(Please be aware that this post contains one image that might be challenging for some.)
Today is the First Sunday of Advent. It is also the 38th anniversary of the martyrdom of Maura Clarke M.M., Jean Donovan, Ita Ford M.M., and Dorothy Kazel O.S.U. in El Salvador. Known as the Four Churchwomen of El Salvador, they gave their lives to the Gospel, even unto their last breath. Jean Donovan, the one lay missioner among the sisters wrote to someone right before her death. Her words remind us of the challenge of watching and waiting in the name of Christ in a violent and war-torn land.
“The Peace Corps left today and my heart sank low. The danger is extreme and they were right to leave…. Now I must assess my own position, because I am not up for suicide. Several times I have decided to leave. I almost could, except for the children, the poor bruised victims of adult lunacy. Who would care for them? Whose heart would be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and helplessness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”
During this time of Advent, we are called to wait and to watch. It can be boring, it can be distressing, it can be frustrating. Not to mention in our own daily lives, watching and waiting can seem like the most impractical way to get through the day. Busy people with deadlines and too many tasks to accomplish understand that watching and waiting accomplishes none of them! Or so it would appear. And for the Four Churchwomen, watching and waiting in the name of Christ turned out to be deadly.
This does not seem to be the most cheery start of the Christmas season, does it? Despite the pressures of the time, it is not the Christmas season; that actually begins on December 25. We are in Advent, although Advent does not cooperate with the retail and “holiday season” that we have embraced. Advent is the patient watching and waiting for birth.
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, ”
The world can seem tumultuous, dangerous, and as cold and dark as these ever shortening days of winter. We see the environment around us behaving differently than it did in our past, with stronger storms and raging fires. Elected leaders and those who might wish to be elected try to convince us that only their plan can “save” us from dictators, disasters, financial free-fall, invading hoards, or worse. Lacking the power to watch and wait in faith, we grasp onto the fraying hem of whatever seems safe, holding onto the threads that will disintegrate into nothingness. That, whether physically or in the soul, is how we might, in Jesus’ words, “die of fright in anticipation.”
December 2, 1980 must have seemed a frightful time for those four churchwomen, yet they waited with their hope firmly planted in Christ. What horror are we called to see and hear, even when – perhaps most especially when – we do not have the patience or courage to do so?
The results of the waiting and watching for the Four Churchwomen of El Salvador do not make for a happy-can’t-wait-for-Christmas story. They were brutally assassinated and buried in a shallow grave.
As evidenced in Jean Donovan’s words above, they waited, they watched, they saw, and they heard – and it cost them their lives. This is the risk of living a truly a life rooted in Christ Jesus. No, we are not to run into death’s arms of our own volition, but in the watching and waiting that is essential to following Christ, the Cross is always looming.
Ultimately, if we can’t stare at the Cross and go to the Cross, how can we gaze lovingly at the Creche? The empty crib makes us feel tender and loving, as we breeze by running off to our next errand. When our hearts grow faint in the waiting, may we remember Jean Donovan’s words about her heart and the impossibility of leaving, even when everything was so dire. Her words “Not mine, dear friend, not mine.” call us to stay, to wait in hope when all other indications may seem otherwise. This Advent, may we all watch and wait with this in mind.