Posts Tagged ‘Advent’

Pastors tend to live between the world of idealism and reality. Perhaps the majority of theologians (both academic and otherwise) live within this liminal space as well. It is this thin margin between envisioning what might be and observing the reality of the facts on the ground. Most of the time they don’t align. Inevitably, this creates a kind of dissonance within us as we strive toward the future we sense can happen and the hurdles that seem to impede the possibility of arriving at that place of hope. This might be easily dismissed if it is only the pastor or theologian’s vision of the future. However, there are times where the hope moves beyond mere idealism, rising out of a life of study, prayer, and discernment of the Kingdom-shape in which God is molding a community. The tension between the now and not-yet is sharpened when God is the One shaping the vision.

Of course, there are plenty of situations we can point to where “leaders” have claimed to know what God wants and it later came to light that God probably didn’t have much to do with the vision in the first place. There have been plenty of abuses of power in this regard. While not dismissing the possibility of abuses of leadership, I want to focus on those particular moments where the vision really is from God and the leader(s) is in alignment with what God desires. In those moments of seeing what can be and what God desires while facing the reality that we aren’t there yet can spiral into an abyss of defeat, demoralization, and despair. This is especially true when there is strong opposition to the vision from others. Sometimes that opposition comes from outside pressures on the Church, sometimes from within the Church. By leaders I don’t mean ministers exclusively. Ministers can sometimes be the biggest opposition to God’s vision. After all, we’re finite creatures with limited perspective, too. Regardless of the source, these barriers to the new future can create deeper tension within the leaders and communities vying for that future.

Sometimes those barriers to God’s new future are minimal and easily scaled. However, there are times where the opposition is fueled by fear and selfishness. What might have been an easy hurdle begins to look more like an impenetrable fortress, a Berlin wall of refusal to move or budge toward God’s future. Then, there are those that actively pursue counter action. Not only do they dig their heels in, they begin to tug in the complete opposite direction. It may be from good intentions, but it can be devastating to a community. Although it may be frustrating when people are hesitant to walk with you toward a new future, it is absolutely painful when there is intentional, perhaps malicious, energy aimed at working against you. Again, it is easy to despair of seeing God’s new future come to fruition.

The reception of God’s promised hope for a new future brings about energy and joy in those that receive it. It is exciting to imagine the possibilities. But, without fail, God’s promises always find themselves threatened, teetering on the edge of the precipice of failure. God promised Abraham that he would be a great nation and a blessing to all nations. Problem: Abraham and Sarah are old and barren. God’s promise doesn’t seem so sure when Sarah is 90 and Abraham looks like he’s about to kick the bucket. God’s covenant-promises to Abraham’s family appear doomed when Esau trades his inheritance for some “red stuff” to his manipulative brother. Jacob has to run into hiding for being a deceptive cut-throat. So much for God’s promise to bless others through this family that doesn’t even get along. Further down the line, God’s covenant-promise is again threatened when Abraham’s descendants find themselves in the land of Pharaoh making bricks as slaves. Pharaoh tries to extinguish their family tree by killing off their young boys. You can’t be a numerous people if you are enslaved and then killed. The stories continue over and over again. God’s promise is constantly under threat of extinction. Barrenness, infidelity, murder, foolishness, idolatry, destruction, death, exile, and crucifixion attempt to derail God’s promises from finding their fulfillment. Yet, in each moment where God’s promises edge close to disaster, even certain doom, God manages to bring about those same promises, despite the incredible opposition to God’s new future, both from God’s people and from the others.

When God’s promises appear to hang by one finger on the edge of a cliff with jagged rocks below, our reaction is to wonder if it’s even possible. The writing is on the wall and we can’t conceive of any way forward. We are at the end of our creative and motivational capacity. The temptation is to focus so intently on the things that threaten God’s new future that we cease to focus on the God that has promised that new future. Perhaps I’m more egotistical than most and so I think I should be able to accomplish the task at hand. When I fail my attitude sinks because I see the divide between where we should be and where we are and my inability to span the gap. It’s quite possible that those are the very moments where I have become the biggest barrier to God’s new future because I am consumed with what now appears to be the impossibilities of God’s promised future. It’s impossible, therefore, why try?  Or, the future is dependent on me, so force the issue. Both culminate in similar experience. I find myself sitting on the sidelines soaking my hurts in the cynicism of despondency. The subtle shift of hoping in God’s promise to a prideful hope in our own capabilities inevitably falls short and concludes in hopelessness.

