Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Second Sunday in Advent 2009: A Soalin'



Malachi 3:1-4
3:1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight--indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.

3:2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap;

3:3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.

3:4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.

Luke 1:68-79
1:68 "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

1:69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,

1:70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

1:71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

1:72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,

1:73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us

1:74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear,

1:75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

1:76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

1:77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.

1:78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,

1:79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

Philippians 1:3-11
1:3 I thank my God every time I remember you,

1:4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you,

1:5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.

1:6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

1:7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.

1:8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.

1:9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight

1:10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless,

1:11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Luke 3:1-6
3:1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,

3:2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

3:3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,

3:4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

3:5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;

3:6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
Again with the covenant. But you have to start there, or the rest doesn't make any sense. You have to start there, or the story is completely out of context and becomes an empty vessel for whatever meaning you want to pour into it. And what kind of story is that?

So: again, with the covenant. It's not a very American thing, either, covenants. Obligations to others make us uncomfortable. Christmas, the season to remember the birth of the man who told us who our neighbor is, is largely a family affair in America, an occasion to remind us of the importance of hearth and home and blood relations. We have no equivalent in American Christmas literature or lore to the vision of "Ignorance" and "Want" as two starving children cowering under the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present, no tale that reminds us of even the cry of Jacob Marley that "mankind was my business!" Business is business, and Christmas is about business and family in America, not covenants that bind nations together with obligations that far exceed adhering to certain laws or rituals.

Hey ho, nobody home, meat nor drink nor money have I none
Yet shall we be merry, hey ho, nobody home.
Hey ho, nobody home, meat nor drink nor money have I none
Yet shall we be merry, hey ho, nobody home.
Hey ho, nobody home.

Soal, a soal, a soal cake, please good missus a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry,
One for peter, two for paul, three for him who made us all.

God bless the master of this house, and the mistress also
And all the little children that round your table grow.
The cattle in your stable and the dog by your front door
And all that dwell within your gates
We wish you ten times more.

Soal, a soal, a soal cake, please good missus a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry,
One for peter, two for paul, three for him who made us all.

Go down into the cellar and see what you can find
If the barrels are not empty we hope you will be kind
We hope you will be kind with your apple and strawber’
For we’ll come no more a ’soalin’ till this time next year.

Soal, a soal, a soal cake, please good missus a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry,
One for peter, two for paul, three for him who made us all.

The streets are very dirty, my shoes are very thin.
I have a little pocket to put a penny in.
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’ penny will do.
If you haven’t got a ha’ penny then God bless you.

Soal, a soal, a soal cake, please good missus a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry,
One for peter, two for paul, three for him who made us all.

Now to the lord sing praises all you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood each other now embrace..
This holy tide of christmas of beauty and of grace,
Oh tidings of comfort and joy.
The lyrics of that Peter, Paul, and Mary song are classic English folk lyrics for Christmas. They have almost no counterpart in American history. Christmas in England, of course, included a long history of noblesse oblige, something unknown to "independent" Americans. As Penne Restad points out, the English would sing "Christmas is coming,/ the geese are getting fat,/ won't you please put a penny/in the old man's hat?" while Americans "skipped past recent histories and took the singer to Biblical times" in songs such as "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Our Christmas focuses on family, not on society. Those we embrace in brotherhood are already our brothers; or our sisters; by and large.

There are lots of reasons for Christmas to be this way in America. But when someone asks: "Isn't there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?!", we generally answer with the domestic scene of the manger and the donkey and the oxen and the shepherds: and so seldom notice that the manger is hardly a home setting, and that shepherds usually stink, as do sheep, and nobody brought any gifts that night, although probably family was around, and accepted the strangers as welcome guests.

Look at Elizabeth's song again: there's nothing in there that is even remotely domestic. It's about the covenant: the promise of God to the children of Abraham, the people of Israel. It's about the fulfillment of that promise. It's about us, but "us" means everybody in the group, at once, together. It doesn't mean the nuclear family or the extended family around the Christmas tree; or if it is about family, it's about a family that extends much further than any family we've ever been a part of.

"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
"Hey, ho, nobody home....." Holiness? Righteousness? And without fear? And what is this salvation? One who "will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness." Present offerings? Wait a minute? What about the Christmas presents? What about the stockings and the tree? Is somebody really gonna get coal and switches this year? Really? And what is this "crying out in the wilderness" stuff? Who goes out to the wilderness to get a message? If someone cries out in the wilderness and there's no one around to hear them, do they make a sound?

Soal, a soal, a soal cake, please good missus a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry,
One for peter, two for paul, three for him who made us all.
We don't have traditions like that in our Christmas, but we know about them. We sing the songs, we listen to the stories, we know about the cries of Jacob Marley and the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge. We know Christmas is connected somehow to St. Nicholas; that in some way he became, or might as well have become, Santa Claus. And we know all that tradition of gift giving is not merely pre-Christian, that it has some ecclesiastical warrant, somewhere in the history between that birth we celebrate, and now. We know gift giving is not just about family, because the gift given that makes us celebrate again was not given to us as family; but it was given to us all the same. We know this, and we appreciate Paul's prayer "that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God," even though we don't much think of love leading to knowledge and insight anymore, unless it is about how important the beloved is to us, personally; individually. Even though we don't like to think that we need to produce a harvest of righteousness, whether it comes through Jesus Christ or anybody else. We know Christmas is supposed to be preceded by a refining fire; but we prefer to precede it with decorations and happy songs that remind us of sleigh rides we've never known, or ancient cities we've only imagined: anything besides the here and now.

But the herald who cried out in the wilderness to prepare the way is still in the wilderness, and his voice still carries to us where we are; wherever we are. And as if that were not miracle enough, his voice compels us to look beyond the bonds of family, to extend the season of Christmas as far as we extend the celebration of Thanksgiving: to turn, not in towards those we know, but out to those we are obliged to. To see that our faith is part of the covenant, and the covenant is part of our obligation to each other. And that that, is what Christmas is really all about.

Amen.

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