A few weeks ago, some graffiti started appearing in my part of the city that reads, “The art you see is the signs of the times.” It reminded me of a great art exhibit I once saw of work from the 1910s, and how jarring and apocalyptic the images became during those years, not only during or after the Great War, but even in the two or three years before it. (In a similar vein, Stravinsky’s powerful, but discordant and shocking, Rite of Spring premiered in 1913.) With the benefit of hindsight, it was hard not to think that these artists of the day could sense something of the catastrophe that was upon them. (And this is to say nothing of the visions Carl Jung reported in early 1914 of Europe soaked in blood.) The War, which history tells us took Europe by surprise — the politicians convinced the alliance system and integration of Europe’s economy made war impossible — seems to be everywhere in the lead up to it. It almost makes me wonder if what makes someone an artist is simply having eyes to see; if they are the ones who are paying attention enough to see what’s happening (even if as in a mirror dimly).
One of the themes in Advent is paying attention to the signs of the times — not to predict the future, but to understand what is happening around us: To see and therefore be able to name, call out, and fight the evil of “the ruler of this world” and its Empires, but also to see and therefore be able to name, celebrate, and participate in what God is doing in the world. Often, the second half of this is the hard part for us. It’s far easier to see what’s wrong in the world than to see the good, and thereby let our anxieties take the lead, than it is to see the work of God, whose kingdom is like a mustard seed and avoids showy displays.
The Scriptures often use the image of keeping watch or keeping vigil to describe the life of faith. Being faithful — showing up for ourselves, one another, and God — involves keeping our eyes open, looking to catch a glimpse of the Bridegroom who comes at midnight, of the one who comes like a thief in the night. The theme here is preparation and readiness. The one for whom we are waiting might not be what we expect. This was one of the problems Jesus ran into: people had built up ideas in their heads about what the Messiah would be and do, but Jesus was about something else entirely. This is the way truth and goodness works. It isn’t always welcome. We aren’t always ready for it. It’s easy to prefer our self-serving prejudices and presuppositions than to see the truth of what God is and is doing.
Today’s reflection has been a bit of a mishmash of different ideas: seeing what’s happening around us, keeping watch, and being willing to be surprised by what we see. But they are all about taking a posture in the world that is open to what God is doing, even and especially when it’s hard to see or it challenges us and our assumptions.
Last week, I reflected on the value of stopping. Today it’s the second part of the equation: looking. The two are related; we can’t really do the second without the first. But the second is the point of the first. We stop in order to rest and catch our breath, but also to gain perspective and look around. But let’s remember, as Advent reminds us, to look for not just what’s wrong, but also for what is right, where and how God is with us and at work in the world.
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