Advent: Imagining a Different Day

Today, as we feel so unsafe, so unsure, so torn asunder, it can be difficult to imagine a different day, a different world. And yet this is precisely what the prophets do for us. The prophets do not flinch from any grim reality. Rather they point to the evil and name the ruin and insist we take our own hard look. The prophets agitate us so often and with such persistence that we find it nearly impossible to stick our fingers in our ears and hum a nursery rhyme while the world burns. And yet the prophets do more: they stand in the middle of the flames and bellow an audacious song of hope. It can be the easiest thing in the world to ignore calamity or injustice or our own sick soul. However, it may be even easier to believe that this same calamity or injustice or sick soul owns the end of the story. We need the prophets to save us from both.

So on the second week of Advent, after Isaiah has described in brutal detail Israel’s national corruption and personal ruin, we find ourselves in a vulnerable place where we see our own world, our own heart, teetering on the edge of a deep abyss. Bana Alabed, the 7 year old “Twitter girl” from Aleppo, has gone silent, her final characters sharing her fear with the troops approaching. Our marriage, enduring for years now, threatens to finally collapse under the pressure. Our job has gone south, a friendship closed off. Our national life–and the many global perils–offers so much gloom on the horizon.

And yet, as the prophets always do, Isaiah tells us we must imagine a different day, a different world. In the world Isaiah sees, the wolf becomes friendly neighbors with the lamb; the leopard stretches out (comfy as a cat being lazy in the afternoon sun) right alongside the goat; the cow munches on dinner right next to the bear (rather than being dinner for the bear); the little toddler sucking on her thumb plays at the cobra’s hole and a rosy-cheeked boy sticks his hand into the very middle of the viper’s nest. In the world Isaiah sees, there’s nothing to fear. There’s no trouble, no conflict. Everyone belongs. Everyone is welcome. Joy is everywhere.

Advent is a time when we see the world for what it is. Advent’s also a time when we begin to see the world for what it can be.

 

image: Evan Rummel

Advent: Waiting for the Magic

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Well, here we are again, God. I’m supposed to feel advent-y. Instead I feel weary, a little sadness, grumpy. I’m also hungry, but of course that’s because I haven’t had breakfast yet – so I won’t load that one up on you. The nutritionist told me to make sure I eat something small first thing (maybe a little 90 calorie Yoplait or a slice of cheese), right after I get up and before I go for my run. So there’s another thing I’m supposed to be doing. Yoplait first thing and feel Advent-y. Welp, two strikes.

But here we are again, starting the story for another go round. I’m glad the story moves on whether I’m in the groove or not. I’m glad all I really have to do is get in the vicinity, just ease on to the slow moving train and hold on for the ride until (hopefully) some of the magic sets in. Oh, I know it will. Something unexpected always yanks at my heart – maybe it will be those haunting notes from the Russian State Symphony, maybe some Instagram photograph, like a quiet Nebraska cornfield dusted in white, maybe one of those moments with Miska when she says something wickedly witty and I go rolling, maybe a text from a friend with a line or two that collapses the miles between us. So really, nothing for me to do but open my eyes and move into these Advent days. And wait.

Of course, that’s the point – to wait. To open our groggy eyes (or wake up from our slumber, as St. Paul told us on Sunday) and turn our groaning bodies out toward the dark night so we can watch for the light that, soon enough, will burn away the midnight, burn into our world, into my soul. I guess I’ve actually never heard you say anywhere that I’m supposed to feel Advent – I guess that’s the kind of expectation we put on ourselves (why do we do that?). Instead, you just tell me to wake up and move closer in. I think I can handle that. I can turn up the Bulgarian National Choir. I can read a bit of old Isaiah, a bit of Merton. I can ask for you to help me today, to watch over our boys, to watch over this weary world of ours. I can invite neighbors over to split wood for all the fires that will warm us and enchant us through winter. I can try to put a few more words on the page. I can dance a little with Miska in the kitchen.

I’ll do the waiting and the watching, God, and you do the Adventing. I assume you’ll do it on your own schedule, that seems to be the way it works.

 

The Gentleness of Advent

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On the third Sunday of Advent, we heard St. Paul’s words: Let your gentleness be known to everyone. I can’t imagine a more timely word for our day. Do we not yearn to encounter gentle souls — people who listen with generosity (not accusation), friends who welcome without applying a litmus test, kind strangers who give the benefit of the doubt? Don’t we want to be this kind of person — to expect the best of another, to be tender with others’ mistakes or ignorance, to refuse the impulse to embarrass or mock (even one who deserves it), to watch for opportunities to lavish kindness?

