Advent Season

December 1, 2005
By Tari Lennon

It has been a difficult year for those of us who move and breathe and find our meaning in an arms-wide-open God. The insurgency in Iraq continues to claim lives in such senseless ways; the deficit continues to increase in such irresponsible ways; the victims of Katrina and Wilma continue to be stonewalled in such uncaring ways by government agencies; the rolls of the medically uninsured grow in such inexcusable ways to 63,000,000—20,000,000 of whom are children; and the radical right continues to insist that torture should not be prohibited as an option in our treatment of prisoners of war while inoculations against cervical cancer should be prohibited because (as we all know) that would encourage promiscuity. Loved ones got ill. Some died. And all of us continue to struggle with the “ambiguities of history and vicissitudes of time” (Rhinehold Niebuhr).

So, where’s the Good News? The answer to that question is: exactly where it has always been—in us.

It is precisely at the moments when life seems dark and bleak that the resources of our inherited and practiced faith must be called forth not simply to “get us through” but to transform our habits of mind into new ways of being in the world.

That is what the Advent Story is about—transforming habits of mind and through that transformation, changing the world. The French writer, Nobel Laureate and agnostic Albert Camus said it best, “In the midst of winter, I finally learned there was within me an invincible summer.”

Douglas Rushkoff, professor of media culture at New York University and author of Nothing Sacred observes that our “. . . whole Vanity Fair culture . . . has run its course. We’ve grown sick of living in a vacuum and struggling to remain detached. We want to engage, meaningfully, in the stuff of life.”

There is no time in the liturgical calendar more appropriate to the desire to engage in the stuff of life than Advent.

So let us begin.

An old Broadway musical, The Happy Time, by John Kander and Fred Ebb features a wonderful song called “Among My Yesterdays.” The song is deeply poignant, gathering up in deceptively simple musical phrases and images the bittersweet effect of memory. One of the lines reflects on the “bits of pleasure and scraps of pain” tucked deep in the corners of memory. As the seasons of 2005 close and a new liturgical year begins I invite the reader to engage in Advent this year in a little different way.

The lectionary themes for year B are:

  1. watch, wait, hope;
  2. comfort, strengthen;
  3. rejoice, 
  4. God’s purpose,
  5. rust (Christmas Eve); and
  6. joy to the world (Christmas Day).

Rather than approach each Sunday in Advent as a distinct (and separate) occasion, moving from the 1st Sunday through Christmas, dealing with each set of lections for each Sunday in a sequential way, start with the texts for Christmas Sunday, read backwards, and consider each set of texts in reverse order.

This approach does two things.

  1. It creates whole cloth from numerous patches, providing, therefore, a sense of cohesion—all the texts being tied together—for the entire season; and 
  2. The study and preparation processes themselves become like stargazing, looking back in time, from the immediate to the long ago and far away, connecting our bits of pleasure and scraps of pain to all the bits of pleasure and scraps of pain that have preceded us. It’s almost biblical.

Following this method, then, I have taken all the lections for the season and list them here backwards.

Christmas Day

Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98
Hebrews 1: 1-4 (5-12)
John 1:1-14

Christmas Eve

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

4th Sunday in Advent

II Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:47-55 or Psalm 89:1-4 (19-26)
Romans 16:25-27  
Luke 1: 26-38

3rd Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 61: 1-4 (8-11)
Psalm 126 or Luke 1:47-55,
I Thessalonians 5:16-24,
John 1: 6-8, 19-28;

2nd Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 40: 1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
II Peter 3: 8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

1st Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80 1-7, 17-19
I Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13: 24-37

To hear a Gregorian chant or Rachmaninoff’s Vespers; to experience da Vinci’s Pieta or a fresco by Giotto; to worship in a gothic cathedral that seems to envelop the ether itself; to pray in the modern cathedral of Cologne after walking across the bombed-out remains to climb the bell tower of the old cathedral; to participate in a seminar led by Bishop Desmond Tutu or a Bible study with Central American peasants in their cinder block homes; to honor the end of a life with a requiem by Mozart or Verdi or Faurè; to learn the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins or John Donne; to engage with a four-year-old’s curiosity about what Jesus ate for breakfast—is to know in wordless ways the power of the Christian story to inspire us to lofty pursuits and move us to levels of creativity and imagination that can only be termed transcendent.

