In the spring of 2006 I traveled with a group of volunteers south to New Orleans. Seven months earlier, Hurricane Katrina had ferociously ambushed the gulf coast, overwhelmed the decrepit levee infrastructure, and had submerged enormous swaths of this city; especially poor communities. Over 1000 people died. Hundreds of thousands lost their homes—many displaced indefinitely. We were caravanning south to offer what help we might.
We spent our first nights in a warehouse with 1000 other volunteers (and rafters full of pigeons doing pigeon things) in the devestated 9th Ward, before accepting an opportunity to trek further south to Plaquemines Parish, where levee embankments rose on either side as far as the eye could see, forming a massive basin of low-lying land pocked with homes and towns and refineries; veritable play-sets in a big bath tub.
After a few days of outdoor work, we headed back to the 9th Ward for our last couple nights and to prepare the volunteer center for the incoming groups. We’d finished our morning’s work when a man arrived at the facility. One of the coordinators talked briefly with him, then turned and yelled, “Any of you want to go help this guy gut his house?”
A group of us piled into two cars and followed him home. We stopped briefly to pick up supplies: shovels, trash bags and crow-bars, work gloves and safety goggles, a papery hazmat suit and filtered ventilation masks. We’d spent the previous few days working outside, and shrugged ambivalently when offered this outfitting.
We pulled up to this man’s home; an unassuming one-level in a working-class St Bernard Parish neighborhood. Apart from the FEMA trailer in the driveway, all seemed ordinary.
“Wanna come take a look around?” asked the owner in his thick, peculiar accent.
“Yeah, sure!” I piped, in a demonstrable show of eagerness. I faltered however fleetingly, wondering should I don my gear, but dispensed with this thought in an effort not to embarrass my new friend.
He and I ascended the stairs, and he led me across the threshold. Power hadn’t been restored, but natural light dimly lit the interior. It took my eyes a moment to adjust—at which point we were in his living room. Once they did, I was staggered. I was in the midst of dark cavern of mold—floor to ceiling! It was post-apocolyptic. Carpet and curtains and couches and clothing all situated as they’d been 7 months earlier, when storm waters filled the residence to brimming before gradually draining back out. It had remained at the mercy of a warm, subtropical climate since. Food rotted in the refrigerator and cupboards. Mildewed pictures and hangings adorned the walls. I fought for composure, but my mind raced with each breath and blink, What spores and bacteria were plummeting into my lungs; wafting into my eyes? I broke into a sweat. Held my breath.
Finally, I gasped, “Well, let’s get started!” and hurried out of the house. Once outside, I exhaled then inhaled deeply.
Someone asked, “We gonna need those suits?” My expression told all. Yeah, we’re gonna need those suits! Minutes later we looked like something out of a Stanley Kubrick film and ventured in.
Actual human involvement often resembles this—entrance into disturbing morass—despite outward appearances, the internal decay can be alarming. What am I doing here? Where is my hazmat suit?
The God of Advent is a God of startling involvement. Hallelujah!Father Zosima, in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov, recounts something for a woman bemoaning her shortcomings in “loving the Russian people”. It was a prior exchange he’d had with an old, intelligent but perplexed doctor who “spoke with a sorrowful humor”.
The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together. I know from experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs me and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men.
Who of us haven’t grieved the absence of goodwill in our world? Who of us haven’t stumbled at just this point? Loving humankind is easy, loving humans is not.
The pained doctor notes with grief that, paradoxically, his love for humanity is actually inversely related to his love for humans—the more he hates men, the more he loves mankind. What sense does this make? It is the difference between abstract and concrete; impersonal and personal, imagined and real. I might love others, if only they would first conform to my ideals!
Advent presents us with an inverted paradox: that what creates revulsion in us toward the human condition, somehow irresistibly draws God nearer.
Didn’t the God of Advent implore us to call him Emmanuel? “God with us”?
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
The Hebrew word Emmanuel could also be rendered, “God, in spite of us.”
Lest you think I’m asking us to apply this to other people, isn’t it our own home we know to be so doleful, so moldering? Wasn’t Father Zosima’s doctor friend coming to terms with the sorrowful state of his very own soul? Hate where love ought to be; death in the place of life. Mourning in lonely exile; from God; from one another; from self. The condition can take our breath away; make us hold our breath; plug our nose!
This is why John’s preamble might be so breathtaking in its own right: “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” God’s word, his logos—imagination, self-expression, creative force—kindly entering our inhospitable predicament! And so it was that God articulated himself in flesh; presence; person, come to dwell among us.
The God of Advent involves himself in lives like ours! Swift, unequivocating and undeterred toward you, toward me! He once invited a swindler to follow him. Where do we next find them? In the swindler’s house, with all his sinner friends! The obtuse and self-righteous were aghast: What are we doing here? Where are our hazmat suits?
Jesus laughed, “Where else? These people’s lives are a mess!”
When I place myself in this story (the swindler’s name was, after all, my own), I wonder at why these dinner guests didn’t take offense. “What do you mean our lives are ‘a mess’? The nerve!” But that’s just the thing, isn’t it? Only those who know—who readily admit!—their homes in need of gutting and of renovation can actually welcome the Word made flesh.
One can nearly perceive the Savior peering through the eyes of the self-righteous, as through windows, surveying their forbidden interior with dismay. But also love.
If the God of Advent took grief about any one thing it was this. They called him a “friend of sinners”. He took it as a compliment. He responded to their moral outrage with stories of ridiculous shepherds and obsessively frugal spinsters and of a father with so little self-respect that he would gladly received back a repugnant son! Outlandish and blasphemous portrayals of God, all used to justify his obscene behavior.
Emmanuel. “God, in spite of us!”
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you
The Pharisaic outlook in our Lord’s day was unambiguous: if only we might get and keep our act together, the conquering Messiah would certainly be our reward! The God of Advent disabused all of this error at every turn. It was entirely the opposite! The Messiah’s coming—his advent—was animated by pity, an irrepressible impulse to lift us up from out of our misery. It was our own souls neededing conquering.
We can and must learn at least two things from the involvedness of the God of Advent. First, he can only be welcomed by those well-acquainted with their plight. (“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted.”) Second, despite the severity of our hamartiology—the doctrine of sin—the God of Advent is oddly, unnervingly drawn into our abject lostness. We ourselves are quite literally hiding, yet he insists on making it hide and seek. Or maybe sardines? For he would gather a whole collection of us together—those who have been found by him! “God, in spite of us!”
We, who have so quarantined ourselves from one another, have much to learn from this! We’ve mistakenly concluded that it is “they” who are leprous, and not “we”. It is both! And the God of Advent does not recoil in disgust as we do; not at them, not at us, lepers all. Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel!
We spent the remainder of that day stripping everything from this man’s home, piling its innards and appliances in a mound by the street, leaving only a skeletal interior. It was somehow very lovely. Could it be salvaged? He would need to wait to find out. But ideas and impulses had arrived in the flesh for the sake of involvement, and he had created a way for our presence. And we had shared in this sober, sacred undertaking together.
Overwhelmingly, the most common question we received during our week in southern Louisiana was, “Why on earth are you here doing this?” In many ways, shapes and forms we could only reply, “It has something to do with Advent.”