December 24, 2008

Bit Parts

by Brian Volck
Luke 2:22-40

Mary and Joseph, following the Law of Moses, bring their son to the temple in Jerusalem offering a sacrifice of two pigeons. The birds themselves were of little consequence, yet necessary, the material fulfillment of the Torah. As Luke’s Jesus later puts it, “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings? and not one of them is forgotten in the sight of God.” (Luke 12:6)

As the new parents go about their business, Simeon (usually pictured as quite old, an extrapolation from his exclamation “Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace,” the words of the nunc dimittis prayer traditionally chanted at Compline) wanders in, takes the baby in his hands, and says some alarming things, not the standard small talk made over a newborn.

Next, Anna – whom we’re told is eighty-four years old and never leaves the temple – makes over the baby, too, speaking “of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Her exact words don’t concern Luke; it’s just one more bit of strangeness in an already odd scene.

The family then heads back home to obscurity in Nazareth, where the boy grows in strength and wisdom. We will hear much more about him, but not another word regarding Simeon and Anna who, we can assume, have little left to do but die offstage, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of that Imperial Podunk province, Judea. Outside of Luke, there’s no mention of them at all. In Jesus’ story, they are of little consequence, but Luke finds them compelling enough for half a chapter in a short narrative.

Like these two elderly busybodies, we too have bit parts to play, though it’s unlikely anyone will think of – much less read about – us two millennia on. We are anything but important actors is the cosmic theodrama, yet not one of us, we’re told, is forgotten in the sight of God. In entering Creation so humbly, the God revealed in Jesus fills the smallest things with utmost consequence. Not only the outline of our lives, but every detail is brightly illuminated by the light that is Christ, like blades of grass in the raking dawn sun.

There’s great freedom in being at once inconsequential and fully known, trivial and eternally beloved. We can go about the business we’re called to without worrying about making our mark in history, without having to guarantee the outcome. Someone else is taking care of that.


December 16, 2008

Revolution Now!

by Joel James Shuman
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Psalm 89 (Luke 1:46-55); Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38 (The Fourth Sunday of Advent)

The excitement, celebration, and anticipatory hope for change attending the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States has in recent weeks been replaced in the public eye by another image – that of bankers, brokers, and corporate executives sitting before members of Congress and the mass media warning us in language reminiscent of Revelation 6 that the world is on the verge of collapse and that unless the American people, via our faithful servants in Congress, give them hundreds of billions of dollars, we face the imminent specter of horsemen bearing war, famine, pestilence, and death.

These are perilous, even apocalyptic times, warn the persistent, cacophonic blare from the talking heads on our televisions and radios. Lives are at stake. Jobs are at stake. Homes are at stake. Pensions are at stake. Stock options and executive bonuses and corporate jets are at stake. And unless the wisdom of the Armani-suited sages is heeded, everything could come crashing down, right on top of our overextended heads. Time is short. For God’s sake, give us the money so we can fix this thing!

Maybe. My knowledge of finance and macroeconomics is rudimentary at best, and not even the experts can agree on what nefarious forces have colluded to bring about the crisis. I have no wish to make light of the real suffering that has already occurred and the more that is bound to come, especially to those at the bottom of the pile, but one thing that seems perfectly clear is that we are reaping the harvest of our collective greed. Acquisitive desire, the engine of a consumer economy, may well be limitless, but at some point, at least in a finite world of finite resources (like the one we inhabit, for instance), that desire will exhaust the supply of things to consume. We seem rapidly to be approaching that point of reckoning. Things will need to change. Things must change.

From this perspective, these are bleak times indeed. But there is comfort to be taken in this week’s lectionary from the words of a young Galilean woman, who proclaimed in the midst of times much bleaker than our own the imminent arrival of radical change – what the late John Howard Yoder called “The Original Revolution,” the coming of God to live among his people, making possible for us a new way of living together. This is revolution indeed, for it challenges at every point the logic of the existing order. This is a revolution that begins with the birth of a child, in a cave, to a poor, unwed teenager – defenselessness upon vulnerability upon ostensible irrelevance. And yet it is a revolution that points, we are told, to the restoration of all creation.

It is a revolution that begins with the scattering of the proud in the thoughts of their hearts and the bringing down of the powerful from their thrones.

It is a revolution that promises the lifting up of the lowly, the filling of the hungry with good things, and the sending away of the rich, empty.

It is a revolution that fulfills an ancient promise, a promise of an endless, peaceable kingdom free from every kind of pain, suffering, want, and injustice.

It is a revolution whose time had come in the days of Mary and Jesus, and has come again, in this season of Advent. God invites us to take part in this revolution, to help make it happen by living as if it were here, now. That partaking begins with our re-membering our baptism and all it represents. It is time. Revolution now. Even so, come Lord Jesus.


December 08, 2008

Camel Hair and the Christ Child

by Debra Dean Murphy
Isaiah 61:1-4, 9-11; Psalm 126; I Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8; 19-28 (The Third Sunday of Advent)

Sometimes the contrasts are jarring: sweet-faced children singing about cradles and crèches on the same Sunday that we hear about leather belts, locusts and wild honey. It’s early December and we’re already at the manger (the tidy Christmas card version)—in our heads and in our worship. We come to church decked out in our holiday finest and John the Baptizer greets us, sporting animal-skin outerwear and going on and on about baptism and repentance and sandal thongs.