 

Advent brings us right into the frustration and conflict.  It thrusts us right into the middle of  our hopelessness and our closed off futures.  We are confronted with our fears and failures.  Advent reminds us that God accomplishes God’s promises in God’s time – in the fullness of time.  Like a pregnancy, you can’t rush the gestational time required to give birth to new life.  As such, we are called to enter into the waiting – that necessary space where we learn to trust, hope, and act in abiding faithfulness – not because of our capabilities to enact a new future but because of God’s promises.  And, like the stories where God’s promises always appeared on the verge of disaster, we are brought into the canonical (read scriptural) imagination which says God accomplishes that which God promises from the beginning.  As Zechariah 9:12 states, “Come back to the place of safety, all you prisoners who still have hope! I promise this very day that I will repay two blessings for each of your troubles.”  When vision and reality are separated by a chasm, remember the One who has bound us in hope and return to that firm foundation.

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My family once had a potbelly pig for a pet.  Yes, we literally bought a pig for a pet.  It was the runt of the litter, rather small.  We named it “Wilbur.”  It wasn’t long before Wilbur needed a bath.  FYI, pigs tend to become dirty and smelly in a short amount of time.  If Wilbur was to stay in the house, he needed to be cleaned.  So, bath day came.  We prepared the bathtub and set Wilbur down in the water to begin scrubbing.  Wilbur had a different idea.  He didn’t care for the bathtub.  Maybe it was the water.  Maybe it was the slippery porcelain floor of the tub.  Whatever it was, Wilbur wasn’t having anything to do with the bath.  He began to freak out, squealing and squirming.  Suddenly, Wilbur began to fly in the air as he used the slick porcelain bathtub like a snowboarder using a half-pipe – flying up one side, back down the side, and then shooting up higher on the other side.  It was a disaster.  Water was everywhere.  Wilbur was a piglet of chaos and no closer to being clean.  Wilbur eventually worked himself out of a home with us because he refused to be cleaned.

Advent comes from the Latin adventus, which means “coming.”  It is a time for preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ in the Incarnation, that is, Jesus’ birth, and also Jesus’ coming again to complete the union of heaven and earth.  The season of Advent lodges us between these two events.  As the early Church used to say, “Christ has come; Christ will come again.”  As Christ came as the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes, now we wait in joyful anticipation of Christ’s return to reconcile and redeem the world to God.  The time is coming, says Jesus.  Prepare.  The time is drawing near, says Jesus.  Be ready.  The day is on the doorstep.  Be prepared – “wash your robes.”

If we are totally honest with ourselves, we could all write up a lengthy laundry list of grievous sins, poor decisions, lapsed judgment, and painful brokenness.  Imagine yourself robed where everything that you are and everything that you have done was written in permanent marker for everyone to see.  What would it say?  If we came to the gates of the City of God wearing those robes, would we expect entrance into the wedding party?  No, we’d expect to be outside with the dogs.  But, we’re not always sure we want to go through the tedious work of preparation – of washing.  We’d rather toss it in the laundry heap and forget about it.  Advent reminds us that the time for Jesus’ return is drawing near and we need some clean clothes for the party.

Like Wilbur, we desperately need to be washed, made clean.  Our robes are dirty, tattered, and torn.  Our lives are soiled rags, frayed threads, and filthy garments.  Some stains are so deep that Clorox can’t touch ‘em.  We look worse for the wear.  The mud of lust cakes the sleeves.  The dirt of gossip smudges the collar.  Broken relationships fray the cuffs’ hems.  Anger tears apart the seams.  The buttons of love are chipped or dangling by a thread.  Wrinkles of dejection and anxiety mangle the fabric.  Distrust leaves the bottom edges thin with strings dragging in the dust.  Our robes are rags, hardly suitable to wear at the coronation of Creation’s King.  “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me… Blessed are those who wash their robes.”[1]

Do you know the key for clean clothing?  Two things: Clean water and agitation.  Stale, stagnant water only increases the filth and stench in our clothes.  Using the water of this world, with its empty promises for new life and purpose, leaves us wreaking of death.  We have soaked too long in the stagnant pools of our world and culture so that our robes have taken on their flavor.  We have washed ours clothes with the disease-ridden waters of arrogance, deception, racism, sexism, idol worship, addictions, greed, and any other number of things.  Our robes, our lives, are covered in sludge, slime, and slander.