Of course, the realists, fear-peddlers and doctrinaires will assure us (passionately) that such a posture is not possible in this scary, evil-ridden world. These rigid ones insist we must exude strength (so-called); we must take on whatever hardness necessary to maintain vigilance. Worse, those eager to resist these lies may imbibe the same energy, growing just as hard, just as mean or caviling, just as small and unimaginative, just as harsh.

And into this violence and phobia, a baby comes, the peace of the world. God, in the ultimate act of gentleness, bends toward us, enters a woman’s womb and lives among us, full of humility and noble strength. This tenacious king, with the backbone love requires, allowed himself to be taken advantage of, to be thought the fool. This One from God knows who he is, knows who we might become, knows that nothing will be won by force or shame or ridicule.

God comes to us with a preposterous gentleness that will always be a scandal in this rough-and-tumble world. And God invites us to join the scandalous subterfuge. Advent, these watchful days, asks us see the world anew, to watch for alternative possibilities. Advent invites us to become gentle people again.

Trembling Hope

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I wonder, when we’re praying our Advent prayer (Come, Lord Jesus) if we have any idea what we’re meddling with, if we have any sense of the power we’re invoking. I pray this prayer, and I think I mostly believe it. I cling to this hope because I can not escape the sense that our world writhes in convulsions, and I am unable to imagine any solution we humans could muster to ultimately fix the mess we’ve made. During Advent, we utter an honest confession: We are full of good intentions but weak at keeping promises; our only hope of doing God’s will is that You should come and help us do it… Painful as they are, these words ring true.

And yet, when we ask God to come, to act, we are not tinkering with some plaything we can maneuver to our own bidding. We’re dealing with the God who burns, the God who holds the world together, the Holy One. I hear the quake in the prophet Malachi’s voice: Indeed, God is coming. But who can endure the day of his coming and who can stand when he appears? Malachi continues: And don’t be so foolish as to think that when God’s justice lands, it only lands on those you think deserve it. We’re all in trouble, and we’ll all be healed together. We all need to be reborn. We all have to go through the fire. I wonder if we pray our prayers for justice too easily, aimed at everyone other than ourselves?

God is the God of endless generosity, boundless joy and unfettered delight – I believe this. I also believe that the God powerful enough to make such things true (the God strong enough to heal all wounds and silence all oppressors) exudes a furious love. A love that is for us. A love that will not let us go. A love that will not leave us to our own devices or abandon us to wallow in our narcissistic stories.

Good St. Annie (Dillard) says it right: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke?”

We long for God to come, as we should – this is our hope. But this is risky business. This is a trembling sort of hope.

Thanks, Santa

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In my family growing up, every Christmas Eve, before we turned out the lights and cast a final gaze at our stockings, we’d leave a few cookies, perhaps a brownie or a chocolate covered cherry, on a plate next to a glass of eggnog and a short note:

Thanks, Santa. Stay warm.

P.S. Be sure to share with Dasher, Dancer and the Crew

And every Christmas morning, even into my college years, mom and dad would place one gift for my sister and one for me, out in front of the tree, set apart from the rest of the packages. On each of these boxes, scribbled across the front: Merry Christmas, Santa. I’d always hug my folks, grin and say Thanks, Santa.

We say Father Christmas isn’t “real” — fine I suppose, but there’s something very real happening here that won’t let us loose. With some folks, Santa’s taken a knock, either out of frustration with crass commercialization or due to religious concerns (and if you have such scruples, you really should read the tale of St. Nicholas). However, we don’t know these stories merely because Madison Avenue wants to milk us for billions — that’s just a perversion. Rather, we tell these stories over and again (and they stick with us so powerfully) because we are in constant search for a language to express all the wonder, all the gratitude. We need true myths because sheer facts or flat logic are not enough.

We return to these stories because somehow we know there is a true magic (call it grace, if that helps) woven into this world. In our depths, we know that our life and all the goodness enveloping us arrives as pure gift. We know that hope and faith and love are essentials. We know a mystery, a holy haunting, pulses at the center of things. Somehow, our soul knows that if we experience no awe or wonder, we are paupers.

As Advent commences, we wait for the Christ child. We lean forward, in anticipation. We watch for wonder. St. Nick can encourage us in the same direction. Maybe St. Nick holds open a space, a longing or a child-like imagination, a space that will eventually be filled by the deepest magic of all.

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G.K. Chesterton, our apostle of mirth, says it far better than me:

What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.

As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good – far from it.

And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me…What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.

Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.

Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dollars and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill. {G.K. Chesterton}

Absurd {fourth week of advent}

The Annunciation_Francesco Mochi

But Mary was very perplexed by Gabriel’s words…’How can this be, since I am a virgin?’… {Mary}

I love the story of God born to a virgin because of how utterly outrageous it is. If we were aiming to create a religion perfectly suited for the modern mind, we failed with gusto. Our vast intellect, rigorous experimentation and unflagging chutzpah have conquered the moon, polio and more than a few mysteries of the atom. We have debunked old delusions and learned to snicker at the naivete of older generations. And if we know anything at all, it’s this: virgins don’t have babies.

Of course, this brilliant observation would not be news to Jews of the first century – or to anyone at anytime for that matter. Our primal urges as well as our survival as a human population means that, in every age, we possess a clear understanding of at least the basic components required for a child to find its way into a woman’s belly. Yet here we have our first story of Jesus, and it is absolutely ridiculous.

When we review Jesus’ life, however, we know that his arrival simply had to be absurd. Everything Jesus would teach us, every way he would move in this world, would be entirely nonsensical to the established truths and entrenched powers. If we think the virgin birth was Jesus’ most ludicrous moment, we’re not paying attention.

But the question for us, the tension this story and all Jesus’ stories create for us, is this: will I receive the absurd and fantastic love of God? Will I, like Mary, say, Here I am, crazy as it sounds. I’m in. And will we stay put so that we can welcome with wide arms the joy, the love, the wonder?

I treasure the story because it forces me to ask: When the mystery of God’s love breaks through into my consciousness, do I run from it? Do I ask of it what it cannot answer? Shrugging, do I retreat into facile clichés…Or am I virgin enough to respond from my deepest, truest self, and say something new, a “YES” that will change me forever? {Kathleen Norris}

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This reflection comes from the Gospel reading from this week’s lectionary: Luke 1:46-55. Many thanks to John Blase and Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk for being my cohorts this Advent. 

I hope that you play and laugh, that you give and receive much love over these next few days. Have a very merry Christmas.

Blessed Mother {third week of advent}

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From this day, all generations will call me blessed… {The Virgin Mary}

On this third week of Advent, the virgin Mary sings her song. This courageous woman bore, through sweat, ridicule and the travail of her own body, the One who would save us all. It is no small thing that in a world where men controlled every sphere of power it was a woman who carried the hope of the world.

To be sure, Mary was no passive woman only familiar with the way of the meek and mild. Mary knew a fierce gentleness. She sang of how her child would overthrow empires and unravel systems of injustice — even as she sang hope over all who were hungry, all who were desperate for help, all who had been cut low by the grief of life. Mary was a friend to the weary and a threat to the powers. Women of tenderness and strength always are.

Today, I cannot think of Mother Mary without thinking of my own mother, the wonderful woman who carried me into existence, the woman who nurtured me and prayed over me, the good woman who released me into my future with more than a few tears. I think of the woman who shares my life, the woman who labored so that our two boys might know this world, a woman who labors over them still.

It is a costly thing to surrender your body so that another might live. Jesus knows this, but Mary knows this as well. Mary bore our one hope into this world, a cosmos shot through with both wonder and misery. No wonder we call her, even as she foretold, the Blessed Mother.

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Each Monday during Advent, John Blase, Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk and I reflect on the same Advent text from the week’s lectionary. This week, it’s Luke 1:46-55, Mary’s Magnificat.

Good Tidings {second week of advent}

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Get you up to a high mountain,
     O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
     O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
     lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
     “Here is your God!”
       {Isaiah}

The prophet’s words on the opening days of Advent gave the body an alarming jolt. Anger and indignation. Disillusionment and fatigue. These are not revelations I expect to find printed on any of the holiday cards or included in any of the annual Christmas letters that will soon cover our kitchen blackboard. Advent leads us to joy, but first it reckons with the grief. And we’ve had more than a small share of grief in recent weeks, haven’t we? There are moments when I do wonder whether we will make it, whether this old world might not just release a final, death-rattle gasp and release us into the dark.

But the prophet who weeps is also the prophet who refuses to surrender hope. Isaiah, after the tears and the sorrows have their proper say, kneels beside the haggard woman, the broke-down man. Isaiah drapes his arm around weary shoulders and whispers into tired ears, Get up, now. Get up. This is not where it ends. We have work to do. And the work is to announce good tidings.

When the time has come (and only then – but absolutely then), we dry our tears. We shake the soot and the ashes from our head and our heart. We grab the weathered hands of those around us, and we sing. Our shaky voices unite in a happy song of protest and faith. We drench the cold night with a melody that heralds our stubborn insistence: We are not forgotten. Here is our God!

