During my grad school experience at Notre Dame, I bumped into quite a few characters, but few as interesting as Theology professor John Dunne. What I remember as a student were his darting, expressive eyes, his manner of speaking which was a kind of manic soft-spokenness, his habit of using his legs and body to emphasize his words, and of course his fresh and appealing way of communicating theology. And perhaps the most memorable experience I have of him was an exercise he facilitated during class. He asked us to close our eyes and to imagine God, to imagine what God looked like. And so we did. And I admit that as a twenty-three-year-old white, male student I imagined a kind of friendly looking older white guy. Well, after a few Minutes, Professor Dunne asked us now to imagine God as a woman. A black woman. A smiling black woman on a porch in a swing. A happy black woman on a porch in a swing who laughed loud and long every time someone did a kind thing for somebody else.
The exercise had a profound effect on me then and still does today. It was, among other things, my first recognition of the profound importance imagination plays in the religious experience, indeed, in the human experience. I admit that I have not always had such a respect for the role of imagination. I can remember as a boy listening to the conversations of adults commenting on the stories of each other’s children with such remarks as “what an imagination that child has.” Imaginations, I deduced wrongly, were the idle play of kids. Imaginations, I thought, were for make believe. Imaginations were the opposite of reality.
Not true, I now know. In fact, there is no such thing as healthy child without a healthy imagination. No such thing as an empathetic adult without a healthy imagination and no such thing as a relevant religion without a healthy imagination.
So, what does all of this have to do with our gathering this morning? You see, my sisters and brothers, Advent, by definition, is our season of imagination. It is a time in which our prayer is described in terms of waiting and hoping. But waiting for what, hoping for what? And so we are required to use our imaginations to envision a future that is of God. Advent is the season of Christian imagination.
Here are what seem to me to be six intersections of Advent, hope and imagination.
First, Advent and our hopes and the exercise of Christian imagination must be grounded in history. While it would seem at first glance that imagination of any sort is over-fanciful and perhaps ethereal, the hope of Christian imagination is grounded in the understanding of what God is already doing in history. Jeremiah, in last week’s reading, and Baruch and John, in today’s reading, are able to speak of a future of justice exactly because justice was part of the living and savored memory, the history of the Hebrew people liberated and guided by Yahweh and Moses. Advent looks backward to the best of history and anticipates a horizon of that best history restored and perfected. Our reading from Luke begins with a detailed description of the political landscape: Pilate, Herod, Philip, Annas and Caiaphas, so as to make sure we know what is happening, badly. Instead and in response, we get John the Baptist asking us to prepare for something new. What does the Reign of God, the reign of justice look like – it looks like something historical, ordinary and precious. It is not other-worldly gold streets in the sky. It is a world of mothers safe, with babies in their arms unthreatened by war and hunger. It is farmers with land and people with homes. The reign of God is a world of friends, attentive to each other’s concerns and more interested in mature lives of sharing than long lives of accumulation. Advent sees a time when “the rough ways are made smooth.”
Second and related to this first point, Advent and our hopes and the exercise of Christian imagination is grounded in our personal experience. Again, in contrast to the idea that imagination is mostly frivolous and impractical, our Christian imagination takes what we have known to be most life-giving and dares to expand and enlarge. So all of us know, when we are awake and mindful, that love and nurture and a warm meal and forgiveness and human dignity and a safe place to grow up and celebration of community are pure and simple what we most desire. Advent imagination takes such experiences and extrapolates to a world in which all are nurtured, all have a warm meal, all love and are loved. It dares to speak of a reality of all-encompassing justice. Advent imagination can see the coming of a world in which the best of what we know overwhelms the worst of what we know.
Third, Advent is obviously big stuff. We imagine, we wait, we hope for the biggest of dreams. What we are not waiting and hoping for is Christmas, if by that we mean that we pretend that Jesus has not yet been born and we are on a countdown to the birth of the baby Jesus. No, Advent is not a countdown to Christmas. Advent, it is true, is a season whose meaning is derived from the fact of Jesus’ life and death as well as the imaginative quest to realize its meaning in history. What we wait and hope for in Advent is a reality in which the spirit of Jesus has become all the world. What we wait and hope for is the reign of God overwhelming the reign of injustice. What we wait and hope for is the princes of peace unseating the princes of war. What we wait and hope for is the love of God eroding the love of money. What we wait and hope for is that the world be renewed in the likeness of God. This is the stuff of spirited imagination. This is the stuff of hope, BIG hope. This is the stuff worth waiting for and hoping for.
Fourth, hope and Christian imagination and Advent are commitments. In contrast to the misunderstanding that imagination is purely a matter of diversionary thoughts, Christian imagination informs our behavior. To acknowledge that we wait and hope is not to suggest passivity. To say that we wait and hope for peace on earth, for justice, for reconciliation and restoration is to claim what we live for and work for. The images that hold our hope, that fascinate us, the ideas that capture and inform our imagination are our spirituality. They inform what we pray for, what we live for, what we talk about, what we care about, what we read, what jobs we will take, what we buy, what we do and don’t do, what we give ourselves to. The fact is, what we truly hope for and imagine is what will dictate our lives.
Fifth, hope and Christian imagination seem most vibrant when connected to human struggle. When Judah is overwhelmed by Babylon, hope seems to be more poignant. When Jesus is murdered, hope is resurrected. In my visits to El Salvador, exactly where people would have a right to be resigned and hopeless, there is the greatest evidence of hope. It is as if the experience of crisis and struggle remind us of what is most precious, what is worth our lives. The season of Advent, then, is our spiritual exercise to agitate hope in ourselves, to remind ourselves what is precious, so that we do not become oblivious to the dreams that cry out to God. As we draw near to human cries of our sisters and brothers in need, it is our best chance to stay awake to what it is God is about in the world.
Sixth and finally, hope is best done in community. The religious imagination is best exercised by “we.” Because Christian hope is only about “we.” “Me and God” doesn’t get it. If being a faith community means anything, it must mean that we imagine together a new possibility. The minute we stop dreaming, stop imagining together is the day we stop growing and start becoming ever so predictable and stagnant. In addition, we hope together because hope is sometimes difficult on our own and not always possible for some. And so we hope on each other’s behalf, to keep hope active, to enable hope in each other. We need the dreamers, the visionaries, the holy ones, the elders, the peacemakers among us to sustain us when we lose heart.
In conclusion, could it be that the best we can do in these days of Advent is to set aside time to dream, to image what God is up to, and to imagine what our lives together might become? Then, the practice of hope becomes our prayer. Imagination becomes an act of holiness. And our dreams shared allow for a new creation. Imagine.