I'm pretty religious about taking my weekly day off, which is Monday. I use the term "religious" in all seriousness; I consider it a holy obligation--honoring the sabbath principle and all that. But one must be flexible, of course, so I took some time out of my day to provide some pastoral care to a parishioner who is going through a very rough patch. The encounter left me sad, because the person is obviously suffering, and there wasn't anything I could do to simply take her pain away, though I suspect that talking about it helped some. Of course, we don't need to look very far to find suffering and misery. People are suffering nearby and people are suffering far away. "In sorrow that an ancient curse should doom to death a universe..."--so begins the second stanza of the venerable (and possibly my favorite) Advent hymn Conditor alme siderum.
Tonight the men's club of my parish held its annual ... well, what was it? A "holiday banquet"? "Advent banquet?" (A mega-talented pianist was actually improvising in a George Winston style on the likes of Nun komm der heiden Heiland and other tunes from the Advent section of the Episcopal hymnal!) Goodness knows, but for being perpetually harassed about the proper keeping of Advent by a succession of curmudgeonly clergy, of which I am only the most recent in succession, it would have been openly a Christmas party--at least judging from all the red sweaters present. Anyway...before left, we all sang Veni Emmanuel, which has the advantage of being a right-down-the-middle-of-the-strike-zone Advent hymn that 99% of the general public associates with Christmas anyway, so everybody is happy.
The fifth verse, from the Latin antiphon O clavis David, struck me in a fresh way as I was singing the final line: "...and close the path to misery." (A more literal translation of the Latin might be along the lines of "...and block the hellish way.") It is precisely what I had wished for during my off-the-clock session of pastoral counseling. It is what I wish for whenever I open a newspaper or click on the homepage of my browser. I wish I could close the path to misery for anyone whom I love, or care about even a little bit, or--what the heck--just about everybody. (There is a select short list I would have to work up some enthusiasm for.) I wish I could close the path the everyone's misery.
I can't, of course. And, in an effective sense--it sounds slightly heretical to say this!--God "can't." For him to simply intervene capriciously would violate the very structure of the created universe, not the least important element of which is human free will. But God is, nonetheless, in sorrow about that ancient curse. And although it's not part of the plan for him to intervene capriciously, he has done something much better; he has intervened gratuitously--that is, in a manner full of grace. The trajectory of redemption set in motion by the Incarnation, sealed in the Passion and Resurrection, and brought to fruition in the Ascension, means that the misery my parishioner unburdened herself of on her pastor's day off will be taken up into that gratuitous intervention and woven into a tapestry of healing and restoration that will, before the dust settles, send that ancient curse packing. And close the path to misery.