Tragedy and Advent Hope
I can’t stop thinking about the news from November 28th that LaMia flight 2933 crashed in Colombia, killing 71 people and leaving only 6 survivors. The flight was transporting the Brazilian soccer team, Chapecoense, to compete in the 2016 South American Cup Finals in Medellín. Such excitement! Such hopes! Such dreams! Such talented young lives… all tragically lost. One player who was killed was Tiago da Rocha Vieira Alves. A week earlier he had learned the news that he was going to be a dad. It is hard to comprehend the tragic turn of events, the dashing of hopes and the devastation of lives.
Tragedy leaves us with no easy answers. We mourn without comfort. We grieve without comprehension. Those whose lives have been changed forever by this plane crash join countless others in the wrenching heartache that life sometimes brings. The team will not go on to live its fairytale. The new father will not be there to hold his baby. “[H]ere in this life,” theologian Karl Rahner poetically and pointedly noted, “all symphonies remain unfinished.”
We don’t typically think of Advent as a season of death, but we should. In the northern hemisphere, the days get shorter and the vegetation dies. The leaves fall and the trees become barren. The harvest has been gathered and the soil becomes tundra. Even our hearts, despite the festivities of this time of year, are often battling sadness, loneliness, grief, and depression. We remember loved ones who are no longer with us to celebrate. We feel our own loneliness more intensely as families gather and everyone around us seems joyous. Nature itself foreshadows our limited days. It is no wonder that the liturgical color is purple, the color of penance and pain, passion and death.
To think about death in the Catholic tradition is to recall the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Advent calls us to reflect seriously on this. Are we ready for the judgement? What will be our eternal fate? If my life were suddenly taken from me today, would I be prepared to stand before Christ as my judge? On the one hand, the answer is surely no. I will never be ready. I will never be sufficiently holy to stand before Christ Jesus. On the other hand, He is my hope. In the biblical forensic metaphor, Christ is the judge, satan is our accuser, and our advocate is the Holy Spirit. It sounds like a slam dunk case: the judge knows that the “accuser of our brothers” (Rev. 12:10) is a “liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). And with the Holy Spirit as our advocate and Christ as our judge—the One who “died for us while were still sinners” (Rom. 5:8) and who from the Cross cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)—it sounds like the judgment will go our way. We can never presume so, but we have every reason to hope.
The Gospel today is a reminder that Advent is related to Baptism, and we are baptized into Christ’s death. None of us is worthy to “carry his sandals,” but are we a “brood of vipers”? As we consider death and judgement, we should take the Baptist’s words to heart: “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.”
Tragedy strikes. Sadness and grief are overwhelming. Nothing seems fair and nothing makes sense. With hope, though, we entrust our sins to God’s mercy and we continue to do the works of Christ in the world especially when the odds seem stacked against us and when darkness seems to prevail. As the ancient Hebrew people waited for the Messiah to relieve their sufferings and to bring justice and peace to the earth, so too we continue to long for that day when Christ returns in glory and “He wipes every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 21:4; see Is. 25:8).
“On that day… the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them… There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain…” No more plane crashes. No more children born without their fathers there to raise them. No woman left in mourning for the death of her beloved. In the words of the beloved Advent hymn: “No more crying there, we are going to see the King… no more dying there, we are going to see the King.”
Ah yes, purple is the color of the passion, the color of pain and suffering. Purple reminds us that Advent is a season to reflect on death and judgment, heaven and hell. But, purple is also the color of royalty. Despite all the tragedy of the world, though we stand in the shadow of the cross, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” (Ps. 23:4) …for we are going to see the King.