Even though St. Paul found himself penning another letter behind the dank walls of a jail cell, he must have been humming when writing, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend…every tongue confess…” Within Chapter 2 of his optimistic letter to the Philippians, Paul stops his prose and begins quoting poetry. It’s a song of praise, a whirring hymn, an ode to Jesus Christ our Lord. Like any meaningful melody, music petitions a response. Aaron, acting as priest, blesses the Israelites with poetry. God, in turn, blesses God’s people (Num 6:22-27). Choirs of angels teach lowly shepherds a song of adoration, sending them on their way to Bethlehem where they would welcome Christ the King. While returning to their work they found themselves whistling the refrain just learned, hearts expanded (Lk 2:15-21). Not missing a beat, the Church’s lectionary gifts us with Psalm 8, a righteous hymn revealing the divine majesty of God’s creation. This time the response comes “out of the mouths of infants and children” in the form of cheers and acclamation (Ps 8:2).
By now, the Christmas music has ceased. While no longer played in department stores, on radios, or family road trips, within the walls of churches, parishes, and cathedrals it is still unabashedly Christmas. The Church finds herself on its eighth day singing carols through Sunday—the twelfth and last day of this short feast. Unbeknownst to most, the “New Year” was the first Sunday of Advent (this past year, falling on December 1st) so on today’s Feast of the Holy Name, the Church continues to celebrate. Today, the Christ child has been “given [a name] by the angel before being conceived in the womb” (Lk 2:21). Enduring to still sing carols is counter-cultural, offsetting what transpires outside the walls of the church; and yet, like St. Paul we must pause in the middle of prose and quote poetry. Today, the culture is quoting “Auld Lang Syne,” an 18th century poem written by Robert Burns. The opening lines are:
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?
It’s a poem asking the rhetorical question, “Should we remember the old times?” When asked in the context of New Year’s Day it serves as a reminder not only to remember the old, but to anticipate the coming year with new learnings and recollections, bearing in mind the experience of the past when discernment may be needed in the future. When asking this question in the context of Christianity, the Christian will ultimately point to Christ as its answer. For it is Christ who resolves Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, new and old. In his very body and being the living and the dead are made alive as the audacity of hope births unfamiliar imagination. Quoting St. Paul again, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (v.5). Put differently, if Christ is the music, then our minds respond accordingly – Take note, keep awake, and listen. Christ, like music and poetry, has the potential to transform our attitudes and ambitions. Like the shepherds, we walk away from the angelic concert changed. We are sent out on mission wanting to teach anyone and everyone this new way of participating in the Divine mind. When was the last time you stopped in the middle of conversation and quoted lyrics to a poem, song, or hymn? On this octave of Christmas why not give it a go?
The Rev. Brandon Duke serves as parish priest to St. Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, Georgia. Follow his blog at https://fatherbrandon.com.
The Episcopal Church formally adopted the Revised Common Lectionary at its 2006 General Convention, but only in part. I’ll save the reader, especially the non-Episcopalian crowd, the full legislative history, but as a piece of the process of adopting the RCL, in 2000, the Episcopal Church revised the Revised Common Lectionary. The most heavy-handed revisions occur during the Christmas Season, wherein the old Book of Common Prayer Lectionary is substituted fully for both the First and Second Sundays after Christmas. So, while y’all are preaching from Matthew’s long nightmare, I’ll be sharing with my people the lofty and uplifted image of Jesus Christ as Logos from the prologue to John’s Gospel. In fact, all things being equal, I’ll never actually have the opportunity to preach on Matthew 2:13-23, as that full pericope is never appointed in our revised version of the Revised [Common] Lectionary.
If you made it that lengthy introduction, then you know that I’ve already betrayed my opinions on the standard Gospel lesson in the RCL. Sandwiched between two dreams in which God sends a message to Joseph is the brutal story of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. It is the kind of story that brings up all kinds of questions about theodicy and the role that God plays in the evil that happens in the world. These are the kinds of questions that people don’t much enjoy with their peanut butter blossom cookies and hot apple cider, but they are questions that a tired preacher ought to probably consider before the rush of services from Advent 4, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, through Christmas 1 leave you scrambling at midnight on December 28th.