It is that very capacity for transcendence that has been all but eliminated by the current cultural divide that sees Jesus co-opted by the Right for political reasons and faith as a “talking point” for equally political reasons by the Left. Both the Right and the Left fail their respective constituencies in their refusal to point people beyond any particular set of beliefs and/or ideologies to a reality much bigger than any position on any policy regardless of the subject of that policy.
No matter how mega our churches or grandiose our fantasies, regardless of how certain the personal salvation or doubt in the existence of God, our lives have always and will continue to be repositories of bits of pleasure and scraps of pain in quest of sense and meaning in this preciously short adventure called Life. Our spiritual ancestors understood that. They themselves were on the same quest.

To read the Advent stories back through the experience of Christmas is to see our ancestors grappling with the temporality of life and working hard to move beyond the limitations of their own situation and their particular times. It is not difficult to understand how early Christian apologists read Jesus back into the “Old Testament” and later Christians saw and continue to see Jesus Christ predicted in every aspect of the Hebrew Scriptures—the Prophets, Torah, Psalms, Wisdom literature, all of it.

By developing that mode of interpretation, creating that kind of unity and making that story their own, they overcame the temporality of life and gave the seeming insignificance of their lives not simply meaning, but divine meaning—transcendent meaning. Millions of Christians continue to hold with the interpretation that Jesus Christ is predicted throughout the Bible. Our more progressive understanding of the Bible, history, and Jesus do not provide the kind of security, stability and know-ability that those millions experience in their certainties. To contradict,  challenge, or superimpose our point of view on those conclusions is to widen the gap between conservative and progressive believers. Our task is to use the story to find a place for both of us to occupy in the story.

Here in California we have a big, liberal church being threatened with an audit by the IRS for stepping over the “political line.” In Colorado the Pastor of a mega Evangelical church has a daily phone conversation with the White House and political positions and policies are preached from the pulpit. Clearly, in this climate, the burden for transforming the debate is on us.

In her moving meditation on grief, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion observes how ordinary, how unbelievably ordinary the events are that alter our lives—sometimes forever. In her case, she is referring to the unexpected death of her husband (and a year later, the death of her daughter, although not specifically a subject of the book). The book itself is witness to the possibility of the transcendent inherent in the ordinary. It is that dialogue—that relationship between the transcendent and the ordinary—that creates the possibility for a shared place.

Luke 1:26-55
In the ordinary event of pregnancy an otherwise unremarkable young girl interprets her situation in a remarkable way. She understands her impregnation as an invitation to participate in the divine drama of creation itself and to use her participation in the divine as an opportunity for the divine to participate through her in the pleasures and pains of the world—and to do so in a new way—intimately, as one of, in the midst of, unmistakably present.

Psalms 98; 96; 89:1-4, 19-26; 126, 85:1-2, 8-13
If, as some scholars conclude, the Psalms are arranged in 5 books to serve as an analogy to the Torah, then we must conclude that this is a remarkable Prayer and Hymn book, indeed. In the ordinary and usual activity of worship, the faithful shout for joy, lament with tears, beseech with passion, confess with indignation, sing lustily and rant poetically--all in an effort to connect with and know divine purpose, meaning, and companionship in their lives. Nowhere do we hear the dialogue between the ordinary and the transcendent and see the connection of pleasure and pain more clearly on display than in the Psalm 126.

Consider these words and images:

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
Like the watercourses in the Negeb,
May those who sow in tears
Reap with shouts of joy
Those who go out weeping
bearing the seed for sowing
Shall come home with shouts
of joy carrying their sheaves.

Wonderful! And, that, in microcosm, is the Gospel, and a Gospel not limited to Christians. Our Jewish brothers and sisters reading those words will also find good news. And this psalm provides a place for Jews and Christians to occupy together to address an issue that concerns both traditions, viz., how do we translate this song, this poem for our children and young people, most of whom have never sown anything, reaped anything, and wouldn’t know a sheave if they were sitting on one. The issue of how we contemporize Biblical images and metaphors in a technological world is a genuine challenge. Trying to minimize the problem with nostrums like "every generation, every era faces that," simply discloses a level of denial relative to the paradigmatic differences of these times that is woefully counterproductive.

My granddaughter, who is almost 16, keeps me tuned into an important world, one that far too many adults ignore, or worse, dismiss. It is the world of  pop, rock, blues, rap, jazz, country western . . . music. Our kid’s music tells us a lot and gives us invaluable information with regard to what touches and what brings meaning into their lives.

Groups like Black Eyed Peas, Destiny’s Child, Green Day; performers like Kanye West, Ricky Martin, Kelly Clarkson, Shakira, and even some of the "old timers" like Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, U2, and Sting offer us a wide array of ideas, feelings, images, and interests commanding the attention of our young people. 

