#WeCantBreathe and Advent

On Sunday, December 7, there was a message preached at the Memorial Church of Harvard University. It was an urgent and powerful call, and it affected each person who walked out of that morning worship service. But I’m not talking about the sermon. While Professor Jonathan Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, did deliver a commanding sermon on that second Sunday of Advent, it was not simply his words that worshippers would remember. The message I’m talking about happened on the steps of the Memorial Church, and it happened after the service had concluded.

That morning, as worshippers exited the church, we were stopped in our tracks by Harvard students, lying motionless all over the porch, the steps, the sidewalk, and the grass around the entrance. Hundreds of students lay silent and still in the cold December air. Each student wore a surgical mask around their mouths, and on each mask was written in black permanent marker: We Can’t Breathe. For about 20 minutes they covered the ground and the steps, while worshippers silently and reverently walked around and through them, unable to ignore the message that was being preached in silence and in stillness.

Through this symbolic die-in, these students, and Professor Walton along with them, offered a visceral reminder of the lifeless bodies of black children and men like Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. They also, to me, seemed to be silently praying: How long, O Lord? How long?

For Christians, Advent is the season of waiting. We expectantly wait and prepare for the birth of Jesus during the time of the year when the days grow shorter and the darkness grows longer. We sing songs of expectation and hope: “O come, O come Emmanuel, to ransom captive Israel that mourns in lowly exile here.” We light four candles around a green wreath, but not all at once. Slowly, patiently, we light one candle at a time, adding a new light during each week of the Advent season.

Diana Butler Bass wrote about Advent:

“During these weeks, churches are not merry. There is a muted sense of hope and expectation. Christians recollect God’s ancient promise to Israel for a kingdom where lion and lamb will lie down together. The ministers preach from stark biblical texts about the poor and oppressed being lifted up while the rich and powerful are cast down, about society being leveled and oppression ceasing. Christians remember the Hebrew prophets and long for a Jewish Messiah to be born. The Sunday readings extol social and economic justice, and sermons are preached about the cruelty of ancient Rome and political repression. Hymns anticipate world peace and universal harmony.”

Because as the nights grow longer, the injustices grow heavier, and our yearning for the light of a savior grows more urgent, it is then when our hearts can prepare for the birth of the one called Christ.

Professor Walton, in his sermon from the pulpit on December 7, reminded us that this act of waiting and expectation is not passive, but rather it should be an active waiting. He reminded us of the words of John the Baptizer, the messenger who preached and baptized repentant sinners in preparation for Jesus’ ministry. Early Christians looked at John and saw a direct connection to the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah (40:3-5): “A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

In other words, to prepare the way for the Lord means to work for justice and repentance, to flatten the high and unjust places, to lift up those who are lowly and oppressed, to work for the dignity and equality of all people. During this season of Advent, Christians must both prepare our own hearts and prepare our world for the birth of Jesus. What must we do to make the world ready for this birth?

It is clear that we have work to do. Unarmed black men and black boys (who are often unfairly treated like men by white America) are still dying in the streets and our justice system seems content to look the other way. The valleys are not lifted up, and the mountains are not made low. But many have already taken what I understand to be the first step: the voice crying out in the wilderness. From the steps of the Memorial Church, to the neighborhoods of New York, to the streets of Ferguson, the voices are crying out. And they refuse to be silenced.

As a Christian and as a white person, it is first and foremost my job to listen. To hear those voices crying out in pain, in fear, and in anger. To listen more than I speak, listening to the stories and lived experiences of my neighbors. To stand as a witness on the steps of a church, seeing, truly seeing the human beings who lay there and who must cry out. Because before the birth of Christ, comes Advent, the season of waiting. Before the celebration, comes the work of making the rough places smooth and the uneven ground level. And before that work, comes the cry in the wilderness.

Photo credit: Jonas Tana via Flickr

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