We can all understand why God would send an angel to appear to Joseph in a dream in the hopes of protecting Emmanuel, the Second Person of the Trinity who was sent to earth bring salvation for our sins. What is less easy to understand is why God didn’t send angels to every father of a toddler under two living in and around Bethlehem to protect them from the crushing sadness of losing a child to the deranged paranoia of a powerful tyrant. Sandwiched between the two dreams of Joseph as it is, the slaughter of the innocents is exceedingly troubling for those of us who follow a God who is assumed to be loving, just, and compassionate such that the story can feel like one long nightmare from the flight to Egypt, through the slaughter of the innocents, to the return to Nazareth. The quotation from Jeremiah makes matters worse. At least in Matthew’s mind, the death of these small children seems to be a part of God’s plan. A plan that is elsewhere in Scripture described as “good and perfect.”
God’s good and perfect plan was to send the Son into the world so that the world might be saved, but how that plan gets lived out in real life brings with it all kinds of skirmishes between good and evil, the God and Maker of All and the powers and principalities which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. While this story is meant to show us that even as an infant, Jesus is more powerful than any political leader hellbent on destruction, a preacher, especially a preacher in Christmastide, would do well to help their congregations see and understand that the Innocents weren’t killed by God’s divine plan but by the sinfulness of humanity, the wonted corruption of political power, and a madman who lived every moment of his life in fear of losing all that he had gained.
The Slaughter of the Innocents is remembered with its own Feast Day on the Fourth Day of Christmas and recounted by the Revised Common Lectionary on Christmas 1 to remind us of God’s ongoing plan of salvation in the light of humanity’s epic ability to do evil. We remember those young souls as martyrs because their deaths remind us of what happens when the powers of this world are confronted by the power of God’s love. We tell this story during the “most wonderful time of year” to remind ourselves that God’s will, as our Presiding Bishop often says, “is to change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.” In order to get there, we must admit the truth of that nightmare, that this world is corrupt, evil, and violent, in order to then flip the script and move toward a place we dream of when on Christmas we sing “Peace on earth, and mercy mild/God and sinners reconciled.”
The Rev. Steve Pankey is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Steve holds a Master of Divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary (’07) and a Doctor of Ministry from the School of Theology at the University of the South (’17), but the degree he seems to use most often these days is the BS he earned at Millersville University (’02). As a disciple, a husband to Cassie, a father to Eliza and Lainey, and now a Rector, Steve struggles to keep it all in the right order, and is constantly thankful for forgiveness and grace. You can read more from him at his personal lectionary blog, draughtingtheology.wordpress.com.
Christmas is always such a strange holiday. And I don’t mean the way it has taken on a secular life of its own and become another occasion for buying and selling and overdoing almost everything in life. I mean the actual Christmas or nativity stories we get in the gospels are really strange. They have women young and old prophesying. They have young men dreaming dreams. They have the most glorious birth in human history being honored by common shepherds and livestock, and later on foreign magicians. They even feature a balance of life and death when one expands the scope into the passages commemorated on the Feast of the Holy Innocents.
By far the strangest “nativity” story to me, though, has to be the one in John’s Gospel. It really begins at the beginning, emphasizing that the One coming in a particular way to dwell among us isn’t just a person like we think of people, much in the same way that Matthew and Luke go out of their way to show us that he isn’t a king or messiah just as we often think of kings and messiahs. He is the genesis of all people and indeed all things, manifest in a particularly acute way in the life of a Jewish teacher in the Ancient Roman Empire.
I have always been acutely drawn to the section that discusses the Word or Logos – the Divine Reason or Creative Principle. John’s nativity doesn’t just begin at Jesus’ birth. The “birth story” for John begins not just with a baby in a manger, but with the birth of all creation. In so doing this gospel shows us something extremely important and often neglected; each of us finds ourselves in Christ. More than that, we find the whole cosmos in Christ. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. In Christ we find the people we love and the people we hate. We find the animals that charm and terrify us. We find the natural elements that nourish and control us. We find the tame and the wild. We find the lamb and the lion. It brings to mind Ephesians 1:23, where Christ is “all in all.” Or the end of the Book of Job, where God actually shows up and takes both Job and the reader on whirlwind tour of creation, showing that all things find meaning and belonging in the One in whom we live and move and have our being. This kind of spiritual connection with the rest of creation isn’t quite the hippie song it sounds like. It means we have a real, unbreakable connection with everything else in all of creation.