Discovering together how to translate the Psalms into an accessible vernacular, inviting them to play their music for us, could be an informative, even exciting Advent activity. In the Progressive movement we struggle so hard to find ways to "connect" with our young people. My experience is that in affirming and sharing their music the connection is there, along with new possibilities.

Isaiah 52:7-10; 9:2-7; 61: 1-4, 8-11; 40:1-11
The prophetic witness is critically important this Advent season. Our people need to know and understand that the focus of the prophets’ message was not "them" but "us.” Their concern had nothing to do with individual salvation and everything to do with the welfare of the community—the total welfare, spiritual, economic, political, and relational. Critical to the prophetic message was the insistence that no war, destruction, chaos, exile, dislocation, disappointment or anything else excused the community from faithfulness and trust in the ultimate triumph of God’s purposes. Isaiah’s "book" spans over 200 years and addresses all of the aforementioned events. I Isaiah (1-39) began his work circa. 738 B.C.E. II Is. (40-55) was delivering his oracles between 597 and 539 B.C.E and III or Trito Isaiah was working between 520 and 515 B.C.E. So much time and so many historical events unfold in "Isaiah" and so many anonymous hands have shaped the Isaian tradition that I think it appropriate to raise the question "how come all of those writings landed in the same book?” Or, given all that time and all those events, what gives Isaiah unity? The external reason is style and use of language. The internal reason is God, or more exactly a particular understanding of God. Isaiah knows God to be transcendent and  immanent, holy and accessible, demanding and forgiving, confrontational and consoling.

Isaiah is the spokesperson for God’s "Otherness." That is, no matter what people claim for and about God, God is always Other and before the people build a mega Temple for this God, they need to be sure they have cleaned their own houses--this God will not dwell "in a moral slum."

The Letters
All of the correspondence literature insists on and celebrates the new proximity and accessibility to God as seen in Jesus, the Christ. In Jesus people have a new awareness of God and those new insights persuaded people that God was (and is) relational in nature and therefore, with them. Cause for rejoicing, indeed. Whether Thessalonians or Titus or Hebrews or Peter or Romans or Corinthians, differences of time, place, circumstance, author, concern and/or style cannot obviate the relief and hope to be found not simply in their new understanding about God, but their new relationship with God.

Mark and John
The message in the 13th chapter of Mark brings us to where I began. During this difficult year and in challenging times in the past, allusions and comparisons have been drawn between our country and other countries guilty of repressive policies and questionable tactics. That is the back-story for Jesus’ articulation relative to the "end time.” This "little apocalypse" like other Biblical apocalyptic material is a theological strategy and a literary device designed to spur people to action. That action, however, is not to be hysterical, reactive, or driven by panic. Action is to be confident, measured, watchful and should inspire people to trust in God’s future regardless the events in human history. Regardless the chaos and the turbulence Jesus encouraged his friends to take the long view of eternity. From that perspective, no matter what was going on around them, it was to be viewed as scraps of pain that would ultimately be transformed by bits of God’s pleasure restoring us all. Watch for that.

Finally, there is a wealth of valuable exegesis and interpretation of John’s prologue. I would encourage a review of John Cobb’s Christ In A Pluralistic Age and Marcus Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, especially chapter 8. The overview is helpful with regard to all of the Gospels and particularly useful for John.

To view life through the prism of the resurrection is to see light refracted over the ordinary events of a day or a life in amazingly colorful ways. John saw in the Jesus event a new meaning in history and for the cosmos itself.

The Nobel Laureate in Physics, Robert Laughlin observes in his new book, A Different Universe, that this year is the 100th anniversary of  the Einsteinian revolution. He believes that physics is on the verge of another revolution. That belief is based on a reconsideration of an idea that physicists have resisted for over twenty years, viz., emergent properties. Beyond atoms, quarks, and leptons, at the level of proteins, there is emergent phenomena. This is quite a startling development in the world of physics. I think it could be equally startling in the world of (Christian) religion as well, for the faithful to see the Christmas Story, the Christmas Event and the Advent that precedes it as a colorful representation of a God who is forever emerging and beckons us to join whatever revolution is caused by that continuing emergence.

May the Christmas Story be yours.

~Tari Lennon

The Rev. Dr. Tari Lennon is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and holds degrees in theology, ministry and psychology. She retired from parish ministry after 43 years and now convenes Open Gatherings which draws people together from all faiths and nonfaiths to explore topics of spirituality, relationships, and personal ethics.