To give light to them that sit in darkness,
and in the shadow of death:
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
- Luke 1:79
American Catholics arrive at Thanksgiving this year on a somber note. The calamities of 2020 have been many: An ongoing pandemic with hundreds of thousands of lives lost and others forever changed for the worse; devastating fires and repeated hurricanes offering a glimpse of the future horrors of climate change; police killings that have pointed out once again America’s “original sin” of anti-black racism; brazen denial of the reality of fairly counted and reported election results that poses a threat to our democracy; and last but not least, for Catholics in particular, the McCarrick report highlighting the deep rot of clericalism within the church and the many, including John Paul II, who failed to stop the former cardinal’s sociopathic rise. There is a reason “#2020” has become synonymous with catastrophe on social media. There is little, seemingly for which to give thanks except having made it through the year.
This year, as is often the case, Thanksgiving coincides with the end of the liturgical year and the beginning of Advent. This oft-misunderstood season does not simply serve as a prelude to Christmas but rather highlights the two comings of Christ: first, the apocalyptic coming of Christ at the end of time (thus bookending the period at the end of the liturgical year which also emphasizes this theme); and only thereafter hinting at the commemoration of Christmas. Advent is often put forward as a corrective to the commercialization of Christmas, but this year looking backwards in the calendar of the American civil religion to Thanksgiving might offer some insights.
Each year since 2008, I have attended the Advent Procession at Saint Thomas Fifth Avenue, an Episcopal church in New York City renowned for its music program. Until his sudden death in 2015, that choir was conducted by the great John Scott, and a staple of the service under his direction was Philip Moore’s setting of the Benedictus from the Gospel of Luke recited each morning as part of Morning Prayer. Moore’s haunting setting (now available on YouTube thanks to one of Scott’s former assistants), elaborating on the Gregorian Tonus Peregrinus or “wandering tone,” evokes the tension of Advent between the already and the not-yet: confidently waiting for something better yet still tentative about its arrival. That mood, I would argue, suits us well as we approach this Advent and this Thanksgiving. We await an apocalypse – not the end perhaps, but at the least a breaking through of justice and righteousness; and also await the tenderness of Christmas, perhaps not in Christmas itself but the ability to embrace our loved ones, in the words of the canticle, “without fear.”
Our society has certainly reached an apocalypse in its original sense of unveiling: all sorts of frightening unmaskings are taking place (and not just those related to low compliance with public health directives). The motivations and calculations of many powerful people in our society have lost all nuance. We fear with Yeats’ great apocalyptic poem that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” As one of the great witnesses to Advent, Alfred Delp, S.J., put it, the season shakes us out our “pathetic complacency.” There is no room now for complacency. Complacency means abandoning others to disenfrancisement, displacement, dehumanization and, ultimately, needless death.
Many reasons have been given for why our society has reached the point it is at now, in danger of crumbling from within. I would submit that one of the most profound ills of American society in our time is a deep bad faith that has injected a profound nihilism into our politics. This is not, pace some arguments made in Catholic circles, simply the fruit of “both-sides” polarization, but the result of the quest for power and privilege no matter what the cost to others. The story of McCarrick shows one example of such profound bad faith; the aftermath of the 2020 election and the undermining of democratic institutions for partisan purposes shows another one. Such bad faith comes, Delp argues, from avoiding the disquiet that comes from facing God. In a different way than Lent and its penance for our sins of commission, Advent ought to disquiet us by our failure to even in meager ways approximate the eschatological glory that awaits us.
This Thanksgiving, we need Advent more than ever. Let us pray with the community of the Didache in their Eucharistic Thanksgiving: May grace come and this world pass away. Not entirely (yet), perhaps, but the bad faith, cynicism, fatalism and racism that have been part of the human contribution to #2020 cannot pass away quickly enough.
Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.