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Advent and Life Under the Cross

My Dear Augustana,

“Covid walks.” After a day of sitting through Zoom meetings and working from home, humans need fresh air and they need to move, so they go out in distantly social ways. In my neighborhood, the paths to Loring Park and the Walker Sculpture Garden are well-worn. Every day, walkers walk, joggers jog, old people shuffle. And dog minders dutifully follow their canines with baggies in hand—ready to pick up any duty their dogs leave behind.

I often join that parade. But not always. Not long ago, I channeled my inner Robert Frost and “took the road less traveled by” and, indeed, “it made all the difference.” Affixing earphones to head, strapping mask to face, and pushing play on podcast, I headed away from Loring Park—toward the Minneapolis Institute of Art, not to go in of course (there’s a pandemic, don’t you know?). No disrespect to the Park or the Garden or the other walkers. I just wanted to see what I could see in that, by me, less traveled direction.

I walked away from downtown. I crossed “Eat Street” (congratulating myself as I successfully resisted the alure of that Donut shop) and enjoyed the late afternoon glow on the clouds in the eastern sky. And I saw it. Up in the sky. I wasn’t looking for such a thing, so I wasn’t sure I saw it right. I looked again. But sure enough, there it was: a cross. The cross of Christ sat on the canopy of the trees (remember when trees had leaves?). It was on a steeple, of course, but at first, I only saw the cross. A four-way, metallic cross shining bright against the late afternoon clouds, right there for me to see. The sun had tilted toward dusk, but its rays made the cross glow as it reflected our star’s light and heat in my general direction.

So, I walked toward it and I even got kind of spiritual. I thought about the hope that cross represents, particularly amid this pandemic. I even prayed some bouncy prayers: “God, you’re above everything and we only need to bask in the warmth of your love for the world and us, right? This worldwide epidemic is scary, but I’m walking in the light of the cross. The cross, I figured, is a sign of victory, right?

I kept praying and thinking, as I walked toward that cross up in the sky. I wanted a closer look. Turns out that is sits atop the “Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community” building. It was a nice moment. My head was in the clouds.

But then a different cross arrested my gaze. This cross was on the ground—at the corner of the church’s property. A car had T-boned an SUV—at the intersection of West 22nd St. and 3rd Ave. South. Damaged vehicles, bent metal, broken glass, and a cop writing on a laptop perched on the hood of her squad car. Street closed. Neighbors gawked. The cop’s car flashed red, white, and blue. There was plenty of damage. Someone must’ve been hurt.

And then it hit me, like it’s hit me a thousand times before—just how superficial and self-absorbed I can be. My cheery, spring-in-my-step spiritual moment was about as deep as a Sunday morning huckster’s promise to heal you, if you send him money. I figured that St. Stephen’s beautiful cross reflected the light of God’s grace at me, because I was special. I had the eyes to see it (notice the Biblicism, there?) and I interpreted it as a sign of victory and glory. Only a spiritual giant would chat with God about how warm the cross made me feel.

I moved closer, as if I had a claim on that cross, that it was, in some way, mine. The late afternoon sun and the clouds and the cross in the sky. All for me! Well, isn’t that nice for you, you Spiritual Giant, you? [Cue Church Lady on Saturday Night Live, “Well, isn’t that special!”] If God and I were all right, then the world was all right. I was self-centered enough to think that the moment was enough to make the world, pandemic and all, all right. Sometimes I am enough to make myself sick.

I didn’t want to walk into an accident. I wanted to keep sauntering in the light and the warmth and the victory of the cross. As it turns out, an intersection is a cross and a car impaled in the side of an SUV forms its own kind of cross. So, Mr. spiritual giant, wasn’t God’s warmth also radiating on that accident?

Oh yes, God was present in that cross on the ground. Right there, amidst the injuries and the damage and the broken glass and the leaking fluids and the flashing lights. Maybe God is even more present in places like that. Because God came to earth in Christ, to redeem all the damaged parts of our lives. We can see that clearly in Advent—from the moment Jesus is conceived to the moment he is born. Just think, Jesus was conceived out of wedlock. It’s never been easy for single moms. Joseph could have, with the approval of the whole town, kicked his fiancé to the curb. She was, her society would’ve declared, damaged goods.

Maybe that’s why Mary went to see her cousins, Elizabeth and Zachariah. Each of them was damaged in their own way: Elizabeth had been unable to bear children and now, in her old age, she was pregnant. And Zachariah could not speak, because he did not believe what God was doing. Try to imagine those three hurting people and how, in their time together, Mary would sing about her lowliness and God’s great favor in her damaged state. I bet Elizabeth joined in. And dumb old Zach? Well, he probably just kept time with his toe. Maybe he clapped along.

The damage doesn’t go away on the night Jesus was born, either. Jesus was born in a barn—hardly a place of light and warmth. But that is to get ahead of our story. Jesus’ birth marks the end of Advent. But we need to stay in Advent for a while longer. It is a time for us to recognize God’s Word at work in us, even though we’re damaged.

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