Advent Day 17: Cathedrals and Ice Storms

It is a cold, wet and rainy day in NYC, not my favorite kind of day to get up early and walk the dog and my son to school. On my walk home, though, I was surprised by the joy of seeing the tree branches along our otherwise not-very-beautiful street lined with ice. It made the noisy street suddenly feel like part of a magical princess fairyland, only better because the beauty was simple and real. What a gift.

It reminded me, too, of the ice storm on 1995 in Philadelphia. I remember it well, mainly because at age 15 it was amazing to get a random 2.5 weeks off of school. It was “just ice,” yes, but several inches of it lined trees and roads and power lines, causing just about everyone to lose power and heat for days and weeks. And the snow that had come right before the ice had tapped out the area’s salt supplies, leaving the city was entirely out of treatments for the roads. The entire place was shut down until the temperatures lifted enough to start the melting process. No one went to work or school – only first responders were allowed on the roads. I think it was the first time I felt the real powerlessness of humanity in the face of nature.

The reading I’m looking at today is from the daily office, from the book that is both my most and least favorite in the entire Christian canon. Here it is:

Revelation 3:17-21

For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.

I am both excited about and dreading writing about this little excerpt (the book of Revelations has this hot/cold effect on me, I suppose) – excited because man, there is some real truth spoken here. Dreading it because I feel like parsing out why I feel like there’s so much truth here would require a lot more time than I’ve committed to giving these little Advent blurbs. It feels like walking through a minefield, talking about the wealthy and the privileged being wretched and pitiable. There are so many ways that words and ideas can be twisted in this sort of place, like walking through a theological and sociological hall of mirrors.

What I can say is this: The book of Revelations is not alone in the Judeo-Christian scriptures in naming the spiritual poverty that can come with privilege, wealth and power. It is often the case, our scriptures suggest, that those who have power in our world lose sight of their identity, their despair, and their hope.

I think of chasing goals of wealth and power like trying to build a fortress around oneself to keep out anxiety, suffering, despair, and fear. But honestly, it never works. The only thing those kinds of fortresses do is distract or help us forget about our own suffering and despair. And often, forgotten suffering and despair rears its head in how we negate or deny the suffering and despair of others.

Now. Why does that matter? Can’t the rich deal with their own despair while they enjoy all the other privileges? Why should we be concerned about the rich? Jesus, after all, definitely seemed more aligned with the poor.

Here’s what I’m thinking now: because we cannot align ourselves with the poor unless we also acknowledge the ways in which we are poor. That’s what I see in this powerful excerpt from Revelations: God is saying, basically: you think you’ve transcended human frailty by building up your fortresses of privilege and power. But you’re not. And the sooner you realize that you are intertwined with every single human being on this planet, the sooner you realize that you, too, are frail and at the mercy of forces far greater than yourself, the sooner you will be living in truth. It’s gonna hurt – it always hurts to embrace our finitude and humanity – but it is also going to bring you joy, because you will no longer be alone.

Maybe that’s why when I start to see snow fall or gusts of wind blow I have always felt a tinge of relief alongside the anxiety. Maybe that’s why when I saw, for example, the Notre Dame Cathedral burning, I felt hope alongside the sadness. Maybe that’s why when I look back at the few times in my life when I have been razed to the ground and really did not know if there was going to be a future, I can feel gratitude for who I am now even though I would never give thanks for the experiences themselves. Maybe truth always hurts but also always opens up access to our own hearts.

Something like that, anyway.

Thanks be to God!

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