That is a truly tough lesson to digest. There are some people, animals, and things in creation I don’t ever want to see near me, much less be connected to in all of eternity. And brings a whole new light to the command to love our enemies. We have to. There’s no getting away from them if we are all really one in Christ. I have to confess I don’t always like how that makes me feel. As a queer person I don’t know that I want to be connected to those who have assaulted my community and will continue to do so. Then I remember that part of why my own oppressors have seen themselves as justified in their violence in the past is that they’ve been able to disassociate queer folks from the Christ to whom we have always belonged. So, I resist that same (admittedly satisfying) temptation in favor of the hard truth that will, in the end as in the beginning, set both sides free if we let it.
Our world specializes in breaking apart and destroying this unity which God ordained from the beginning by making all things and doing so through the Logos (or Cosmic Christ as Richard Rohr so often likes to say). Thinking of this Logos, this Word, this Spiritual Union of all created things as a light which cannot be overcome is a precious gift, especially when one considers the curses of human division and opposition in the world. It is all the more hopeful when one considers too the bitter harvest of climate change we are reaping for abusing the delicate balance of all creation. This bit of the Christmas story reminds us that we are all connected. It goes back to the beginning of all things and re-infuses our reality with Divinity from the first minute. It reassures us that no matter what bitter oppression or danger we face; Christ is present with us. And that is an incarnational theology which can bring some real hope to our often sterile, clinical, over monetized, hyper partisan, and bitter reality. What a gift indeed.
The Rev. Caleb Tabor is Vicar of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, a bilingual congregation in Oxford, North Carolina. He was educated at Elon University, Emory University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Originally from North Carolina, he has settled down close to home in Mebane, North Carolina where he lives with his husband, Logan, and dog, Dandy. Theology, coffee, creative writing, and RuPaul’s Drag Race are just a few of the things keep him occupied in his spare and not-so-spare time.
I was seven when it was my turn. Seven, because my mama was the one who directed the Christmas pageant, and she let all the other girls my age take their turns first. So, I was seven when I finally got to be Mary in the Christmas pageant. To be fair, for a very long time my mom had to force me to participate in anything that had to do with being in front of church people because I was really shy. But being Mary was as magical as I imagined it would be—a light blue gown with gold thread trimming and a delicate white head scarf safety-pinned into place under my chin.
The story was very straightforward to me back then. The angel announced that Mary would have a son and that she would call him Jesus. Mary thought this was a great idea, and it was so. Blessed Mary—obedient, demure, and full of grace.
Several decades and some theological education later, I understand Mary a little differently—not quite as obedient or demure, although still full of grace. Honestly, I would be a little more hesitant to step into Mary’s role if asked, but not because I am shy about speaking in church or because of my theological education.
Mostly, it’s that I’m not sure I would have gone along with “The Plan.” The Church often tells the Christmas story as if it can be reduced to the tag line, “a baby will fix it!” For some Christians, this particular baby was divine, literally God-made-flesh, sent to make right what went wrong in the beginning, a “starting over’ of sorts. Jesus was the “New Adam”—the Adam without sin. In this scenario, Jesus was born to die, to be punished in our stead, to atone for our sins.
On the other end of the theological spectrum, the plan to save the world with a baby has nothing to do with divinely sanctioned child sacrifice. Rather, it is the most unexpected thing God can do. It is what makes Christianity so subversive. The Jesus birth stories were written in the midst of Roman occupation of Jewish people and destruction of the Temple. Everyone was waiting on the next King David to come with sword and shield to save the people in exactly the same way they had been taken captive: by power and control. But God’s plan to redeem the world was not through violent takeover, but a revolution of love that started with the crying infant who would grow up to teach forgiveness and mercy. The Empire would never see it coming.
As far as stealth and surprise go, The Plan was genius. However, when it comes to practicality and thoughtfulness, using a baby to save the world is shaky, at best. Quite frankly, it would have been reasonable if someone had told God that this was a terrible idea. Babies do not care about other people. They only worry about themselves. “The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Nope. That is not in the Bible. That is a Christmas carol written by someone who apparently had never spent any meaningful time with an infant. Sweet baby Jesus probably screamed his tiny head off on that not-so-silent night. Perhaps God might come up with a plan that does not involve so much crying.
