Sunday, November 30, 2008

Advent: An Ending and A New Beginning

The new year cycle of seasonal observance for the Church begins anew today with four weeks of Advent.  The word derives from the traditional phrase: "Adventus Domini", "the coming of the Lord".  Occuring just prior to Christmas, it's a reminder of the centuries' long wait for the birth of the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, realized, according to Christian belief, in the birth of Jesus (Yeshua bar Joseph) of Nazareth around 6 B.C.E.  It also refers to Christians' current expectation of the Christ's second, definitive coming at the future conclusion of human history.

According to the Scripture readings assigned for this particular liturgical year, Year B in the Episcopal Church, it's clear that Advent doesn't begin on an "up" note, a celebration, or a shopping spree.  The three readings for this first Sunday are from Isaiah 64:1-9a; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; and Mark 13:24-37.  The Isaiah passage, particularly, emanates from a community of hurt in a time of occupation and exile, people who know pain, who articulate it, who let it show.  This community of hurt is quite aware of the Holy One when it speaks of its suffering, knowing that ultimately it is God who will end the suffering.  Based on their people's past experiences, God's reign is not in doubt, and so this community is also a community of hope.  It passionately hopes for and believes in the coming reign of God.  Its hope is as concrete as its hurt, both of which go together in human life. Many in contemporary society disdain speaking of their hopes and hurts, especially the latter.  Yet it's the reality of humanity's present hurt which can be a motivating basis for ultimate hope.

Isaiah pictures his waiting community as a child abandoned, but not orphaned.  In Chapter 63:16 he says: "For you are our father", and again in 64:8: "Yet, O Lord, you are our father".  These are Advent's parameters: we, too, begin and end knowing whose we are.  Between these two assertions Isaiah explores what it means to look to an abiding Father in the midst of stark suffering.  He boldly accuses God of abandoning, misleading, hiding.  He begs God to return: "O that you would tear open the heavens and come when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil..." He reminds God of previous interventions when God took the people by surprise and shattered the known order of things. For Isaiah and the people it's been far too long: a time during which, unfortunately, they've fallen through their own human inadequacy, they've succumbed to weakness and selfishness, and have flaunted things of which they're not at all proud in God's face.  

"YET," Isaiah says, "you, O Lord, are our Father."  That's the assumption of Advent: a "yet" in the face of all present evidence, a "yet" based only in God's own person, the One in whom they hope and to whom they belong.  God's past fidelity assures the community that God continues to work for those who wait in hope and faith.

An anonymous poet has written: 
"I saw the sign on the highway:
'Prepare to meet thy God.'
But when I got a little closer
There were no further instructions."  

In our culture we find "end time" talk embarrassing or irrelevant.  Yet that's exactly what Advent is about: the eschaton, the end times, the end of the known world of abandonment, sorrow, alienation, and injustice.  That world will, at some point, surely end.  And it is the task of each human being to be ready.  Advent is not a business-as-usual festival of things we now know and possess. The coming of King Jesus, traditionally referred to as Christ the King, isn't just a gentle baby who comes to fit into our preconceived world, but rather a Divine Being who breaks into our human situation and shakes up the known order of this world.  Advent is the symbol of this shattering of all the false ideals and idols which we mistakenly treasure.  In the Christ's coming there is clearly devastation and loss, something to which we're not strangers.  We know about dread and fear, about inhumanity, and the terror of war, about financial anxiety and desperation.  

But the shock of Advent isn't just about devastation; it's also about liberation: a shattering of forms restricting us, of shapes oppressing us, of paralysis which shuts us down.  Don't be surprised if you find this difficult to accept or understand.  This is a hard message for what we presume to be our "settled" world.  We live, especially in this country, by a psychology of exaggerated autonomy in which we credit no outside agency, in which we're accustomed to buying our way into and out of everything.  Advent is meant to teach us that this way of thinking and living is in jeopardy. Whether Christians are willing to admit it or not, they often imagine God as a "Daddy" who benignly presides over this predictable world to keep it friendly toward them.  They seduce themselves into believing that, if they only work at it with cleverness, they can have the world on their terms.  Scripture scholar Walter Brueggeman observes, however: "Well, that is conventional.  But it is not biblical, not Christian, not news."  

What we await and prepare ourselves for in Advent is the sneaking suspicion, the growing awareness that our world of prestige and power and security is on the way out, if, indeed, it ever really existed.  Advent shatters our presumed world. It intersects just where our hurt and our hope converge, in the person of Jesus the Christ.  Are you and I bold enough to voice the pain that is ours and the world's? Are you and I open enough and ready for newness to be given us? Can we trust God enough to lean into an ending that is also a new beginning?  If so, we'll undoubtedly encounter the One who works for us who wait.


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