post

Got Hope?

Will the world end if the Euro zone collapses? Will it end with rising sea levels and global droughts? Has your world already ended with prolonged unemployment or a foreclosed mortgage? Where do you find hope in a world that seems to be coming apart at the seams?

These are perfect questions for tomorrow, the first Sunday of Advent.

Advent marks the beginning of a new Christian liturgical year. On the first Sunday of this season (“New Year’s Day”) most lectionaries recommend, oddly enough, apocalyptic biblical texts for worship. So the New Year begins not at the beginning but at the End, with the second coming of Christ (not the first) and the end of the world as we know it (cue music from R.E.M.).

So stop shopping (for now), stop stressing over Christmas decorations and ponder the theme for tomorrow that sets the tone for the entire liturgical year to come: hope. What do you hope for? How does your hope shape the way you live? Does it make a difference? Where do you find what you need to replenish your hope?

Let’s be more specific: Should anyone place any hope in the U.S. political system these days? In our financial markets? Do you have any hope of being able to retire? Of having social security checks? Feeding your family? How about the Occupy Wall Street movement? Is that hopeful to you?

Questions like that make it seem far less peculiar to begin a new year with the End. I believe there’s a profound connection to tease out between how Christians navigate the liturgical year and how we think about the world around us. Advent brings this vividly to light.

Tomorrow, the Church will launch again into the great cycle of observances that take us from incarnation to epiphany and on into passion, death, resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit. That cycle takes roughly six months. And tomorrow sets the tone for the whole thing: What, finally, do we hope for from all this?

Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, once described that great cycle like this: “The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us.”

Reading aloud that one sentence in every Christian congregation each Sunday morning for a year (to ensure that every member hears it) would transform the Church more fully into the world-changing community it’s called to be. Why? Because I think most people consider themselves, at best, “tolerable,” maybe loveable (if God is the one loving), but very rarely desirable.

Williams appears to have realized this too and insisted that God’s desire for us means, quite simply and profoundly, that the Church’s job is to ensure that people see themselves as desirable and “occasions for joy.”

If the Church really did that, it would change the world. How could we ever let “desirable occasions for joy” go hungry and homeless in our streets, or turn them away at national borders, or deny them health care? How the Church worships can and should shape how the Church lives in the world.

But what about all that apocalyptic, world-ending stuff that bubbles up in Advent? Actually, all sorts of “worlds” come to an end quite regularly – personal worlds and relationships, the worlds of social institutions (banks!?), economic empires, a computer’s operating software. “Worlds” as we know them are never permanent. It’s really not so surprising that they end.

What is surprising is how people manage to live with hope in those world-ending moments. For me, I can’t do that alone. I need a community and I need regular reminders about where true hope can be found. That’s what Advent is all about.

I find it helpful to remember that the word “apocalypse” (which we usually translate as “revelation”) has its origins in a rather ordinary Greek word that referred to a cover, like the lid on a jar. Put a prefix on the front and a verb ending on the back and you get apocalypto, which ancient Greeks probably used every time they opened something. It just means “to take the lid off.”

I believe revelations happen all the time. I believe the Apocalypse unfolds constantly. I believe the advent of Christ is ongoing, not isolated to a moment 2,000 years ago, nor to a far-distant future we cannot see. Everything about life, our relationships, our struggles, our dreams, and fears can “take the lid off” God in our midst. That’s when hope happens, and it changes us so that we can change the world.

May all of us find ourselves desirable this Advent season and treat one another as occasions for joy.