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Encounter and Embrace | Reflection for Advent II

Matthew Neugebauer

Saturday, December 9, 2023

Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash.
Psalm 85
Writing can often be a struggle. It doesn't matter how experienced or skilled you are — sometimes, a draft simply doesn't work.
A few months ago, I spent a considerable chunk of time writing and reflecting on the reference to this Sunday's psalm in the Synod's Instrumentum Laboris, where it asks, “How can a synodal Church make credible the promise that ‘love and truth will meet’” (Worksheet B.1.2, emphasis added). After multiple drafts, rewrites, walks in the park, publishing other blogs, and the rest of my work, I had to move on. The best I could do was approach it obliquely, spiritually, by reflecting on the many layers of conversation that we find ourselves having when we seek reconciliation amidst our differences.
Looking back, I think my problem was that I tried to map out two different “camps” that create polarization in the Church, representing some supposed opposition between “love” and “truth.” As the thinking goes, those who pursue a more open welcome and inclusion emphasize “love” in the Christian life, perhaps at the expense of being truthful. Those who seek to uphold Magisterial teachings on certain controversial topics emphasize the “truth,” perhaps at the expense of being loving.
I can’t help but wonder if my binary way of thinking was reductive and unfair. More often than not, those who lovingly seek to include others and their wide range of choices genuinely believe they do so based on the truth of their dignity as Image Bearers of God (see for example Fr. James Martin, SJ. Building a Bridge, p. 7). More often than not, those who speak up for the truth of Magisterial teaching genuinely believe they do so out of love for God and his children who he lovingly corrects (cf. Proverbs 3:11-12). Love is faithful, by definition. Righteousness can build peace, especially since bridge-building humility is clearly an essential part of righteous living. The ongoing Synod on Synodality is hopefully providing an opportunity for different members of the Church to move beyond a reductive mindset by giving voice to these complexities.
The Second Sunday of Advent also brings us to the complex encounter between love and truth, with Psalm 85 staring us in the face. The NRSV has a more evocative translation of verse 10 than the IL: "Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other." When I read this verse, I’m mindful of the way that a future promise in Scripture often emerges from a longing to overcome some struggle or lack in the present. I hear the psalmist "groaning in travail" (Romans 8:22) that love and faithfulness are somehow estranged, and that righteousness and peace were lovers whose affection has grown cold.
This is Advent. Again, this is the time we look to God's perfect future, and as a result, are able to see the failures of our incomplete present in clearer focus. I'm still not going to try to square the circle of reuniting righteousness and peace--that task will outlast even the Synodal Path itself!
However, I can attend to the promise, the hope expressed in this Psalm. 
“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other." (Psalm 85:10)
What if there's something deeper amiss than the lack of doctrinal agreement or universal acceptance? What if this future promise simply expresses that, as part of our fallen humanity, we all lack love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace at times?
When I put it that way, the psalmist’s meaning seems obvious. So, why doesn’t Psalm 85 state that plainly? Why the poetic conceit?
Well, first because it’s literally a poem, a song that stylistically evokes feeling through image and metaphor. But more importantly, these images of encounter and embrace express something deeper: the longing for these various facets – love and faithfulness, righteousness and peace – to be reconciled within ourselves and within our communities. The longing for encounter and embrace speak to a yearning for integrity, which is really the noun form of the word “integrated.” Integrity means that the various parts of ourselves are integrated with each other, that we are more lucid and intentional about the way our beliefs, motivations, and feelings interact with each other to affect our choices. We are also more aware of the expectations others have on us and the expectations we have on them, and how appropriate and binding these expectations may be depending on our relationship with those who hold them. Integrity makes us more truthful to ourselves and each other; it means we are more self-aware, genuine, accountable to others’ expectations, and above all better able to love our neighbour and ourselves.
To take a personal example: maybe you have a close friend who you used to see often, but they’ve lost interest in spending time with you. You’re upset about it – that’s valid, and important for you to acknowledge. Since you’re upset, you might even be tempted to accuse them, overtly or passive-aggressively, of “ghosting” you: intentionally drifting away from you without honestly facing the reasons why. Or you can choose patience, compassion, and curiosity. You take time to think more rationally about the situation: what if they’re dealing with something that has nothing to do with you? Or maybe they’re tired or unwell, and there’s something you can offer them to help. If they’re your friend, and you want to reconnect, then you likely have the place in their life to reach out and ask those curious questions instead of accusatory ones. It’s a faithful, truthful, humbly righteous course of action that can rebuild a bridge.
"Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other."
Love and faithfulness; righteousness and peace. Above all, these are characteristics of God, who always has and always will possess them with perfect integrity and wholeness. (Dogmatic theology incoming: bear with me!) They are therefore characteristics of Jesus Christ, the “fullness of the Godhead” (Colossians 2:9) who comes to take on our flesh. As he takes on our humanity, he perfectly embodies the Image of God, becoming the wholly true human being who heals our incompleteness and falsity. As the true human, the true Adam, he possesses God’s perfect integrity in our flesh: he fulfills the promise of Psalm 85:10 for us and with us, insofar as we are with him and in him.
“Let us hear what the Lord God will speak,” what Jesus the Word-of-God-Made-Flesh declares in his own incarnate being: “he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts” (v. 8). The lectionary omits that last point about converting “to him in their hearts,” but keep it in mind as you sing this psalm on the Second Sunday of Advent. The promise is here, the offer is given: even today, we can turn to God in our hearts, by praying this psalm with hope and expectation that God will fulfill it. We can turn to God when we reach out to our neighbours and friends, when we go to confession (a “mini-conversion” each time!) and receive the Holy Eucharist, when we make time for family and for the poor and the sick, or whatever holy feelings, beliefs, and actions stir up in you when you hear the phrase “turn to God.”
During Advent, we prepare for the coming of the Word; we open our ears to the Voice of God, who “will speak peace to his people.” We do all these righteous, faithful, loving actions, believing that God will speak peace through our choices, through us, and to us. He will speak peace to the warring factions and motivations within ourselves, as we grow in the habits of holiness. He will speak peace to the great divisions in our communities and societies, as the relationships of communion and mutual participation “radiate” God’s love to the world (Instrumentum Laboris #44, 46). Even now, we can grow in integrity and truthfulness, as we turn to the God who shows us that love is faithful and righteousness builds peace.
Advent is about longing, about “groaning in labour,” and about our longing to transcend our limits and divisions. However, it is only about longing because it is mainly about hope: hope in the promise and work of God to “reconcile to himself all things” (Colossians 1:20) in the coming “King and desire of the nations” who “binds in one the hearts of humankind.”

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