As God’s people, we weep and mourn over the world’s travails, over our own regrets and sadness. We do not peddle false fantasies. However, far more, we are belligerent in hope. We sing the glad song with tenacious, raspy voices. We cry into the dark. It is not only angels who bring good tidings of great joy. This work is ours as well. So, we lift up our hearts. And we sing.

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Each Monday during Advent, John Blase, Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk and I reflect on the same Advent text from the week’s lectionary. This week, it’s Isaiah 40:1-11.

Groan {first week of advent}

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O that you would tear open the heavens and come down… {Isaiah}

Whenever Advent becomes the parlance of The Economy or The Industry (especially the Christian industry), we can be certain the Advent known by frightened shepherds and half-crazed prophets, the Advent familiar to a gutsy virgin and a threadbare people, has grown (to some degree) estranged to us. Advent’s force does not arrive via strategically orchestrated initiatives, certainly not from a writer’s well-timed Advent series. The very best we can do is hold tight and try not to mangle the whole affair while we wait for the mystery to happen.

Advent’s force does not answer cue, bidden by the craft of preacher, activist or entrepreneur. Advent first pierces the cold air as a desperate groan from those living at the jagged edges, from those who taste sorrow’s bitterness, those accustomed to the crush of disappointment, of fear. Advent comes first for those who have made a wreck of things, those who carry a legitimate complaint, for those whose existence teeters on the brink. If you do not know any pain, if you have no yearning for what is not yet true, if you have no pang of grief for your sorrow or the sorrow of another…if there is no raw, raspy voice somewhere in the hollows of your soul that every now and again whispers into the ravaging night, God, please…Please tear the heavens and come down… then some of what Advent offers will always stand remote for you.

And this is okay; it simply means you’re not yet ready. But tuck this in your pocket because someday… someday you will be.

Israel cried out for Yahweh to rend the skies, to move, to act — precisely because God was not acting. For generations, God had gone silent, and Israel, fearful that their history and their future might finally be extinguished, begged God to do what God had done for the ancients. On Sinai, the mountain trembled under the weight of the Voice, and on Sinai, Israel (besieged by the thunder and the darkness and the deluge) trembled as well. On Sinai, the people’s terror was so great that they wanted nothing to do with this God who cracks the sky, and they pleaded for Moses to deal with God and leave them be. But now the fear of ruin loomed larger than the fear of thunder. Now Israel stood desperate for God to act, to speak, to do anything that might assure them they were not abandoned.

And God would act. The Heavens would rip asunder so Love could descend. But now is not the time for that story, not yet. This is the moment for the groan, for the question of whether we will survive, the moment to wonder if there will be anything left of us at all.

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Each Monday during Advent, John Blase, Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk and I will reflect on the same Advent text from the week’s lectionary. This week, it’s Isaiah 64:1-9.

Fourth Week of Advent: Courage

{This week, John Blase and I conclude our Advent reflections with the Gospel reading for the fourth week of Advent, Matthew 1:18-25}

Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid

Each time I’ve read this text this year, my imagination falls on the description of Joseph’s response after he receives the gut-wrenching news that Mary’s expecting a baby. Joseph knew good and well he had nothing to do with this unseemly development, and Mary’s story about Spirit and angels and the like must have struck him as a particularly elaborate attempt to redefine the obvious.

Yet – and this is what gets me – Matthew says that Mary’s “husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Unwilling to expose her to public disgrace. In a world that sputters on the fumes of controversy and defense of the tribe, I wonder what it would be like (and I’m imagining precisely those places where we believe our identity most threatened – or those places of public discourse where we are certain so much is at stake) to be bullheaded in our unwillingness to expose another to disgrace.

We often equate courage with those who thump their chests and “tell it like it is,” but I believe that often the bravest thing is to relinquish the compulsion to be right, to possess a trigger finger for mercy, to live gently. It’s a good thing to honor others’ dignity with such vigilance that there are lines we simply will not cross. Winning the issue or defending our “rights” provides a sorry excuse for crushing another human.

Though Joseph exhibited heroic valor, this entire story leads to the angel’s charge for Joseph to not be afraid. This is the word angels speak whenever they hit the scene. Apparently it’s the word we all need to hear. The angel prodded Joseph to push his courage further, to not merely refuse to disgrace Mary but to rouse his truest instincts and embrace Mary along with all the uncertainty sure to accompany.

It requires courage to love. It takes courage to live with our guard down and our arms open. But this is what happens when God appears. This is what happens when Emmanuel arrives, God with us.