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I intended to compose a reflection on the season of advent which liturgically began this past Sunday on the Christian calendar. But I was stopped short regarding something that happened this week that can be part of the reflection in a way we may not be accustomed to as we scour the readings we are served pointedly focused on the coming of Christ.
What stopped me was the sad and jolting announcement of the death of Michael Gerson, an opinion columnist for TheWashington Post, a most unlikely member of my pantheon of journalist greats, professionals I read as much for inspiration as I do for information. I have followed Gerson whose politics are different from mine but whose expression and appeal, based on faith and integrity, argued for justice, and understanding in his every opinion. Gerson died last week at the age of 58, a young victim of several illnesses but it was kidney cancer that eventually took him.
What can you learn from him in this blog? Really? An advent blog about a political journalist?
When I was in graduate school minoring in journalism, a would-be career that I coveted,
I was told by an ill-informed professor that maybe I should not wear my cross or religious community identity. I was teaching two classes as a teaching assistant in a secular university and the professor feared it would blur my efforts to be objective not to mention the “separation of church and state” clause in the Constitution and journalism’s fealty to this hallowed document. But I thought my cross said more about me than what I taught so I continued to wear it. Thankfully, students respected the cross I wore and looked beyond it to the subject at hand.
Michael Gerson would have rallied in support of me, urging me to wear my religious signature. Reflecting on Gerson’s death and career, Daniel Silliman wrote in The Washington Post that even when Gerson was a speech writer for President George W. Bush, “He believed the writing of speeches was a high calling.” Gerson crafted the memorable speeches President Bush had to articulate following 9/11. Someone in the White House commented that Gerson was “the man whose words helped steady the nation” at that horrific time.
Previously, Gerson had hoped to become a theology academic after graduating with a degree in theology from Wheaton College. But a chance invitation to write for a former member of the Nixon administration brought him to Washington and eventually to the George W. Bush White House where he wrote movingly about the president’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief which provided antiretroviral drugs for millions in need of treatment. He was a valued advisor to the president focused on compassion and very “committed to the notion of uplifting the country.” According to Silliman, “Gerson crafted the language of faith-inspired politics for President Bush from 1999 to 2006. He fused a theological vision of moral purpose with a practical policy agenda…” Gerson had no patience with fellow conservatives who were political leaders saying that the party needed “Republican vertebrates with a backbone of bravery.”
In his later adult life, Gerson suffered from depression once being hospitalized for it. Recently, I came across a sermon he was invited to make at the Washington Cathedral. The sermon is on YouTube, and I highly recommend you seek it out to watch and hear. In the sermon, Gerson detailed the pain and insecurity that depression brings on the sufferer and the people they love. But he ended that heart-wrenching look into his own mind and soul by saying that when he is able to think clearly, he reaches for the one thing that truly helps in this state: He reaches for hope.
Last week accolades began pouring in for Gerson and his remarkable writing career. A visibly saddened David Brooks could hardly speak but recounted that Gerson was a champion of truth and faith in the political arena. He told of a reader who vowed not to read Gerson again because of his challenge that we look at the Beatitudes and the teachings of our faith when we make public decisions. Sometime later that same reader commented, “I think I’ll give that Jesus guy another try!” Ruth Markus, a fellow journalist remarked that Gerson “wrote like an angel.”
I would like to quote from Gerson’s Christmas essay which was published last year as he began facing the severity of the last months of the illness edging out his productive life. According to Silliman’s article, Gerson argued that “if the Christmas story is true, it is a story that can reorient every human story.” And for those who couldn’t quite believe it, he urged them to look around: “There is almost infinite number of ways other than angelic choirs that God announces his arrival.””
Sometimes people of different political or religious persuasions are overlooked for their power to enlighten and to share valid fruits of faith. For this week and for the beginning of advent, ask yourself if you are open to the ways God uses to communicate to you and to others that Jesus is real, he did come among us, and we should live as if we believe this.
Ask for the grace to see and accept the messages God sends through unlikely messengers. In many ways, they are angels announcing the coming of Christ. We should enter advent, a season of quiet contemplation, with a wide-open heart. Where is God leading you? Take time each day to reflect on this. Look around as Gerson wrote, “There is an infinite number of ways…God announces his arrival.”