Interestingly, there is very little information about baby Jesus in scripture. Two of the Gospels—Mark and John—skip his infancy altogether. We are simply introduced to Jesus as an adult, seeking baptism. The other two gospels, Matthew and Luke, really say very little about baby Jesus. Instead, the birth narrative focuses on people who the Church has designated as the supporting cast. The Gospel of Luke in particular dedicates a serious amount of real estate telling us about everyone who surrounded the baby. When we consider the text before and after the lectionary selection for Christmas Eve, the supporting case is rather large.
Luke’s first story is about Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist. We are told about Mary running to Elizabeth, who convinces her everything really is going to be okay and that this baby will be a blessing. When it comes to the actual birth, Luke focuses on all who attended. This is the part we know best—the heavenly host and the anxious shepherds, who show up and declare the baby to be a child of God. Then, post-birth, we are introduced to the prophets Anna and Simeon, who were at the temple to greet Mary and Joseph and their infant son. They welcomed him into the community with a blessing.
The way Luke tells it, the Christmas story seems not to be about a baby at all, but rather about the people who raised that baby—the men and women who showed up and stuck around; the host of people who believed that they had a responsibility to give their best to a child; the people who promised to encourage the child to be curious and creative, to be faithful, to love every single other, and taught the child that he was a beloved child of God.
Maybe this is what the Christmas Story is really about: that God used an incredibly random assortment of folks—holier-than-thou angels, the near-homeless shepherds, a pair of young parents mentored by an older couple, strangers and friends—to save the world.
Is this a narrative of the Church that describes our congregations? Or might it be our vision statement? How are we carrying on the legacy of the rag-tag holy community that raised the Savior?
The Rev. Lori Walke, J.D., is the associate minister of Mayflower Congregational UCC, a graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law, Phillips Theological Seminary, Oklahoma State University, and is currently working on her Doctor of Ministry at Emory University. Raised by faithful Baptists, she found in a home in the United Church of Christ, where she is part of the Next Generation Leadership Initiative, a program focused on energizing and sustaining younger, emerging UCC local church pastors. She is married to Collin Walke, an attorney and State Representative for House District 87, and together the “Rev & the Rep” try to make as much trouble in the name of Jesus and justice as they can.
By the time the Fourth Sunday in Advent rolls around, if you have been able to resist the pressure to focus on baby Jesus lying in his manger, you’re a better pastor than me. Thankfully for those committed to the lectionary, by the fourth Sunday, we finally arrive at what everyone’s been waiting for in Matthew’s short description of how God entered the world as the Human One:
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus (Matt. 1:24-25).
You can hear it now. Pastor, will you finally let us sing Christmas songs? The traditional emphasis on Advent as a penitential season of watching and waiting, anticipating the return of Christ Jesus’ coming, typically caves to the overwhelming attention paid to the Incarnation.
Many a local church pastor or priest must wrestle with this tension between tradition and culture; between an encouragement to deeper discipleship for more mature followers and an invitation to “come and see” for those unfamiliar with the Way. This balance is appropriate for the season of Advent since it is all about tension. This pressure has been known to invite creativity to worship planning such as moving Advent to the four Sundays in November as historian of Christian worship Lester Ruth once suggested.
But this essay is not intended to argue for a lectionary revision or even unpack the Matthew’s Good News. Rather, it seeks to explore how the oft overlooked psalm lection might enhance a preacher’s approach to the gospel. The 80th Psalm makes an appearance in every Advent season, no matter the liturgical year. The psalm follows the traditional lament form on behalf of the entire community, encompassing persistent and ongoing persecution and pain. This could be hard for some in the congregation to hear on a morning when most eyes are set on the Christmas tree and on children who can hardly sit still with anticipation about the forthcoming visit by St. Nick.
And yet, even among the sentimentality and romanticism, there is a place for someone to name the in-between time. Many members of your community will need to hear that it is okay to wonder, “is this really all that there is?” Part of the role of the Church is to teach the counter-cultural lesson that expectation is not simply wishing. When you are young, you often just don’t know the difference. The psalmist here is the master teacher. The psalms, along with the other lections in Advent, are meant to point the hearer toward the promise of God coming into the world to save. Psalm 80, paired with the Matthew text, offers a way to share the overarching narrative of God’s story intersecting with ours – one that bridges expectation with hope and promise.
