“Thus says the Lord: I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts shall be called the holy mountain. Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets. Thus says the Lord of hosts: Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, says the Lord of hosts?” –Zechariah 8:3-6, from the reading for today’s Daily Office
Last weekend, as I was working on another piece of writing, I came across “The Second Coming,” that famous and frightening poem by W. B. Yeats. Written in 1919, in the wake of the First World War, “The Second Coming” is a vision of a world literally spiraling out of control. The very best of human achievements—Enlightenment philosophy, liberal economics, science and technology—had culminated in a conflict among nations that resulted in death and suffering on a scale which before this had been simply unimaginable.
Nearly 100 years after Yeats wrote “The Second Coming,” his words seem to remain acutely appropriate for our times. Following so many stories in the news of our world and our nation over the past one, two, five years, I have reminded myself over and over again of the line, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” And when I think about those people in positions of power—political leaders in particular but also those who run institutions whose impacts on our life are immeasurable—I keep coming back to Yeats’s assertion that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
W. B. Yeats was not the first person to feel like the world around him was falling apart, dissolving into chaos. He wasn’t the first to recognize that, for all the progress human civilization can make, the specter of war, strife, and violence is always with us. And he certainly wasn’t the first to envision, in the midst of frightening and incomprehensible historical change, that some kind of major break—a revelation, the Second Coming—was on the horizon. For Yeats, the historical circumstances of the twentieth century meant that the culmination, the decisive break, would have to be terrible, a “rough beast” ushering in something dark and unknown.
In dark times, when it seems like the world is spinning out of control, I’m grateful for passages like the one from today’s Morning Prayer, from the Book of Zechariah. Here, the prophet presents a vision of a world renewed, a world at peace living with joy in the presence of God. Even when circumstances seem most dire, when reconciliation among people seems like a naïve dream, we are reminded that with God, nothing is impossible.
Passages like these remind me that the season of Advent, and the celebration of the Incarnation we now look forward to, are not only about our personal, individual renewal (although certainly they are!). Through the Incarnation, God has offered Godself to walk among us, to renew our societies and cultures, our cities and nations. Zechariah’s vision is of a world brought back into shape through God’s healing power, not through human accomplishment.
But the vision of renewal does not mean that we can expect to simply sit here and wait for God to do this work. We are not called to lack all conviction! Today’s passage begins with God’s call to us to “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” By heeding this call, and seeking to walk in God’s ways and live in relationships of love and charity with one another, we can participate in God’s work of reconciliation.
As my friend and colleague Carrie wrote yesterday’s solstice, “just when it seems like it will be dark forever, the light returns.” When our world seems at its most dark, we are offered God’s promise of light. How we respond to that promise may be up to us, but the promise—and the hope it brings—will always be there.
Post by Jett McAlister