Monday, November 30, 2009

Preparing the Path to Advent

This weekend as I went Advent shopping for the church, I found myself once again confronted with the reality of the Christmas explosion. As I searched for purple Advent candles from store to store to store, I could feel my body tensing up with my usual Grinch-like disdain at the overly optimistic, sappy sentimentality of Christmas consumerism. The cloyingly jolly carols piped in even to the restrooms, the brightly colored baubles obscuring my line of sight, the hoards of eager after-Thanksgiving shoppers, the tacky, neon blow-up Nativity scenes, the shelves filled to brimming with cheesy Christmas tchotskies…all brought my blood to boil.

Why in the world cannot I not find a single purple candle in the sea of gold glitter, candy cane stripped, elf shaped, ornament ensconced candles stacked row upon row in the Christmas Tree Shop? Doesn’t the world know it is Advent, not Christmas? Hasn’t anyone read the lectionary for this week? There are no cute babies sleeping, no reindeer prancing, no Santa’s singing, no cookies baking!

You’ve read the lesson for today. You get it, right? In perhaps no other year of our lectionary cycle is the distinction between our secular Christmas expectation and our faithful Advent anticipation more vivid. Luke pulls no punches when describing the eschatological hope of the advent of the kin-dom. Far from the sentimental carols piped into to every grocery store, mall and post office is the stark vision of the end times we read in Luke.

'There will be signs in the sun and moon and stars; on earth nations in agony, bewildered by the clamour of the ocean and its waves; people dying of fear as they await what menaces the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken.”

This is no baby Jesus meek and mild kind of holiday. This is serious people! This is about the end times, the apocalyptic vision of the days that are surely coming, says Jeremiah, when the Promised One will come…that Branch from David who will execute justice and righteousness, bringing salvation and safety to Israel and establishing a new order in which peace has priority and God’s dream is fulfilled. This is a 2012 epic-end-of-times saga that will not be pretty…agony, bewilderment, clamour, death…the very foundations of the world will be shaken.

A jarring contrast to the holiday madness of the world around us, no?

Our Advent lectionary helps point us toward the completion of God’s dream for the world, reorienting our gaze from the immediate gratification of overindulgent Christmas celebrations to the day in which peace and justice will come to be fully realized. These texts we read, both from Jeremiah and from Luke, arise out of a people who have long been beaten and battered by the world around, tossed to and fro between the world powers of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and Rome. The eschatological and apocalyptic hope of which we read is rooted in the reality of a historically oppressed and marginalized people.

Both Jeremiah and Luke are speaking to communities who know their fair share of sorrow.
Jeremiah is writing during a time of prolonged exile and desperation. Kate Huey reminds us that

“this wasn't just a disaster in terms of the highest levels of government, when God's own people had been carried off to exile or were suffering its long-term effects. This was an everyday, lived experience of the ordinary person who felt their suffering as a judgment by God.”

It is to this situation of sorrow, grief and loss that Jeremiah proclaims the fulfillment of God’s promise.

Likewise, Luke writing just 15 years after the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem, addresses a community steeped in hopelessness and despair. His depiction of the fall of the temple is not prophetic prediction, but past history.

Both of these communities longed for something more, yearned for a day in which the promise they had heard repeated from generation to generation would be fulfilled…an end to oppression and injustice, an end to colonization and occupation, an end to poverty, marginalization and powerlessness, an end to sorrow, loss and grief.

We, too, can relate to these desires of a community long beleaguered by the powers and principalities of the world around them. Can’t we? We watch with horror at the injustices and sorrow in the world around us…the ravages of a war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the struggle of millions living with HIV AIDS, the suffering of those without clean water, nutritious food, or adequate shelter, the inequalities between those who have much and those who have so little, the brutal sting of prejudice and discrimination, the search for meaningful work and a just living wage, the grief of loved ones lost and promises broken. We, too, long for the promised coming of the kin-dom both in our world in and in our lives.

So in the midst of such significant eschatological and existential questions, it is understandable that we might get a more than a little annoyed at what seems like the nearsighted vision of a Christmas come in a Good Friday world. Why can’t the world get it right? This is not about some sentimental holly jolly season, but about the cold, hard reality of pain and suffering and our longing to relieve it. We know. We get it. Why can’t the rest of the world?