Biblical scholar Gail O’Day once reminded a room of my classmates of what most expectant parents quickly come to realize, “you cannot prepare for what is coming in Advent.” Neither can a local church pastor prepare for the coming brokenness found in the missional field in which they find themselves. The experienced pastor will season the Sundays of Advent with wisdom about the gray edges, the what ifs, doubts, regrets, and the sometimes anguish of the faith journey. Psalm 80 can help do the heavy lifting even if the congregation doesn’t realize they need to hear it.
Psalm 80 is a prayer for a hurting community. Consider your neighborhood over the course of the past year. Has the unemployment rate spiked once again because the local manufacturing plant has laid off hundreds just in time for Christmas? How many deaths due to opioid addiction have occurred in your county? Have you experienced a rash of suicides among young people and middle-age men? How many homeless people do you pass on your way to the office? How many mornings do you wake up to the headline of yet another young person’s death at the hands of gun violence?
Many communities have discovered that spiritual melancholia has come home to roost. While culture has been touting Christmas since the Halloween candy went on sale, many in your flock are wondering if they can get by without putting any decorations up. Tucked in between festive potlucks and caroling, pastors often find ample work in holding the hand of someone wondering if God is even listening. How long, O Lord, will you be angry with your people’s prayers (Ps. 80.4)? Psalm 80 offers a suggestion on how we might pray during lingering conflict, heartache and hopelessness.
If you serve a community that has been in crisis for some time, offering introductory words linking their hurt to the Psalmist’s context may help in peeling back the façade that everything is all right. Opening immediately with petitions, some in your congregation may sit a little straighter in their pews if the poetry is read with conviction. The Psalmist, on behalf of the people, expresses frustration with a God who has been deaf to their cries, “Wake up, Yahweh, and do something already” (v. 3)!
The people, feeling God is angry with them, have subsisted on a diet of tears. Eugene Petersen paraphrases the Hebrew poetry for contemporary ears:
You put us on a diet of tears,
bucket after bucket of salty tears to drink.
You make us look ridiculous to our friends;
our enemies poke fun day after day (vv. 6-7).
Who, in the face of great grief, hasn’t wondered the same thing? For those of us watching with clinched hands and gritted teeth at the world on fire, we ask, “How long, O Lord? Pay attention to us!” To motivate God into action, the petitioner focuses on different aspects of the divine-human relationship: caring for the sheep (vv. 1-2), tending the vine (vv. 14-15) and the obligations of a sovereign toward a sworn allegiance (v. 17).
There is no mention of repentance in this psalm. As Nancy R. Bowen says in Psalms for Preaching and Worship, “it is a bold promise of obedience, but one that is conditional on survival.” The Psalmist may qualify his prayers but there is unreserved expectation that God can save God’s people. Like the shepherd that protects and the military leader who has the unlimited force, it is only through God’s power that the people will survive.
This saving action is why the psalm makes its appearance in the season of Advent. As God is born in the person of Jesus, Emmanuel (“God is with us”), the people, even a hurting and despondent people, need space within communal worship to remember this promise of salvation.
 Gail O’Day, “Advent Lectionary” Lecture, Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, GA, 13 November 2009.
The Rev. Kim Jenne serves as Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Conference of The United Methodist Church. The Office of Connectional Ministries is responsible for Boundaries, Communications, Conferencing, Discipleship Ministries and Safe Sanctuaries. Before her current appointment, Kim served as pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus. She is slowly learning to keep company with God on a more regular basis.
One of my favorite allegories for ministry comes from the scene in Disney/Pixar’s original Toy Story, where toy space ranger hero, Buzz Lightyear, “proves” to Andy’s other toys that he can fly. He climbs up the post of the footrest on Andy’s bed, takes a deep breath, and confidently proclaims his trademark phrase: “to infinity and beyond!” With a leap off the bed, he soars toward the ground but at the last second lands on a bouncy ball, which catapults him head over heels onto a Hot Wheels car sitting at the top of its track. As he rides the car down the shoot and loops around the track, Buzz catches air once again and shoots up to grab the ceiling airplane. His momentum jolts the plane to circle faster and faster until it launches him into a graceful arc to land on his feet in front of the awed and astonished waiting toys. “It’s true!” they exclaim in awe and wonder. He “flies!” (Except Woody, who declares later that Buzz is simply “falling with style.”) Such is often the case with ministry as, despite our all too human quirks and foibles, the Holy Spirit brings grace and transformation out of our fumbling attempts to do God’s work and will.