Jesus, the Living Water, calls us out of the filth-filled floodwaters of our world into the stream of life flowing from the very throne of God.  These waters of purest crystal, fragranced with milk and honey are God’s free gift to all.  Jesus offers us Living Water to drink for our parched and thirsty souls.  Jesus invites us to bathe, to soak, to dive deep into this life-giving current, which is the very Life and Way of God.  In these waters we find healing for every disease, every malady, every infirmity, and every seeping wound.  This Water can bring even life to the Dead Sea… surely it can bring life to my dusty rags.  To drink of this Living Water is to also be swept up in its current, its Way, and its movements.

Water isn’t the only necessary ingredient for clean clothes.  Soil, soot, stains, and sweat are dislodged from clothing when water is combined with agitation.  People used to wash their clothes in rivers and then beat them on rocks.  Or, they used washboards to agitate the stains out of the material.  Today, we use machines that turn barrels with paddles that toss the clothes to-and-fro and then sift out the dirty water through high-velocity spinning.  Removal of stubborn stains requires adequate agitation.  Our sin-stained robes… our broken lives could use some agitation.  If you’re in need of some good old-fashioned agitation, like I am, Advent is a wonderful place to start.

Advent places us firmly in what theologians call “the now-and-not-yet” Kingdom.  Christ has initiated the Kingdom of God here on earth, but it hasn’t come yet in its fullness.  We’re still waiting for the final unveiling.  Christ’s first coming unveiled the brokenness of the world and marked out a different pattern of living.  Jesus demonstrated what it means to be both fully human and a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.  His birth, life, death, and resurrection both initiated God’s Kingdom on earth and pointed toward its future consummation and completion.

And that’s agitating… because Jesus wakens us to a new, truer reality that calls all of our previous ways of life into question.  Everything is thrown into question: politics, economics, family relationships, marriage, divorce, education, personal rights, private property and land, nations, power, parenting, community and neighborliness, poverty, violence, hope, success.  EVERYTHING!  The shabby robes with which we have clothed ourselves and our world is put under the black-light of Jesus… and the robes we wore and which we imagined to be clean and whole are shown to be disgusting, disheveled rags clinging to our bodies.

Jesus’ way calls for peace and unmasks our love of violence.  Jesus’ way calls for mercy, but we are bent on retribution.  Jesus’ way calls for love, but anger has its claws in our flesh.  Jesus’ way calls for justice, but we enjoy the benefits of injustice too much.  Jesus’ way calls for hope, but we are entrenched in fear.  Jesus’ way calls for truth, but we are committed to our collective lies.  Jesus’ way calls for sharing resources, but we’re just not sure there’s enough to go around.  Advent agitates us, stirs us, and disturbs us because we are confronted with the reality that our lives, both communally and personally, don’t yet fully reflect Jesus or his Kingdom.

Waiting and preparing for Jesus often tumbles us, throwing our world upside-down.  Yet, when we encounter God’s grace in Jesus the Living Water who washes us and the Spirit of God that agitates us from places of complacency, something life-giving stirs in us that we would have never anticipated.  We begin to change – little by little.  The stain of discontent begins to fade.  Neighborliness sews together the seams frayed by enemy-making and violence.  The stench of anger and bitterness are replaced with the fragrant aroma of Christ’s mercy and grace.  Greed is washed out with self-giving love.  Humility and service bleach out vanity and pride.  The more we are washed by God’s presence and stirred up by Christ’s life, the more we realize that our robes are being repaired and made clean and that we’d rather not wear those old, dirty rags of our former lives.  So…

The Spirit and the bride (that is, the Church) say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.[2]

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne[3]

 

 
[1] Revelation 22:12a, 14a.

[2] Revelation 22:17, 20-21

[3] Charles Wesley, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

Gross divides the liturgical year into three cycles: Light, Life, and Love.  These were helpful divisions, although there is overlap in the seasons of the Church year.  But, it gives a general theme by which the seasons are organized.  The Cycle of Light is Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.  The Cycle of Life is Lent and Easter, ending in Pentecost.  The Cycle of Love begins with Pentecost and goes through Christ is King Sunday (Ordinary Time).  The point of the liturgical year is to enter into God’s story.  Gross notes that we are not looking for God in our story but coming to understand our story in light of God’s Story.  Gross likens the church year to a dance.  As you learn the rhythms, you concentrate less on the steps and learn to enjoy it as a means of grace.  As with any dance, it is helpful to know that there is room for creativity and adaptation.  It is not a rigid form but serves as a helpful guide to following Christ through the year.  In addition, the Church year helps us to “mark time because it has marked us.”  There is something significant that happens in amnamnesis besides mental recollection.  We are being formed as people.  In fact, that is the heart of liturgy – the work of the people – which is offering our time as a sacrifice to God to transform us!

