On the 18th of December 2001 I was in Buenos Aires. I vividly remember that day like it was today because it was the day before Argentina -and particularly Buenos Aires- fell into total chaos.
As some of you may recall from the news, in December 2001 there were terrible riots and a political turmoil which escalated to confrontations between the police and citizens to the point that fires were set on Buenos Aires avenues. When President De la Rúa declared a state of emergency on the 19th the situation got worse precipitating the violent protests of 20 and 21 December 2001 in Plaza de Mayo, where clashes between demonstrators and the police ended up with several people dead and precipitated the fall of the government.
The day before the beginning of what then would be called the 2001 crisis, I was in Buenos Aires packing for a month of mission in La Paz in Bolivia. In the morning I went to the city center for a short visit and then headed to the train station. I was still a student so that I had to get back to the college, pick up my suitcase and then go to the airport. That was the plan. I was completely oblivious of the situation, but when I got to the train station I realised that all the railway companies went on strike without prior notice. That was odd. No buses excepted for one line that had an endless cue of people already fighting to get a ticket and get into the only functioning bus. Something was coming, but I could’t really understand what that was. I looked around and saw that everybody was very nervous. The tension was in the air and I could feel it now. I tried to get a cab, but I had just a few pesos in my pocket, and no one wanted to help me out with that. At that point I was very nervous and stressed too because there was no way I could have made it to get back to the college, pick up my suitcase and get to the airport on time to catch my flight. “What am I going to do? -I said- Am I going to miss my flight!” The only alternative was to get one of my mates at the college to bring my suitcase and passport to the airport while I was trying to get the only available bus to get there. And that’s what I did. I eventually made it.
Now the day after I was having lunch with another priest while watching the tv news. He said: “It seems that there are riots again in the city center”. But he meant in La Paz, where protests are quite common. I then payed more attention at the news and realised the news were actually showing images of the riots in Buenos Aires instead of La Paz. I could’t believe it. I was there the day before. I was shocked. Something so terrible was about to happen while I was there, and I didn’t have a clue of it. I didn’t see it coming.
Today John the baptist proclaims the coming of the Lord, and urges us to prepare ourselves for his coming. However its proclamation looks more like a warning than a joyous expectation of the baby Jesus. You heard him saying: “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”. This is not a “I wish you a Merry Christmas” card, but a serious admonition: “Repent or the wrath will come upon you”. It is a hard-to-swallow-message.
When I think back of those days in Buenos Aires and remember people’s testimonies when I came back from Bolivia, I suddenly realise that I don’t have any memories of Christmas day as a time of joy and peace, but more as a traumatic and shocking experience. People were so overwhelmed and shocked that they could barely remember that Christmas day in 2001. Instead of joy, peace and love, they felt violence, fear and dead like a wave of wrath and frustration. Were they expecting that for Christmas? How did they cope with it? How did they live afterwards? It is hard to say, but unfortunately they seemed to get use to cyclical crisis and always prepared for the worst to happen. They almost lost heart, and even worse, they seemed to have lost hope.
Is this the all picture? How do we then prepare for Christmas, for the coming of the Lord? Do we prepare ourselves for the worst and live Christmas a ceasefire?
Very wisely Matthew’s gospel tells us about John’s ministry, and straight after that, talks about the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry. Differently from John’s message, Jesus’ message has no warning or threat of any sort. Repent or…something terrible would happen to you.
He simply says: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. Jesus shows himself more like the Messiah described in Isaiah’s prophetic vision than the avenger of John the baptist’s prophecy:
“The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox”.
As matter of fact, Jesus is the prince of peace and the bearer of justice. Do we truly believe that? We may need to start preparing ourselves for Christmas by opening our eyes to see him coming. In the middle of a world that does not care about beating people up to death and spreading violence and oppression over the poorest ones, advent is the time where we pray intensively for the coming of the Lord, and learn to open up our vision to see what Mary and Joseph can see when they look at the baby Jesus laying in the manger: the hidden meaning of the present, the invisible beauty of the real. While John the baptist denounces the present injustice, and urges us to look at our demons right into theirs eyes, Jesus opens up our vision to a different world where peace is not just possible but necessary.
We do not preach resignation or rebellion, but want to understand how to prepare for Christmas by deepening into the mystery of who is coming. Advent the is the time when we prepare to understand the deepest meaning of Christian life asking ourselves: “Where do I see the dwelling place of the Divine?” Do I see it? After all the trains run, the planes fly, the skyscrapers stand, telecommunications work, independently of whether or not God exists. Advent then is a challenging time. It is about training our eyes to see the sun, to contemplate the dwelling place of the Divine that seems to be no-where, perhaps because it is now-here.