One of the great cries of Advent is for God to rend the heavens and come down (Is 64:1), for Him to stir up His mighty power and come to save us (Ps 80:2). But what is it that we really seek? Is it armies with thunder and lightning? Is it vindication and peace on our terms? In a way, it is a dangerous cry if we mean it that way, for who among us can say that no wrath should come to us but only to those other people who deserve it? If God should come in thunderous judgement, are we really so sure we could endure and be numbered among the just?
It is clear that we need the Lord to save us, but do we see that salvation seen only in earthly terms such that we are saved from our enemies but remain largely unharmed?
In the final essay of volume 11 of his collected works, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict) ponders a similar Advent theme. I’d like to present his reflections and add a few of my own. In a sermon from December 2003, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger taught,
Stir up your might, O Lord, and come! This was the cry of Israel in exile … this was the cry of the disciples on the Sea of Galilee [in the storm] “Wake up O Lord and help us!” … And throughout all of history, the little bark of the Church travels in stormy waters … Stir up your might and come!
… What really is this might of God that seems to be asleep and must be wakened? St. Paul gives the answer in 1 Corinthians when he says that Christ the Crucified One, who is foolishness and weakness to men, is the wisdom and power of God.
Therefore, when we ask for this real power of God, we are not asking for more money for the Church, for more buildings, for more structures, for more political influence. We are praying for this special, entirely different power of God. We are praying with the awareness that he comes in a powerful way that seems to the world to be weakness and foolishness (Joseph Ratzinger, Collected Works, Vol 11: pp. 595-596).
Yes, here is the paradox of God’s power: He defeats Satan’s pride by the humility of His Son; disobedience and the refusal to be under any authority are defeated by the obedience and submission of Jesus.
Once stirred, God’s power will not always—or even often—manifest itself in thunder and lightning or in armies that conquer and destroy. Rather, His “strong and outstretched arm” is often found nailed and bloody on the cross. Yet here, and in this way, He defeats Satan. How? Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. And pride cannot drive out pride; only humility can do that.
Thus, the Lord defeats Satan not by the becoming a bigger, fiercer, more vengeful version of him, but by canceling his evil stance with its opposite. The Lord refuses to meet Satan’s terms, to become anything like him or in any way enter his world. In this way, the Lord conquers pride with humility and hate with love. I am mindful of some of the words from an old hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
The hymn concludes with these words:
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
Cardinal Ratzinger continues his essay in this way:
He does not come with military divisions; he comes instead with a wounded heart that apparently has nothing more to say, yet then proves to be the true and wholly other power and might of God.
This paradox should challenge us mightily because it means that God’s help will often not be on our terms. We would like to have every foe vanquished and every sorrow of our life removed. No cross at all; just stir up your power Lord and take it all away. But that is not usually how God’s power stirs in this “paradise lost,” which we chose by our own ratification of Adam and Eve’s sinful choice. We preferred a tree and its fruit to God, and He does not cancel our choice. Instead, He plants the tree of the cross and saves us by the very suffering and death we chose in the ancient Garden of Eden.
Here is God’s true power at work in this sin-soaked and rebellious world: the power of the cross. If you didn’t know what you were asking for when praying, “Stir up your power, Lord, and come to save us,” you do now. We might prefer that God save us on our terms, by the mere vanquishing of our foes and the removal of our suffering, but (as St. Paul teaches) power is made perfect in weakness; it is when we are weak that we are strong, for then the power of God rests on us (cf 2 Cor 12:9-10).
Cardinal Ratzinger then sets forth the challenge of this prayer for us:
[Hence our true declaration is] “Lord wake us up from our drowsiness in which we are incapable of perceiving you, in which we conceal and impede the coming of your holy power.
… Christianity is not a moral system in which we may merely roll up our sleeves and change the world. We see in the movements that have promised us a better world how badly that turns out!
… But [on the other hand] Christians are not merely spectators … rather [the Lord] involves us; he desires to be efficacious in and through us … And so in this cry we pray to him for ourselves and to allow our own hearts to be touched: Your power is in us, rouse it and help us not to be an obstacle to it, but, rather, its witnesses [to its] vital strength.
That may well mean suffering, martyrdom, and loss. It may not—and usually does not—mean that God will simply vanquish our foes and remove all our suffering. In this world the saving remedy is the cross; not just for others but for us, too. On Good Friday, Christ looked like a “loser.” Satan and the world danced. But on Sunday, the Lord got up. Friday was first, Saturday lingered, and then came Sunday. As for Christ, so also for us: always carrying in our body the death of Jesus, so that also the life of Jesus may be manifested in us (2 Cor 4:10). The victory will come but it comes through the paradoxical power of the cross.
Does this Advent reflection sound too much like Lent for you? Why do you think we are wearing purple during Advent?
Now pray with me (but be sure to understand what you are asking): Stir up your power, Lord, and come to save us!
Here is the common Psalm for Advent: Lord, make us turn to you, let us see your face and we shall be saved.