How many of us have had the humble moment of dissonance and disconnect when we, like Buzz later in the movie when he discovers he can’t actually do all the things he thinks he can do, discover that our hard work in ministry doesn’t always pay off? That often, instead of the awe and glory and miraculous transformation, what we think is our ability or gift doesn’t seem to make much difference, might not actually accomplish the big change we thought was in the making, hasn’t done much to usher in God’s kingdom in the here and now. How many of us wonder if the miniscule return is worth the effort? That if the few moments we get it right make the many moments we don’t worth the discouragement and disillusionment? I know I have.
This is why I find Mary so intriguing. Mary: a teenager pregnant out of wedlock, who faced sure and certain social, religious, and familial condemnation. Mary: sent away from her home, into “seclusion” if you will, to live with her cousin Elizabeth for at least nine months or perhaps until the scandal died down. Mary: facing the possibility of a broken engagement with Joseph, assured gossip and ridicule, and a lifelong precarious social position.
Despite these very real and prodigious challenges, Mary somehow sings with gladness and exultation. How does she do it? How does she find, as Isaiah describes, “waters breaking forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand becoming a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water?” How does she, like the farmer in James’ epistle, wait with patience for the precious work of God to come into fruition before it has even begun? How does she act with confidence, proclaim salvation already at hand without the doubt of John in Luke’s Gospel, questioning “is this really it, God, or should I keep waiting for you to make it more clear?” And most intriguing: how does she do it all with quiet peace and without grumbling, moving forward in confidence though there is no indication whatsoever that everything is going to work out okay?
It’s a question that has haunted me for over a year. A question that began burning as I trekked my way along the Camino de Santiago, that weighed on my shoulders as I traversed the landmines of an unintentional interim ministry, and eventually experienced “the worst”—finding myself unexpectedly unemployed with no immediate prospects on the horizon. I found myself in the place so many people do so very often in life: liminal space. It’s a word I first heard while in seminary, a word thrown around as our young heads nodded wisely without truly knowing. The Latin word is limen. Limen. Threshold. It’s the word that best describes Advent, the actual living in the already-but-not-yet promise of anticipatory hope. Coach and poet Christine McDougall, in her poem Liminal, defines that anticipatory hope differently than Mary. She writes:
The space between
A Dawning, a Dusking …
The immanent threshold
Crossing … to what?
The moment is calling you
to pay … exquisite … attention
Advent is truly a liminal season, a betwixt and a between; rife with hope, temerity, grief, cold dark, warm glowing light. It is a season ripe and potent as we look forward to the incarnation of God with us, of the Christ Child. Advent is an immanent threshold that calls us to slow down and pay exquisite attention to all that roots and coils within us, to watch and wait for God’s infinite plan for our salvation, personal and corporate, to unfold. Advent is a time during which we turn toward the promise of what-is-to-come, an act which requires us to let go and mourn that which must die in us to allow that promise or desire to unfold. Advent, liminal space, betwixt and between, not yet is not a comfortable space. Perhaps that is why the season is only four weeks – it is difficult, even dangerous to make our home in the unknown and the amorphous for too long. Far more comfortable to move from what has been to what will be, than to live in the in-between of not yet that is now. And yet, this is what we all do at any given time in our lives, live on the threshold of the next thing, for nothing in life is constant. Advent is the poster-child of the old adage that “the only constant is change.” Perhaps this is why the glow of candles on Christmas Eve warms us so. The waiting and watching, the not knowing, is finally done. Now we know all is well, and we can breathe a sigh of relief.
And yet, we know, too, that Advent will come again and again and again. I have always thought of the spiritual journey as circling a mountain. We slowly spiral our way around, sometimes climbing, sometimes descending in order to climb again, seeing the same view over and over again but often from a different vantage point depending on our spiritual growth or palsy. Gary Snyder’s short poem, On Climbing the Sierra Matterhorn Again After Thirty-One Years, captures, for me, the goal of the spiritual life:
Range after range of mountains
Year after year after year.
I am still in love.
How do we shift from discomfort to become friends with the uncertain and unknown? How do we wait with patience for the crop to come to fruition, how do we experience joy in all circumstances, how do we find peace in the midst of the varied changes and chances of life?
The answer is simple. Trust God. Trust God with the faith of Mary, the faith of Isaiah, the faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Trust God so completely that you have no fear of fallout, no fear of survival, no fear for what may befall. Easy, right?