            Gross notes that there are 7 seasons in the Church year (as opposed to 8 seasons in Kimberlee Ireton’s work).  The main difference is not counting the time between Epiphany and Lent as a season.  7 seasons could be counted as the “fullness” of time, in some sense.  This would be double in meaning – the fullness of the life of Christ and the fullness of eschatological time.  Gross moves to a four-fold pattern for encountering God throughout the Church year: reverence, repentance, inviting God’s presence, and responding. 

            Advent is the season of waiting and “enlarging.”  It deals with both first and last things – “looking back and leaning forward.”  I really appreciated both of these concepts, especially in considering the story of Mary as a model for this season.  Anticipation, waiting, and enlarging.  We long for Christ’s coming, for God to right all things, and for God’s presence with us.  Christmas focuses on incarnation.  It is a season of celebration where we consider the mystery of “eternity in the womb.”  God becomes everything that we are so that we might become everything God is by nature.  God is with us in every way.  We wait expectantly for God to be birthed in us.  Epiphany looks toward the magi, Jesus’ baptism, and the miracle at Cana.  It is about the manifestation of God’s life in our midst.  It is the journey from baptism to transfiguration.  This can be a significant time for discipleship, especially in regard to baptism.

            The next Cycle moves us to Lent where we are confronted with our “mortality and moral culpability.”  We are confronted with death, beginning with Ash Wednesday.  Lent leads us to sojourn and journey, both as individuals and communities, through the wilderness.  This culminates in the Triduum.  During these three holy days, we journey through the Pascha with Christ – our Paschal Lamb.  We walk the way of sorrow and pain with Christ.  We see the Light extinguished.  We begin by remembering the new commandment to “love one another.”  We live this out by serving one another, by washing each other’s feet.  We eat the Last Supper with Jesus and hear his gut-wrenched prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.  We see his betrayal, trial, and crucifixion.  Saturday, we feel the heaviness of silence.  Gross emphasizes the “spiritual” dimension about Lent, but it should be noted that this time must also be embodied. 

            Easter focuses on resurrection of the body and a transformed heart.  It is resurrection of the whole person.  Thus, we celebrate the victory of God over all.  It is the “euchatastrophe” – the good God brings from what is catastrophic.  Easter is a season of 50 days, which is seven weeks of seven days.  This seven seven’s points toward fullness of time and the fifty days point toward the salvation of Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor.  The emphasis on Ascension Day was also helpful, as it helps us remember the completion of Christ’s work.  In other words, Christ has given us every good gift through which we might draw close to God and have victory over sin and death.  This comes to fullest light in Pentecost – the Spirit’s empowerment of God’s people, the Church.  Pentecost also marks the beginning of Ordinary Time and the Cycle of Love.  God’s love embodied in us to God’s world.  Thus, our focus is discipleship.  Three didactics are helpful to consider: world and church, neighbor and self, and work and rest.  We wrestle with the tension between each of these poles.  Gross suggests “receiving the day and releasing the day” as helpful spiritual disciplines to guide us during this season.  We receive God’s mercies each morning and release each day, both our successes and failures, to God’s care.

            Overall, I thought this book was a fantastic guide through the Church year.  Although no guide can be entirely comprehensive, Gross’ work does a fantastic job of providing a solid foundation for understanding and entering into the Church year.  I look forward to using this as a personal and ministerial resource through each Church year.

Ireton notes that the Church year is split into halves – the story of Christ and the story of the Church.  But, the Church year really is about the story of God.  It begins with the long anticipation of God’s coming, moving through the Incarnation.  Through Lent and Holy Week we journey with Christ toward the cross and his resurrection on Easter day (but which is celebrated for several weeks leading up to Pentecost).  Pentecost is the story of the Holy Spirit empowering the Church to live like Christ.  Finally, the Church year concludes with Ordinary Time (the daily grind of faithful living) that culminates in Christ is King Sunday in which we look toward Christ’s second coming.  It is a cycle of preparation and celebration, fasting and feasting.  Ireton concludes, “The church year has seasons of darkness, of light, of sorrow, of rejoicing, of just getting through.”[1]

            Time is sacred because God is present in it all.  The Church year calls us to remembrance and reflection and re-enactment of this reality.  The Church year orients us to God’s way in this world and invites us into participation with God’s redemptive, salvific work.  It “helps us embrace the church’s telling of time instead of our culture’s.”[2]  As Ireton notes, the “secular” calendar is centered upon consumerism.  It is designed to make us consumers.  I would go further and say that it is (at least in the American culture) centered on nationalism, militarism, individualism, and consumerism.  There is a vested interest (generally a concern for power) for the world to shape us into its own image rather than the image of our Creator.  The Church calendar allows our whole lives to be oriented around God’s story and thus transformed by that story.

