Sorting My Advent Funk
This is not my Advent meditation on this week’s biblical texts. Expect that on Wednesday.
It is, however, some further thoughts on how weird a season Advent is and how hard this time of the year can be.
These thoughts are born of my own struggle — my annual Advent funk, I call it. Even after all these years, I struggle to make sense of Advent with its wild apocalyptic language and images (see last week’s Advent meditation), John the Baptist (this week and next), and the second-coming of Christ (almost totally turned into a caricature by fundamentalist wackos who speak of the Rapture and announce — again and again — the precise date Christ’s return.)
Part of me wonders why we even try? Why persist with the weirdness of Advent when any marketing expert worth her salt would surely advise, “lose all that!” “Get John the Baptist out of here; bring on the shepherds.”
Last evening we gathered with friends for a lovely dinner, in the course of which we sang Advent hymns or carols, including the medieval plainsong, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
What we tend to notice, and enjoy, about this piece is the plainsong with its haunting evocation of monasteries and medieval cathedrals.
But attend to the words: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel.”
Israel, in this case, means “church.” What is our captivity today, if not to a domesticated version of Christianity of which Christmas is emblematic? All sweetness and light while there is so much that is terribly, catastrophically wrong and evil all around us?
Christmas becomes, “Let’s pretend everything is really just fine.” I find that crazy-making.
These thoughts are prompted as well by an Advent reflection/ sermon by Fleming Rutledge published last week in Christianity Today.
Fleming notes the dissonance of Advent and in particular its featured actor, John the Baptist. How do we square this angular fire-brand with the babe and manger?
Answer: we don’t.
We let John remind us that it is not a helpless babe we await but a righteous and powerful judge. We surrender our efforts to fit Christ to our lives and culture, and hear John’s call to change our lives and society to more nearly fit Christ.
“A characteristic liturgical petition of Advent is Maranatha—come, Lord Jesus! It is certainly not a prayer for Jesus to come again as a helpless baby; it is the longing cry of God’s people for him to return in power and glory, when “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:10–11).
“Why do all four Evangelists introduce their gospels with John the Baptist? What is the purpose of making everyone’s hair stand on end during Advent? It has occurred to me that the image of Jesus as the cosmic Judge who will ultimately come again to put an end to all sin and wickedness forever is not so frightening to the poor and oppressed of the earth as it is to those who have a lot to lose.
“If your loved one is in the habit of buying you expensive Christmas gifts, you might not be so crazy about the idea of Jesus coming back before Santa Claus gets here. But suppose you had been a Christian in prison in the Soviet Union. Or suppose you had been a black person in Apartheid-era South Africa directed to pack up your meager belongings and take them to a so-called homeland that wasn’t your home and that wouldn’t offer you dignified employment. Suppose you were elderly and handicapped in the South Bronx and had just been robbed and terrorized for the third time. In circumstances like those, you might say Maranatha and really mean it.”
That last paragraph really gets it, doesn’t it?
The coming of Christ is shorn of all need for repentance and transformation of life. Instead of being captives to a culture that is deeply disturbed and destructive — from which the church needs to be ransomed and set free — we become a church trying to keep pace with culture’s many “magic of Christmas” productions.
I regularly experience a kind of funk at this time of year. I attribute it, at least in part, to my efforts to take seriously the imperative’s of Advent and the gospel against the backdrop of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and let’s all be happy.
Thank God for Advent, telling us in Trumpian America, in John the Baptist’s words, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3: 9) Come Lord Jesus.