Not easy. Not remotely easy. There is a cost to discipleship, to following God with this level of commitment. The cost might be high. The cost will likely require abject humility, an unflinching examination of self, courage to embrace and heal the parts and pieces of your self that are messy, and broken, and maybe even unlovable. It is not easy to hold on to the absolute and unflinching trust, that you are enough, that God created you to be who you are in all your imperfect, messy, learning, be-ing and that God has prepared a place and a purpose for YOU – especially when it seems that everyone around you has an opinion otherwise.
That is the trust with which Mary lived. That is the trust that she taught Jesus to live. That trust is what gave them, and countless others, absolute, unshakable confidence and peace. The lack of fear terrified the people around them, terrified them because we humans are accustomed to being bound by the limits people around us impose. But Mary, and Jesus, Isaiah, and countless others lived beyond the limits. They lived, in their here and now, in the realm of the Infinite, the creative, the realm of boundless possibility rather than the finite world the rest of us inhabit. They lived as if God’s promise was already a reality, even if there was no sign in the moment that God’s promise was even a possibility.
Soren Kierkegaard once wrote that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Liminal space is a constant in our lives, but so is God’s promise. So when we find ourselves in those tenuous moments of not knowing, when we can’t understand why it is that we are going through what we are going through, can we trust? Not blindly, expecting God to magically work everything out into a smooth, even path. But with trust – like Isaiah, James, Mary, Jesus and all the other saints who have gone before us, choosing to live confidently in the God’s promise to do what God has said God will do as if it is already a reality, as if God is already at work. It is not an accident that the very first words of the gospel, the good news, are “Do not be afraid.” To be free from fear and angst… what kind of peace would that freedom give us?
In his writing on liminality, poet and storyteller Padraig O’Tuama tells the story of the work he does at Corymeela, a place and people that seeks to make peace between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. “A practice of peace,” he writes, much like dwelling in an advent liminal space, “is messy. It is not easy. It is fragile and thin and breakable. It is a verb, not an achievement. It needs to be conjugated regularly. It is the experience of having been torn. And, having been torn, staying with that new shape and finding dignity in language, in protest, in lamentation, in justice, in re-ordering, in catharsis. It’s not a landscape; it’s staying alive… Liminality, if it means anything, must be as truthful as forgiving, as confessing, as breathing, as surviving.”
Mary does all of these things in her Canticle of praise, as do Isaiah, and James, and many others. In her song she names the tearing of her personal and corporate life, finds dignity in language, in protest, in lamentation, in justice, in re-ordering, in catharsis. Mary stays alive and survives, but also thrives in God’s promise of mercy and remembrance. At the heart of trust is remembering how God has fulfilled God’s promises before, being sure that God will provide again, and knowing in one’s very being that God is already at work on what is next. If we can bring advent joy, hope, love and peace into every day then perhaps we, with the gladness and exultation of Mary, might also proclaim with confidence “the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is God’s name” wherever this journey of faith takes us –to new and unknown places, to new spiritual depths, to Christmas … to infinity and beyond!
The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is an Episcopal priest with over two decades of leadership experience that includes public advocacy, social justice, teaching for transformative change, and interfaith collaboration. In January 2020, she will begin a new call as the Associate Rector at St. Christopher’s in Carmel, Indiana. Her great joy in ministry is helping people of faith ask the hard questions of life and God, to discover that “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live” (old Irish proverb). Or, as Jesus said it, we truly show our love for God when we show care and concern for every person we encounter, like us or not. In her spare time, Chana can be found fulfilling her bucket list items before she turns 65 (so far 23/75!), playing D&D, dancing Lindy Hop, or exploring local activities and events with her husband, TJ, and their dog-children, Molly and Momo.
Advent is a strange time for Christians – even before the intense commercialization of Christmas that has arisen in the last century. Over the four weeks of the season, the lectionary emphasizes the harshness of divine judgement, preparation for Christ’s second coming, prophetic visions of the promised new creation, and memories of Jesus’ first coming that inspire hope. Advent can feel like a roller coaster to me. On the one hand, the threat of uncompromising judgement makes me feel like I better get my act together. Then, in short order, I feel joy at the promise of a restored Creation only God’s intervention could affect. I have trouble holding the two themes together, imagining the promise of judgement, but I suspect that is the paradox we are called to sit with in this reflective season.
