In Advent, the Church moves through pain to joy. The pain of Advent is the pain of waiting for the Messiah who, when he comes, is expected to take away pain and make everything right. Pain is thus a problem; when the irritant that causes pain is removed, then we experience satisfaction, which we call joy.
Built into this line of thinking is a Gospel of prosperity. That is, God’s job is to reward the good and punish the bad.
Except it doesn’t work like that in this world. As the story proceeds, the Messiah gets killed, the bad guys are still in charge, and the good guys are being persecuted and martyred.
The story of Jesus is that God is not who you think he is. The early Church understood this. We witness that understanding in the hymn recorded in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians which extols Jesus “who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (2.7).
The word “slave” is for us a metaphor. For many in the early Christian community, it was reality. They were in fact slaves, people who were the economic property of other people. Slaves in the Christian community would surely sing this hymn with great joy. Their joy would come, not from a belief that they would soon cease being slaves, but rather that the Son of God was in total solidarity with them in their slavery.
To experience this sort of joy requires faith. It is a faith that goes deeper than the faith of the philosopher who “defines” God as all-powerful and good in every way. It is the faith of one who understands that the fullest revelation of God is the suffering Messiah who does not normally make himself useful to our human projects of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain.
Most of us already know we are not in control, even if we often act as though we are. The revelation is that God is not in control either. Oh! He could be in control if he chose. After all, he did create the universe, and he does have the last word.
But if you want to know who has power and control, follow the news. Jesus is not on the 6 o’clock news.
Rather, Jesus is with the people who are the victims of car crashes, typhoons, wars and other tragedies. This is likely the main reason it is so difficult to preach the Gospel in a land in which tragedies are rare and so much easier to preach it in societies where people have empty stomachs, and catastrophe and death are common.
In the latter case, people know they are dependent; in the former, people labour under the illusion that they are (and ought to be) in control. It is the poor and suffering who have ears open to the Gospel.
The powerful believe their power is something worth clinging to. But it won’t last long, and it doesn’t bring joy even while it does last. One of faith’s paradoxes is that it is the suffering who experience joy – the joy of being in solidarity with the Son of God.