Speedily cause the offspring of David, Your servant, to flourish, and lift up his glory by Your divine help because we wait for Your salvation all the day. Blessed art thou, O L-rd, who causes the strength of salvation to flourish.”
That’s one of the eighteen traditional Jewish benedictions (Shemoneh Ezreh) which were prayed for centuries in the Temple of ancient Israel and are still prayed in synagogues today. It’s a prayer for the promised one of God, the Messiah, to come and establish his rule and authority, which was always accompanied by the expectation of the ultimate rule of YHWH. Though there was arguably no expectation that the Messiah would actually be God incarnate, Israel did expect the kingly figure promised of old from David’s line to usher in YHWH’s final salvation.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, the nation of Israel was under the reign of the Roman empire. Though they were force-fed the empire’s rhetoric of “peace and security,” the Israelites were reminded through taxation and a constant military presence that Rome was in charge, and Caesar was their king. They longed for a strong king of their own who would make everything as it should be – that is, that Israel would be free from all oppression and would be governed by God himself. The nation prayed this would be so, and benedictions like the one above were offered daily. They prayed for the coming, the advent, of their king.
The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth convinced hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of people that he was that promised king. The establishment of his reign didn’t look like what people had expected, but turned out to be exactly what the world had needed. Almost from the moment of Jesus’ ascension, the Church began praying “O Come Lord,” — “Maranatha” in Aramaic. What God had established in Jesus’ first advent, he promised would be consummated or fulfilled at his second advent. The Church, busy at its task of implementing the reality of new resurrection life within a world still sleepy with death, prayed earnestly for the return of the king to finish the task in a radical and absolute way.
There is an already-but-not-yet quality to our current situation. In a very real sense, the benediction has been answered. The incarnation of God and his subsequent defeat of death changed the universe ontologically. But things look very much like they always have. There are earthquakes in Haiti, famines in Ethiopia, floods in Pakistan, genocides in Sudan, and wars all over the world. Even in the “enlightened” nations everyone is stressed and depressed. What do we do with that? If Jesus truly is God and the Church truly is his body, his acting agent on earth, shouldn’t things look different?
Though it’s sometimes hard to see, partly because it’s rarely reported in the media and partly because much of it is invisibly played out in people’s hearts, the Church is still implementing the work of Jesus. Just like the work of Jesus while he stood among men looked different than people expected, so the work of the Church has always looked different than the world expected. Our call is to walk in the way of the cross – a tough, unassuming, unglamorous path that leads to sacrifice and emptying. What we accomplish with this path is more powerful than we realize, but it hurts horribly. So we pray, O come Lord.
The season of Advent is complicated, just like real life. Dark blue or deep, bloody violet are the colors that came to the mind of the Church to represent the mood of the season. Any joy during this time is a muted bi-product of the hope of what we’ve been promised. We hope for Christmas, putting ourselves in the expectation of a nation looking for a king and finding a baby. We hope for the new advent, the final, wondrous appearing of Christ the King. Maranatha.