And yet, cruising the aisles of the Christmas Tree Shop, I found my eyes wandering to the piles of potential gifts for family and friends and began to feel my heart quicken and eyes glisten as I thought about the small joys some might feel at the gift of a plush blanket or wind-up toy. And then I began to get anxious about all I had to and wanted to do for Christmas…the cookies, the gift baskets, the holiday cards. ..not so much a nervous anxious, but an excited anticipation. I was actually looking forward to Christmas celebrations! In spite of my own best efforts to maintain my Scrooge like contempt at the Christmas frivolity, I found myself longing for a bit of the joy of the season.

Regardless of my own theological predisposition toward the kin-dom of peace and justice…I had to confront the idea that this is actually not a bad or even inappropriate thing to desire. You see the desire was not so much for the trappings of Christmas, but for that underlying yearning for moments, snatches, glimpses of hope in the midst of a chaotic, overly busy, rough and tumble world in which sorrow, grief and loss mark so many of the most of the days.

Advent is not an either/or endeavor. As we have been talking about these past few weeks in regard to the life of faith, Advent is a both/and event. It is both a time of expectant waiting for the fulfillment of God’s dream, and also the very present reality of that dream breaking forth in joyous celebration in the here and now.

The text from Luke helps us understand this both/and reality of Advent. Luke borrows from Mark this account of the end times, but adds something that alters the readers’ perspective.

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap . . . Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength.”

Luke’s addition to the Markan account points us toward the attitude or disposition with which we are called to face these times. Luke is concerned not just about our final destination, but also about how we get there. Both/And.

We live, according to Luke, between the two great poles of God's intervention in the world: the coming of Christ into the world as a tiny babe and the fulfillment of the kin-dom issuing forth peace and justice forever more.

Advent is this path between times…between the already and not yet, not only of Christmas, but of our lives. It is a liminal space in which we are called to prepare ourselves and the world for something more.

We know this in between space intimately, don’t we? Much of our own lives are lived in liminality. Kathryn Schifferdecker reminds us:

“There is a point, or a period of time, that we spend in between one time or place, and another time and place. In that in-between time, we have to live with things being not so clear or comfortable, not familiar and comfortable and yet not being what they will be one day. This "in-between time," though fraught with tension, is nevertheless also characterized by hope.”
It is in this in-between time that Luke calls us to pay attention. Be on guard! Wake up! Be Alert! For the path itself is a place of Divine revelation. It is the time not just of longing for what could be, but also for the celebration of what already is…the glimpses of God we see in our everyday lives…the joy, hope, peace and love we know in and through the world in which we live. While we long for the completion of the promise, for the fulfillment of our joy, we must take comfort in the moments and measures of grace which we see in our everyday lives…for those moments constitute the hope we need to carry on.

As liminal space, the Advent path must attend to both the destination and the journey itself. We are called to lift up our heads and keep our eyes on the prize that is to come… the days that are surely coming when a shoot will arise from the root of Jesse, the time in which the fig tree will come to fruition and the fulfillment of promise of God’s dream. But, we are also called to pay attention to the quotidian hope embedded in our everyday lives.

When we are able to simultaneously be present to the destination and the journey, we find ourselves strengthened for the road ahead. It is only in and through the hope of everyday joy that we find the strength to continue our collective journey toward God’s dream of peace and justice.…whether that be in the singing of a cherished hymn, the embrace of a friend, or even a tacky elf shaped candle for a family member.

These glimpses of hope in the midst of our wilderness lives are like that small, thin, fragile thread that we follow late at night through the dark forest journeys learning to grope and grasp our way through unchartered territory by trusting in the thin wire of hope that leads us through. Or perhaps, these glimpses of hope may even be said to be like breadcrumbs scattered along our path to lead us home once again. Nourishing and sustaining, yet never fully satisfying. We savor them and continue on yearning for more. That is the hope we get in Advent….already, and not yet all at once.

As we begin our Advent journey today, we heed the warning of Luke to be alert, keep awake, for the irruption of the kin-dom is imminent all along our pilgrim journey. It comes in glimpses and snatches, moments of grace and hope that lead us on. So, while no this does not mean we will start singing Christmas carols in worship (sorry), it does mean we will not simply wait for the fulfillment of God’s promise, but rather forge ahead following that thin, fragile wire of hope, gobbling up the breadcrumbs as they come, as we wind our way toward God’s dream in which we are overcome by the floodwaters of grace and hope, our very beings inundated by the presence of the Spirit.

Be alert! The kin-dom is coming here and now! So celebrate and be glad, for God’s hope is bursting forth in our midst!

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