            The Church year is communal.  This goes against our rampant individualism.  We are the gathered community living out the story of God together.  And, we are also re-presenting the faith that has been handed down to us from the apostles.  We recognize that we are part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that has but one faith, one baptism and one Lord.  There is a unity that is embodied in journeying together through the story of God in our world.  This is a faith that is not novel, yet encounters the Living God anew.  And, it does so by helping us to tell the whole story.

            Advent initiates the Church year.  It is a time of anticipation and waiting.  I was unfamiliar with the first two Sunday themes being “wait” and “prepare.”  In my experience, we have generally made the themes: hope, joy, love, and peace.  Then, the overarching theme was about waiting.  Henri Nouwen’s “active waiting” is an important concept.  I think of it as “hopeful anticipation” in which we are living in the now-and-not-yet kingdom.  To that end, we wait with anticipation while living into God’s future.  The fasting and feasting aspect of Christmas is important in this regard.  The fasting prepares us for Christmas and the Incarnation.  Our culture is impatient.  Following Advent can bring us back to a sense of waiting and the building anticipation of the Incarnation.  An Advent tree can be a helpful symbol that is then replaced by the Chrismon tree – barren death to evergreen life. 

I appreciated the Feast of St. Stephen and the Feast of Holy Innocents.  Incarnation is about humble servanthood (St. Stephen).  And, we are reminded that much violence and pain are still in our world.  The Incarnation is God’s identification with that suffering, by which God walks with us (Feast of Holy Innocents).  The Christmas season concludes with Epiphany, or the “showing.”  It is a season of light, where darkness is scattered.  This is available to everyone (as indicated by the Magi).  It is God’s redemptive work for all of Creation. 

Ordinary time, which makes up the majority of the Church year, reminds us of the daily grind of life.  It is the counting of time (“ordinal”).  But, the manner in which we count is important.  It is not merely marking off days (kronos) but each day is filled with potential because of God’s presence (kairos).  God is at work, even in ordinary moments.  Green is the color of the season representing “growth.”  We don’t typically think of growth in the ordinary moments.  Ordinary time helps us remember that all of time is interwoven with God’s prevenient grace.

Lent is often associated with “self-flagellation.”  Ireton does a good job pointing out that Lent is about creating intentional space (through fasting and repentance) so that we might be filled with what God has for us.  Beginning with Ash Wednesday, we are confronted with our mortality and our need for God.  That is the beginning of the wilderness journey, where we walk with Israel and Jesus through the desert, learning what faithfulness is along the way.  Lent is also about charity – divulging ourselves of our excess so that we might share God’s good gifts with others.  Lent, going into the Triduum, is also a time of increasing darkness.  This culminates in Jesus’ death and entombment.  This season reminds us, we are called to die with Christ.

Easter is a celebration of seven Sundays which ends with Pentecost.  Easter is connected with Passover while Pentecost is connected to the giving of the commandments.  It is about both salvation from oppression and deliverance and empowerment to live in the world on God’s terms.  Easter and Pentecost are parallels to these Jewish holidays, for we both experience salvation from death and empowerment through the Spirit to embody Christ to the world.  Pentecost ends with Trinity Sunday, which reminds us that God is community and also that God’s salvific work is the work of the Triune God – Father, Spirit, and Son.  All of God is made available to us and we are joined to God as the Body of Christ.  Ireton digresses into a conversation about speaking in tongues.  Unfortunately, she does not take into account that the surrounding crowd (of many nationalities) could understand the gathered disciples in their own language.  It was not some special language.  It was prophetic (truth-telling) speech in the language of those gathered.  It was a reversal of the division at Babel.

Ireton’s treatment of Ordinary time is very sparse.  She focuses on mystery in mundane moments, but doesn’t go very deep with this insight.  It seems that the cultural liturgies of the Church, the rhythms and practices of daily obedience, would be helpful to focus on through Ordinary time.  We are not saved by those practices, but we are habituated into a way of life.  After all, most of our lives are spent in the ordinary moments.  And, it is in the ordinary moments that character is developed and established.  Although mountain-top experiences are wonderful, they are fleeting moments that then move us to walking in the valley.  Christ is King is the end of this season.  We anticipate Christ’s second coming and proclaim him as King.  Then, we begin the journey all over again.

           


[1]  Kimberlee Conway Ireton, The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 12.

[2] Ibid, 13.