Rending the Heavens

First Sunday of Advent (B)

“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down with the mountains quaking before you… while you worked awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as had not been heard of from of old.” – from Isaiah 64:19-65:3

Batman. Superman. Spiderman. Wonder Woman. Thor. The Hulk. Many of you can add more such characters to my list. One of the fascinating  phenomena in American popular culture in the last century is the rise of the superhero. Someone who can combat evil with unusual powers or abilities. These characters first appeared in comic books, but they would soon make their way to TV and eventually movie stardom. Even now, successful movies continue to be made featuring them.  

Why do superheroes have such an appeal? Well, let’s look at these stories. As soon as superheroes were created, it became clear that we couldn’t have them dealing with ordinary human bad guys all the time. No suspense there! No, these superheroes had to face villains who also had some powers or abilities beyond that of ordinary criminals. Villains who were too powerful for the local authorities to deal with. The superhero was needed to deal with the threat.  This notion was stretched to almost comic proportions in the old Batman TV series that started in 1966. Poor Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara! They felt overwhelmed at anyone more dangerous than a jaywalker. They were always reaching for that red phone and calling on Batman to save the day.

In a sense, superhero stories were like some old cowboy movies. The lone gunslinger comes into town – like Shane – defeats the bad guy(s) that no one else can defeat, and then rides off into the sunset. Or, take all those sci-fi movies in the 50’s and early 60’s – the monsters created or transformed by atomic radiation who cause great destruction before our heroes can find a way to defeat them. Or, later movies like the Dirty Harry series. The hero may not be pure by any means, but he still rides into town and gets rid of the bad guys.

What are we seeing in all these stories? We see, in a sense, a reflection of how we see life. As children, we may have feared the monster under the bed or in the closet. As older children and adults, we find that reality offers its own monsters. Like Chief O’Hara, we feel overwhelmed by the threats all around us, threats that seem beyond our power to control, let alone overcome. The threat has gone by many names in the last century. Economic depression. World War. Communism. Nuclear weapons. New diseases. Terrorism. Pollution. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Mass shootings. Mass injustice. And many more.  We have looked for heroes to save us in these are way Superman or Batman might save us. Many have volunteered for the job. Politicians. Business people. Scientists. Self-help gurus of all kinds. Many have come in our day, claiming to have found the answer, or to be the superhero we seek. Each has tried. Each has achieved something. But each has failed in some way. The science that can bring cures for disease also brings biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. Business people can bring new inventions and new jobs. They can also move jobs away, or bring pollution or other problems. Politicians often promise us that they are secular messiahs. Then we discover that they are flawed after all.  All these try – and fail – to save us in the end. Still we search. Who will be our hero? Who will save us from all the dangers of our time?

How about God? Isn’t God all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good? Doesn’t that make God the ultimate superhero? Think of how we Catholics like to idealize our leaders, especially our priests. We want them to be our problem-solvers, our superheroes, in God’s name. We want them to have THE answer that solves everything. But, if God is this ultimate superhero, why is it that God seems to be silent in the face of evils great and small? It’s the age-old question: why do the innocent suffer and the wicked prosper? Why didn’t God save the millions of Jews who died in the Holocaust, or stop 9-11, or save Puerto Ricans from Hurricane Maria? Why do children die of cancer? Why is there so much seeming injustice in the world, if, as we believe, God is truly all-powerful and all-good? Or, is God like a superhero at all? Is God truly present and powerful, but in a very different way? A way that is still new to us, even after thousands of years? Is there indeed a reason to hope as we begin Advent, a season that specializes in hope?

These same questions were on the minds of the people who lived at the time of our Scripture readings for this Sunday. The first reading, from Isaiah, comes from the time after the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 587 BC. Israel has lost its king, its capital city, and the physical center of its faith. The people who remained were small and weak, and under the power of neighboring nations who did not share their faith. Dangers abounded. They could not save themselves. What about God, they asked? Didn’t God work wonders in Egypt in the days of Moses, as He led the people forth into freedom? Didn’t He save Israel then with power and might? Where are these powerful deeds now? Why doesn’t God rend the heavens and come down, like a superhero, and save the day? Yes, Israel had sinned, but now Israel seeks to repent. Will God not forgive and save? Is not God our father, Isaiah asks? Are we not the work of His hands? Surely God cannot abandon us, they believed.

The situation at the time of Jesus was little better. The people had a Temple again, but were still subject to foreigners – in this case, the Romans – who could be beneficent at times, but who could also be extremely cruel at other times. They still felt at the mercy of powers too great for them to overcome on their own. Would God not save them? Would He not act, sooner or later. to remove evil and establish His kingdom?

God would come to save His people. God, however, does not act like our superheroes. God reveals that there is a far greater power than that.