Many churches give lip service to Advent—lighting the candles on the wreath, reading the appointed texts—but don’t seem prepared to go all the way with it. Why is that? Is there any concern about the mixed messages being sent when the camel hair and the Christ child fight for top billing on the same Sunday?

Part of it, I realize, is that many Protestant churches are only a few decades (if that) into the observance of Advent as a liturgical season. Old habits die hard, and trying to convince contemporary church-goers that Advent is a season of delayed gratification is a hard sell. I get that. I’ve fought that fight myself.

But here we are, anticipating the third Sunday of Advent, and John the Baptizer is still front and center. In the fourth gospel, John does not baptize Jesus but he is clear about his role: “He came as a witness to testify to the light . . . he himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (John 7-8).

Light. It sounds like we’re back to Christmas again—candles, glowing embers, all the sentimental trappings of the hearth and home “holiday season.” But because this is John’s gospel, we know that this “light” is also the logos—the very logic of the universe: word become flesh; the one through whom all things came into being.

And we also know that this light, logos, word become flesh will inaugurate a kingdom that turns everything upside down, for he has come “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1).

John will soon enough lose his head for proclaiming such a kingdom and Jesus’ own mother will defy all stereotypes of the sweet blessed virgin when she gives a subversive political speech, recorded in Luke’s gospel and one of the appointed readings for Advent (this Sunday for Catholics; next week for most Protestants).

This Sunday’s Psalm and Epistle lesson school us in the proper response to the coming upside-down kingdom: “our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy,” proclaims Psalm 126:2. Paul puts it more succinctly to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always.”

* * * * *
Episcopal priest and writer, Fleming Rutledge, once described a Christmas card she received in 1969. On the front in red were these words of John the Baptist: “There is One among you . . .” On the inside of the card was a black-and-white photograph of a young Vietnamese girl with the blank, stunned expression of a child in wartime. Under the photograph was the rest of the verse: “ . . . whom you do not recognize.”

Was this propaganda? wonders Rutledge. Dubious Christology? Political heavy-handedness? Maybe, she says. “But the Baptizer lends himself to messages of startling currency.”

May we go all the way with Advent this year, recognizing the “startling currency” of the Baptizer’s unsettling words and the Prophet’s foretelling. And may the summons to joy by the Psalmist and the apostle Paul, glimpsed this week on Gaudete Sunday, be enough to sustain us through the remaining days of Advent, till we arrive at last at the Feast of the Nativity where the logos-light-Christ child, and the joy his advent brings, will be all in all.


December 02, 2008

The End is our Beginning

by Erin A. Martin
(Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8) Everyone knows that Advent is about beginnings. The season marks the start of a new Christian year. It heralds the beginning of the “good news” of Jesus Christ, and it points to the origin of the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus. Every year in Advent we begin the preparations for Jesus’ coming only to do it all again the next year. Advent is the time to begin again. Not everyone understands, however, that Advent is also about endings. The season of Advent begins with the end, with an account of Jesus’ final coming at the end of time.

John the Baptist announces the fulfillment of prophecy, the end of waiting, a last chance to repent. Even Isaiah speaks of the end in Advent, the end of exile, the end of Israel’s punishment, her penalty paid. To focus exclusively on what begins in Advent is to neglect a significant part of the “good news” of the season, that is, in Advent the end is our beginning.

One way to understand such a paradox is to constantly remind ourselves that our preparations during Advent are never primarily about Christmas. While the story of baby Jesus born in a manger on that silent and holy night has captivated our sentimentalities, the birth story is only half the story. In Advent, we get ready for Jesus’ birth by pointing beyond it to a final day of glory. Joyce Ann Zimmerman puts it this way, “From Isaiah to John the Baptist through Jesus to us, the beginning continues until the valleys are filled and mountains made low, until paths are finally made straight to a new heaven and a new earth.” In other words, always keeping the end in mind we begin again.

I am fascinated by the fact that the Isaiah 40 text for Advent is liturgically chiefly a funeral text. In the face of death, it is strangely comforting to be reminded that our life is fleeting, that our constancy is like the flower of the field. Knowing that we will wither and fade while God’s word will stand forever helps locate our lives within the larger eternal life of God. To quote a popular funeral hymn, “in our end is our beginning, in our time, infinity.” Our end is inextricably bound up with Jesus’ end, which in light of the resurrection we learn is only the beginning.

As we begin again this year the season of Advent, may we also not lose sight of the end. May we always remember that the manger stands in the shadow of the cross. The unfinished nature of Mark’s gospel has come to exemplify this tension. When we arrive at the end of Mark’s gospel, the only way to discover how it ends is to begin again. John Stendahl writes, “We return to reread the story, to start again with fresh ears and a new heart. The title at the beginning of Mark welcomes back those who come again from the empty tomb, seeking Jesus alive and anew.” In the Advent of Jesus, our beginning is the end.