Today’s Advent Reading:
USCCB — December 17th
The radical nature of the Good News of Jesus Christ often eludes me during my more superficial readings of scripture. Take, for example, the commandments that St. Paul lays out in today’s reading from his first letter to the Thessalonians:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of the prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NRSV)
This passage is beautiful, and its language is arresting, but because I have grown up in the Church and have heard these commandments iterated over and over again, I must confess that I have grown rather numb to the words. I read theses verses and think, Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. God wants us to rejoice all the time, and pray all the time, and give thanks all the time, blah, blah, blah. Standard Christian fare.
These commandments have effectively become scriptural white noise to me, and that’s really a shame, because when I actually read these verses thoughtfully and thoroughly, my experience is so different. When I actually pay attention to the passage, I remember that the use of phrases like “always” is not hyperbole. Paul really wants us to rejoice in every moment, to pray with every breath, to give thanks in every context. Always. And when I remember that, I see the uncomfortable reality of this passage: these are some seriously hard commandments.
The call to continual thankfulness strikes me as especially difficult. Imagine actually practicing gratitude all the time. Such a pursuit would completely contradict mainstream American culture. Here in the United States, we set aside one day of the year to be explicitly thankful (Thanksgiving), and nowadays it seems like even that is too much gratitude. Right after the dinner celebration during which we are supposed to express gratitude for what we already have, Black Friday begins. We abandon our carving knives for credit cards and embrace the insatiable consumerist hunger for more and more and more stuff. Our culture teaches us that we are supposed to be thankful when we are satisfied with what we have, and yet it also teaches us to never be satisfied with our current material circumstance. Thus, the cycle is hard to escape.
The Thanksgiving/Black Friday dichotomy is perhaps the most dramatic and apparent example of our cultural aversion to continual gratefulness, but it is far from the only one. The reality is that it’s hard to be grateful all the time. So hard, in fact, that we might hear the commandments in 1 Thessalonians and ask, “How dare you?”
I do this all the time.
God, how dare you ask me to be thankful when the unfair pressures of reading period and finals week culminate and explode? How dare you ask me to be thankful when my girlfriend breaks my heart? How dare you ask me to be thankful when I am strangled by despair as I struggle through academic and social obstacles at Harvard? How dare you ask me to be thankful when it seems like you are totally and utterly silent? How dare you ask me to be thankful when I feel completely and inexorably alone?
Liberation theology has asked similar questions on a grander, societal scale: How do we ask people to practice continual gratitude when society has screwed them over? How can we look the poor and the oppressed in the eye, and then say, “God wants you to be thankful, so you had better be thankful”? How can we ask people who have lost everything to count their blessings, when it seems like blessing itself has abandoned them?
If we understand the commandment to give thanks in all circumstances as a commandment to blithely reject and ignore our own pain and suffering, we’ll most likely feel insulted and hurt. How could God be so indifferent to the darkness of our lives that He would look down on us and say, “Be thankful, all the time, anyway”? Furthermore, if we understand the commandment to give thanks in all circumstances as a commandment to actually be thankful for our darkness and suffering, we’ll feel equally insulted and hurt. It would seem that God is calling us to a spiritual masochism that defies everything we know about happiness and humanity.
Fortunately, I do not think that either of these explanations is the reality at the core of the commandment to be ceaselessly thankful. Our God is not a god who is cruelly indifferent, nor is our God a god who would heap suffering on us and ask us to delight in it. Rather, our God is a god who would become flesh and experience the depth of human pain. And when hung on a cross, our God incarnate in Jesus would not blissfully say “thank you” to His pain, but instead would desperately scream the plaintive words of the psalmist: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
So, in tackling this commandment to be grateful all the time, we don’t need to make God into some cruel, unsympathetic deity, and we don’t need to change our attitude towards the darkness and suffering of our lives. But I do think we need to change our definition of gratefulness. Our culture understands gratefulness to be transactional. You receive a gift, or your dreams come true; in response, you say “thank you.” And so, when you haven’t received a gift, and when your dreams haven’t come true, you therefore have nothing to be thankful for. Perhaps this understanding of gratefulness is a start, but it is not complete. We need to step away from a gratefulness that manifests in little, responsive moments in time, caused by specific blessings. We need to understand our gratefulness as an enduring spiritual orientation.
Perhaps the way to do this lies in changing the way we understand Advent. We have distilled Advent into an annual countdown before Christmas. But Advent is so much more than a handful of weeks leading up to December 25, and it is so much deeper than a penitential artifact of the liturgical calendar.
Advent is the identity season. The Coming of Christ is who we are. It was not solely a moment of arrival two thousand years ago, nor will it solely be the arrival that happens at the Second Coming, when our Christian eschatology is realized. Advent is the perpetual and continual reality of every blessed instant of our existence in creation. Jesus has come and will come again, but He is also always coming, here and now.
Therefore, every moment is an opportunity for Christ to transform us. Every moment is an opportunity to say “Come, Lord Jesus!” Every moment is an opportunity to open ourselves to the Kingdom of God that is happening now. Every moment is an opportunity for Jesus to arrive in the world once again through our compassionate, merciful, and loving actions towards other people. Every moment is an opportunity for us to remember God’s unchanging and ineffable love for us.
Every moment is an Advent, and so every moment is an opportunity to be thankful.
This is not because we are supposed to reject our pain or embrace it senselessly. This is because, regardless of the darkness that seems to surround us and swallow us up, God’s love for us is present, and God’s love for us is changeless, and God’s love for us is so much bigger than any of the suffering we can throw at it.
May we remember that every moment is an Advent–an instance of Love’s arrival on earth–so that in every moment, we may gaze at the face of Love and say, “Thank you, God.”
Aidan Stoddart ’21 is a freshman in Weld Hall.