12/14/2011 05:32 pm ET Updated Feb 13, 2012

Advent Birth Pains: Staying Awake to the Heart Cry of the World

The season of Advent sounds a discordant note in a world abuzz with holiday Muzak. While everyone else is humming "have a happy jolly Christmas," we church folks sing a prophetic tune that sounds more like an African-American spiritual or a freedom song than a Christmas Carol.
O come, O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel, who mourns in lonely exile here until the son of God appears.

We do not begin our Advent journey with the baby Jesus snuggled in the arms of his parents all aglow in an idyllic postpartum nativity scene. Instead, we begin right in the middle of the birth pains that accompany a difficult delivery.

The prophet Isaiah lets out a gut wrenching cry: "O God that you would tear open the heavens and come down." The world around us is in turmoil, God. We need your presence. Come and occupy our world now!

Remember, the nation of Israel had been overrun by the Babylonians. The people had been deported and held in captivity. Isaiah was among the throng of refugees returning to their homeland only to find that it looked like London after the blitz or Ground Zero after 911. The Temple complex, the center of economic and political power, had been reduced to a pile of rubble.

And all I want for Christmas, cries Isaiah, is the earth shaking, fire kindling, water boiling Presence of a God who can set the world aright. I think we can safely say that Isaiah is crying out for the kind of Presence that can't be put in a box and won't come neatly wrapped and tied in dazzling ribbons.

In fact the first Christmas defies all expectations. It invites us to behold the birth of a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger full of cow dung, in a back alley stable in a dark and forsaken corner of the world. How much more grassroots "occupation" can you get than the hope of the wrapped in human flesh?

But we do not begin our Advent journey with the story of Jesus' birth. Instead we fast forward to the end of Jesus' life where the gospel of Mark has him predicting what the world will look like if it does not heed his message to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

We are given a litany of woes that could well be today's front page news headlines: There will be wars and rumors of wars. Nation will rise against nation and there will be earth quakes in various places and famines. Many will come in the name of Jesus and try to distort his message.

The apocalyptic passages in the gospels are often used by the end-time preachers to predict the end of the world. But in reality these texts were written in the mid to late first century specifically for the early Christian community who was actually experiencing social strife and upheaval and the end of the world as they knew it.

Rome had ordered Jews (including Jewish Christians) to erect statues of the Emperor in their houses of worship. By A.D. 70, the Roman armies laid siege to Jerusalem and the Temple complex was reduced to rubble for a second time.

According to Jesus, this was but the beginning of the birth pangs. Every birthing process includes blood, sweat, tears and contractions. It is when the world is at its darkest and when things look the bleakest, that we are most ready to conceive and give birth to something new.
Learn a lesson from the fig tree, Jesus says: new life emerges like the tender branch of a fig tree which sends out a green shoot as winter turns to spring. If we are not paying close attention, if we do not stay awake and attentive we may miss what is in the process of being born.

In fact, if you think about it, the whole Christmas story from start to finish is about people who remained attentive and awake to what the world could be rather than in captivity to the way things were.

There is Mary, the unwed mother who opens the door of her heart and life and prepares herself to give birth to God's possibilities and to envision a world where "the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up, where the hungry are filled with good things and those who hoard all the wealth are sent away empty."

There is Joseph who is awakened by God's dream and then must make a choice between protecting his own interests and reputation or taking care of a mother and child in need of shelter and he makes the choice to do what is right.

There are the day-laboring shepherds out in the field who let go of their fears and attune their ears to "the good news of great joy" that could save the world and bring "peace on earth and good will to all." Not only do they hear the "good news" but they heed its call and run with haste to a stable in Bethlehem believing that another world is possible.

There are the three wise star gazers who are commissioned by a power-hungry King Herod to follow a rising star and search for a child rumored to be a new born king. In a dream they discern Herod's intent to destroy the child and they put their lives on the line to protect the child from the violent forces that are seeking to snuff out his life.

Advent is a time of preparation. In order for Emmanuel -- God with us -- to enter our world anew, we need to keep the eyes of their heart open to the new life waiting to be born amid the dung and despair of the world as we know it.

Our world is experiencing birth pangs and we do not know yet what is being born. The Occupy Wall Street movement is going into its third month of gestation. It is being called "the heart cry of the world."

Citizens in more than 1,500 cities around the world are verbalizing their outrage at the widening gap of income inequality, the gross negligence of the common good and the reality that politicians are selling their souls to the highest bidder.

Advent is a time to watch and to remember that there is a long way between the first contractions and the delivery room. Every birthing process is messy. Social movements always are.

When new life rises from the grass roots, there is always a diversity of voices and opinions as solidarity begins to build. All of us -- the poor, the working class and the middle class -- are feeling the squeeze of economic inequality and the OWS movement has provided a forum for us to unite and to respond to a common call to hold those who are responsible for our economic mess accountable.

We are at a tipping point and what hangs in the balance is what will occupy the heart and soul of our nation and our world.

Advent is a time to stay awake, to resist hitting the snooze alarm.

Advent is a time to watch for the light emerging in the darkness and the hope arising even in the midst of the birth pains.

Advent is a time to make room in the inn of our lives for what God desires to birth within us. It is a time to make conscious choices about what will occupy our mind, our heart, our time and our energy.

If we are occupied by pessimism and despair, the hope that envisions a new future can't be born.

If we are occupied by divisiveness and mistrust, the peace that builds bridges will not be born.
If we are occupied by an endless flurry of activity, the joy that springs from a true giving of self to others will not be born.

If we are occupied by maintaining what is or what has always been, rather than dreaming of what can be, the love that demands justice and the common good will not be born.

There is a light shining in our darkness. Let us keep walking toward that light.