I know many will preach on John’s prophetic ministry in the wilderness of Judea, but for those who want an alternative, the First Lesson from Isaiah 11:1 – 10 offers powerful images to help us find good news in the paradox of the judgement’s promise.
The image of Jesse’s stump bookends this passage from Isaiah. At the beginning a tender shoot emerges into a branch. We are reminded that the root survived the attempted annihilation, whether by the Assyrian army that overtook Israel in 721 BCE (likely the context for the text’s author First Isaiah), or by the God’s people’s faithlessness that led to destructive military alliances, or today’s threats of secularization, commercialization, and the abundant material comforts that lure us away from vibrant faith. One preaching path for this Advent text is to help the congregation name what threatens to annihilate it, to “cut it down,” both internal issues like fear or gossip but also external issues like the seduction of material comfort that can dull our awareness of God’s presence. The image Jesse’s stump ties in with the image from John the Baptist’s preaching of the axe lying at the root of the trees. The Good News that emerges with this playful inter-textuality is that even if the tree is cut down, through God’s grace a shoot will emerge. A new start is given. The “Giver of Life” works underground, in the darkness, in the roots pushing life up from the messy soil where we thought there was only darkness and decay.
Near the intersection of Brown Avenue and Richland Street in my hometown lies a felled oak tree. Melissa, an elderly parishioner, calls it the Resurrection Tree because a remnant of tree’s veins remained intact allowing it to sprout new branches and be “born again.” The Resurrection “Tree” (it looks more like a shrub) is gnarly looking: the decaying trunk dominates the view and the live shoots emerge at unusual angles. There is unconventional beauty in this Resurrection Tree, but to see it you have to accept that the death is part of picture.
The unusual prey-predator animal pairings referred to collectively as the “peaceable kingdom” dominate the second half of the text. Many of us have an image of this text based on the paintings titled ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ by Quaker Edward Hicks. Hicks created over 60 artworks of the same title depicting the same basic scene inspired by vv. 6 – 8. Some critics suggest that Hicks’ ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ scenes become less and less peaceful over time reflecting his involvement in a painful schism within 19th century American Quakerism. What happened with Hicks’ paintings, this movement toward the partisan, often occur when we uphold images of peace… moments of peace and equality quickly degrade into tools for our own agendas and are tarnished by our preference for being right, rather than prioritizing relationship. Hicks’ ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ paintings point both toward the promise of Advent—the peaceable kingdom of God—and humanity’s need for purifying judgement, directing us away from our self-righteous tendencies toward the Divine who alone can transform and save us from ourselves.
As I reflect on the peaceable kingdom as an Advent image, I notice that for this vision to be realized, a characteristic central to these animals’ instincts will have to die. The predatory instinct of the wolf, the leopard, the lion, and the bear will have be tamed. And the lamb, the kid, the calf, the fatling, and the cow will have let their fear die. Similarly, children seem to have an innate fear of snakes, and parents certainly have a knee-jerk mechanism that would prevent playing near adders’ nests. The hope of Advent, the promise of judgement, is that God’s Spirit is powerful enough to transform our most innate and death-dealing instincts—to be right, to always want more, and to have power over others—into trust and harmony in the order of Creation.
Advent calls us to keep one eye focused on the ultimate promise that of New Creation where the wolf lies with the lamb, the poor are judged as worthy as the rich, and the meek as valuable as the royalty. But our other eye can stay focused on the here and now. As we await that final transformation into the New Creation, hope for the present time comes from God’s judgement which frees us from bondage to the parts of ourselves and social structures that bear bad fruit and trains our instincts to “love God commands…so that we may obtain God’s promises,” to paraphrase the Book of Common Prayer’s Collect for Proper 25.
Our Advent gaze invites us find unconventional beauty in a decaying tree that somehow sprouts a branch.
Our Advent gaze invites us to trust the uncomfortable promise of judgement, the paradox of hope that in the darkness and decay, roots of justice and righteousness are being nourished and that one day Christ’s Spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel and might will rule the earth from the holy mountain down to the waters that cover the sea.
The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves as Rector of Grace Church in the Mountains in Waynesville, North Carolina. When she isn’t at “church meetings” as her 4 year-old daughter says, she can be spotted raising children, reading, and occasionally piddling in the yard.