The Gentleness of Advent

snow light

On the third Sunday of Advent, we heard St. Paul’s words: Let your gentleness be known to everyone. I can’t imagine a more timely word for our day. Do we not yearn to encounter gentle souls — people who listen with generosity (not accusation), friends who welcome without applying a litmus test, kind strangers who give the benefit of the doubt? Don’t we want to be this kind of person — to expect the best of another, to be tender with others’ mistakes or ignorance, to refuse the impulse to embarrass or mock (even one who deserves it), to watch for opportunities to lavish kindness?

Of course, the realists, fear-peddlers and doctrinaires will assure us (passionately) that such a posture is not possible in this scary, evil-ridden world. These rigid ones insist we must exude strength (so-called); we must take on whatever hardness necessary to maintain vigilance. Worse, those eager to resist these lies may imbibe the same energy, growing just as hard, just as mean or caviling, just as small and unimaginative, just as harsh.

And into this violence and phobia, a baby comes, the peace of the world. God, in the ultimate act of gentleness, bends toward us, enters a woman’s womb and lives among us, full of humility and noble strength. This tenacious king, with the backbone love requires, allowed himself to be taken advantage of, to be thought the fool. This One from God knows who he is, knows who we might become, knows that nothing will be won by force or shame or ridicule.

God comes to us with a preposterous gentleness that will always be a scandal in this rough-and-tumble world. And God invites us to join the scandalous subterfuge. Advent, these watchful days, asks us see the world anew, to watch for alternative possibilities. Advent invites us to become gentle people again.

Bent and Tender

I always feel a heaviness in my gut when I imagine the terror of the woman in St. John’s story, the woman used as bait for trapping Jesus. Standing absolutely by herself in that violent circle and enclosed by angry, leering men, panic must have consumed her. Plotters snatched her from her lover’s bed, and now, half-dressed, she stood in the middle of the square with dust-caked streaks marking her face and shame marking her heart. Seared with a scarlet A, she stood alone amid a sea of hate.

I find it curious that when the Pharisees asked Jesus if he was ready to grab a rock, John notes Jesus’ precise movement. Jesus, the story says, “bent down.” He did not answer. He did not theologize. Jesus crouched low and doodled in the dirt.

Reams have been written on what Jesus scribbled on that street, but I’m more intrigued by the fact that Jesus bent low. This posture of humble tenderness was entirely at odds with the highly charged moment. This bending was a quiet, tender movement that, by its very action, refused to cooperate with the coercive question, with the agenda, with the fear. Jesus would not stand with the woman’s assailants. Jesus would not stand with the powerful. In fact, Jesus would not stand at all. Jesus bent down.

In a world where too many voices (from all sides) hurl accusation, sarcasm and dogma, I want to learn to bend down. I do not merely want to speak in kinder tones or hone effective listening skills. Nor am I indicating a desire to surrender all conviction or clear-eyed gumption. Rather, I mean something far more difficult, something that unwinds us from a much deeper core. I hope to be one identified by tears more than edicts, by hopes more than fears, by the kind of strength that bends down. I hope to become a man of tenacious tenderness.

“There are some men too gentle to live among the wolves,” says Kavanaugh. I believe there is something here we need to listen to, something I fear, at times, we might lose altogether. We need women and men who refuse the way of the wolves.

I have no idea what Jesus wrote that day, bending close to the dirt. It wouldn’t shock me, however, if he wrote something like this: Grace, too gentle for the wolves.

The Boots You Need

At the edge of our neighborhood, Habit for Humanity has begun a large multi-house development. The last two weeks, we’ve endured a couple dumps of snow, and the site is soaked, muddy and more than able to bog down both man and motor. This morning, a fellow (I’m going to guess one of the architects) parked his small SUV at the end of Ridge Street, walked to the back of his truck and opened the hatch. He slipped off his buffed leather boots and tossed them into the vehicle, pulling out a ragged, worn down pair of flat-toed, dirt-stompers as their replacement. This is a smart fellow. It’s good to know what kind of day (or year) you’re up against, and pick your boots accordingly.

In the days after my mom’s death, Miska, two good friends and my spiritual director Fr. James all said the same thing: Be kind and gentle with yourself. Grief comes with a thousand faces, but grief does come – and they all wanted me to remember this and to give myself the space to be frayed at the edges, to get a little lost, to expect some of my old demons to come knocking, to not be taken by surprise if the deeper questions come later rather than right away.

I know two moms, at opposite ends of the spectrum (one with a newborn, one almost an empty-nester), but life’s thrown both of them a real stinker. They experience happiness and have good desires, but there’s also lots of regret and uncertainty, more than a little exhaustion. I know lots of folks scratching as hard as they can for a good job, folks who are living the grind and praying to God the dollars are enough to see them to the end of the month. Friends accustomed to onslaughts of fear, anxiety and isolation.

Life will come at us, bringing wonder and joy but also sadness and real trouble. When we recognize this, we can know that sometimes we simply need to pull on our beaters. We’ve got to wade into the muck, and let the craziness or the despair or the rage work its way out. It will not ruin us. It will not overwhelm us. The hardness comes, and the hardness goes. In the meantime, be kind and gentle with yourself.