Advent Anxiety

Finding hope amid disappointment
Grégoire Huret, “Christ Preaching to his Disciples,” engraving, 1664 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Advent season, the beginning of the liturgical year, presents us with Scripture readings that lead us to reflect on the possibility of finding new life in unexpected places. An ending brings about a beginning; horrific apocalyptic imagery is a place for new hope; words of wisdom are heard in the desert; an elderly woman and a virgin are pregnant; and we are promised that salvation will be found in a helpless newborn.

We reflect on these dichotomies and impossibilities within the context of the ending of the calendar year. Our New Year’s resolutions of eleven months ago, whatever they were, are now a distant memory, and what’s left of this year is planned out and booked, leaving little room for last-minute changes. Everything around us reminds us of endings. In some cases, we are satisfied with our accomplishments, choices, and experiences, and in others we’re left with the sting of disappointment. Disappointments have a long staying power; a disappointment feels like an incomplete project. You envisioned a different outcome and your inability to let go is, in a way, a desperate search for a new path to get to the ending you had hoped for. Advent prepares us to see our unexpected endings as the sacred ground where God’s grace propels us to new courage and resolve.

Jesus isn’t telling us not to be anxious. He is telling us not to allow ourselves to become despondent.

There are many things to be disappointed about this year. I’m disappointed that so many of our American bishops have adopted political rhetoric that deeply wounds the hearts of faith-filled social-justice leaders who work tirelessly for the good of humanity, and the hearts of all Catholics who support these movements and institutions. I’m disappointed that it didn’t take long for Pope Francis’s Synod on Synodality to reveal that the institutional U.S. Church is structurally unprepared to listen to the needs and hopes of the people of God. I’m disappointed in President Biden’s failure to address the urgent needs of immigrants and refugees at our borders. I’m disappointed in the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, a verdict that essentially gives civilian vigilantes the green light to police civil-rights protests, and that gives the gun culture even greater sway in American public life—and power over human life. I’m disappointed that we’re almost two years into this global pandemic and we’re still debating the science behind masks and vaccinations. All these disappointments, among others not mentioned, can fill us with despair and leave us wondering how we got here, and doubting whether we can get out of it.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus instructs his disciples, “stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand” amid the cosmic and earthly turmoil that will precede his second coming (Luke 21:28). He also warns against our hearts becoming weighed down with the anxieties of daily life (Luke 21:34). The disappointments I listed above, not to mention my own personal misfortunes, have become a strong source of anxiety for me and for many Catholics I work with. It’s important to note that Jesus isn’t telling us not to be anxious. He is telling us not to allow ourselves to become despondent about it. These apocalyptic readings, read through the lens of the Advent season and the Incarnation, affirm human experience. Disappointment and anxiety are valid. It is in our human experience, in this one life, where our faith is enacted, where we, to the best of our ability, are called to be conscientious of our Gospel values in our daily decisions including how we decide to respond to our disappointments.

The greatest temptation when I list my disappointments is to give up. Chronic anxiety has the potential to paralyze us. So much of what we have experienced and continue to experience can be disheartening, so Jesus’s exhortation to “stand erect and raise [our] heads” is an encouraging word in a time when the problems of the institutional Church and the nation may seem too big and beyond our grasp. The last verse that is proclaimed this first Sunday of Advent is an invitation to pray for strength, and this prayer is efficacious. This Advent grace is needed to keep hope and to keep going.

This is the first in a series of 2021 Advent reflections. A new reflection will be posted every Sunday in Advent. You can read the second one here, the third one here, and the fourth one here.

Claudia Avila Cosnahan is the Mission & Partnerships Director for Commonweal and an instructor and consultant for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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