God comes to us in Jesus Christ. God comes, not with great fanfare, but in humility, vulnerability and weakness. God’s people had been in exile before, in Babylon. They still felt like they were in exile in their own land at this time. God reveals Himself as a God who is, in a sense, also in exile with His people. God empties Himself of what we consider power, in order to show where true power lies: not in acting like the superhero, but by coming in apparent weakness and vulnerability. It is the power of openness and compassion. It is the power of truth and love. God also empties Himself in order to show that He is truly with all of us, no matter how bleak our situation may seem, no matter what kind of exile we find ourselves in. God exiles Himself, so to speak, to be with us.

Jesus is born in exile, so to speak. Even the inn has no room for Him. He grows up, not in Jerusalem, but in Nazareth. When Jesus, as a man, comes to John the Baptist to be baptized, he symbolically joins the crowd who know that they are exiled due to their sins and who now seek forgiveness and hope. It is there that Jesus sees the heavens rent open (in response to the request in our first reading). God does rend the heavens and come down – not with weapons of war, but with the message of reconciliation and new life. Jesus seeks out throughout His ministry all who found themselves exiled: the tax collector, the prostitute, the leper, the Samaritan, and the simple Galilean fishermen who became His disciples.  He would heal and forgive and offer a salvation that began from within but which also united each person to a people who would help one another walk in the ways of God.

Yet, the forces of evil were not so easily pushed aside. Early on, Jesus faced a very alluring temptation – one that continues to seduce many Christians – that of compromising Himself in order to secure political power. It was the temptation to become the “superhero”. Jesus rejects this as a failure to worship the true God. Later, Jesus would be confronted with arrest, suffering and death. He refused to save Himself in the manner of the superhero. No, He made the cry of the oppressed, the suffering, and all in exile His own: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He embraced what seemed to nearly everyone present to be defeat. He chose to suffer with the starving, the child dying of cancer, and people tortured for their faith. It is this embrace or seeming defeat, of scandal and utter folly, that the Father then accepts by means of the Resurrection. The rising of Jesus is the ultimate statement to us: “This, this, is my beloved Son. Follow Him. Listen to Him.”

How, then, does Jesus save us? Not by crushing evil in the manner of a superhero, but by letting it crush Him. He took it on fully, all of it, and won the ultimate victory by His faithfulness unto death. His seeming powerlessness deprived evil and death of its power. His vulnerability reached out and offered a new hope to all who suffer in any way. It is this very vulnerability – this seeming defeat – which has opened the hearts of so many people throughout history, changed their lives, and saved them in ways no superhero could dream of doing.

Some of our fictional heroes actually followed this way, in a sense, in their own lives. Take Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, for example. He begins by trying to save Leia and Han from Jabba. He offers himself to the plan, but doesn’t achieve it all himself. Instead, his willingness to begin gives the others courage, and together they win their freedom. Later, Luke will go and confront Darth Vader and the Emperor. It will not be Luke’s skill, but his weakness before the Emperor, that will win the ultimate prize – the “conversion” of Darth Vader which then defeats the Emperor. I’d say that the “Jedi” who “returns” in this movie is not Luke, but Anakin Skywalker. Or, Darth Vader, who returns to being Anakin in the end. Luke’s weakness was actually more powerful than the Dark Side. It brought Anakin back.

Or, take Return of the King, the last of the Lord of the Rings movies/books. The one entrusted to the destruction of evil is not one of the great and powerful of the age, but Frodo the hobbit. Frodo pledges himself to the task, though he doesn’t know the way. When Frodo finally reaches Mordor, and it seems that the evil of the ring will overpower even him, it is the faithfulness of Sam and the treachery of Gollum that will help Frodo achieve victory – not Frodo’s own ability. Frodo’s weakness would bring forth Sam’s strength and Gollum’s weakness, and these would win the day.

So it is for us, and so it is with Christ. Jesus tells us, in the Gospel reading, to keep watch. Why? Because the way of the superhero is so beguiling that we might be deceived. We need to keep watch so that we will recognize Christ when He comes in a weakness that is more powerful than any human strength. In the second reading, Paul expresses confidence that the new Christians of Corinth will stay firm in faith to the end, provided that they hold fast to Christ’s presence, teaching and example. God is faithful, and will save all those who walk in the way of Christ.

Here it is, friends. We are not promised that we will be like Superman or Batman. No, our calling is to be like Luke Skywalker before the Emperor, or Frodo at Mount Doom. We will seem foolish to those who do not believe. But our hope is precisely here. We choose to stand with the suffering and with all in exile. We, too, suffer and are in exile even now. But that is where we find God. That is where the power of God meets us – not in our greatness, but in our littleness. Our vulnerability. Our nothingness. This will open the hearts of others to grace in ways that no ability or talent ever could. Here we find the Power that changes us and that changes the world. It is the power of the Cross. It is our hope. This is what we proclaim to all. This is what gives us light and strength even now. This is our Advent gift.