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 05, 2010

Second Sunday of Advent, 2010: In our end is our beginning....


Isaiah 11:1-10
11:1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

11:2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.

11:3 His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;

11:4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

11:5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

11:6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

11:7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

11:8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.

11:9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

11:10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
72:1 Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king's son.

72:2 May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.

72:3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.

72:4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.

72:5 May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.

72:6 May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.

72:7 In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

72:18 Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.

72:19 Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen.

Romans 15:4-13
15:4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

15:5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus,

15:6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

15:7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

15:8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs,

15:9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, "Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name";

15:10 and again he says, "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people";

15:11 and again, "Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him";

15:12 and again Isaiah says, "The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope."

15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 3:1-12
3:1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,

3:2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

3:3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"

3:4 Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.

3:5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan,

3:6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

3:8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

3:9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

3:10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

3:11 "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

3:12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."



Advent is about death. Somebody noted that, somewhere. It's not a new idea. Advent is about death. It is about destruction, and ending, and apocalpyse, and eschaton. "Apocalypse" means something is revealed. "Eschaton" means everything has come to an end. What better eschaton could one hope for than the "peaceable kingdom" of Isaiah?

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
That's an eschaton, an ending. What, you thought they were all about doom and despair? Who wouldn't want an eschaton like that? But what about apocalypse? What about what is revealed?

That's the justice side of advent. Justice makes us nervous, unless we can be assured we stand on the side of John, and get to look across the river and snicker at the Pharisees. Justice is justice when it is done unto others. When it is done unto us? That's when we despair.

Justice is the revelation of injustice. It's the apocalypse, not the eschaton. The apocalypse is what John is preaching: the advent of justice, the arrival of the revelation. Who wants to face that? Let's skip on to the apocalypse, to the peaceable kingdom and the holy mountain and the blessings. But even Isaiah doesn't let us get there without judgment first:

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
In the picture, it's easy to identify the natives with the poor and meek of the earth, and the Europeans bringing Christianity with the wicked who will be struck and killed; or at least should be. But they, not the natives, are our ancestors, in blood and in spirit. So let's not begin there.

Advent is about death. But we can't begin there, either. Advent and death? What beginning is that? The advent of death? That can't be right; we had death long before we had the coming of the Christ. So what does advent have to do with death, when it's supposed to be about the anticipation of birth? Well, Advent comes at the end of the year but it is the beginning of the Church year. The lessons for Advent invariably speak of endings rather than beginnings. It almost seems we can't get started without thinking of the ending. We often think of that as the goal. Every process, Aristotle taught us, is supposed to have a telos, a goal, a purpose. So the birth, we are told, of the Messiah has a purpose, and the angels will sing it: "Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, goodwill toward humankind." Not much of a telos, really, unless we connect it to the Peaceable Kingdom, but it doesn't link up very well, There isn't a cause and effect connection between the Advent and the Eschaton; at least not one we can see easily. Certainly not one we want to make easily.

It's rather like, actually, the question of the purpose of life. Was Jesus born in order to die? Is the telos of life merely death? Is the process of life merely dying? Is that the end in our beginning?

Surely not. No, certainly not. That is too grim altogether and, what is worse, too reductive. Life is not a struggle against dying. Life is a struggle with living. Life is a struggle with God. Life is a struggle with self. Life is a struggle; but it is not against dying. That's a modern heresy, a contemporary confusion. Life is not a fight against dying; life is a fight for fully living, for "life into the ages," for the eternal life the Gospels constantly promote to us. And the secret of the struggle is: in our end is our beginning.

Not in some metaphysical, in the sweet bye-and-bye sense. Not in the sense that we must die in order to enjoy resurrection into eternal life in a heavenly realm. No, our end is what we must face in life, in order to fully live. Why else would John tell us to "Bear fruit worthy of repentance," if we couldn't bear fruit in this lifetime, and repent in this lifetime, and enjoy the fruits of our repentance in this lifetime? And what is repentance except an end, and a new beginning? And what need have we of this repentance, if not in preparation for the adventus, for the coming of the Lord, the Anointed One, the Christ, the Messiah? What is the telos of the Messiah, if not to bring us life now?

But is the telos the full explanation? Is there a goal, a purpose, to life? Must there be? Need there be? If life merely a process, with a goal at the end? If it is, then maybe it's just a process of preventing death; or a process of accumulating wealth; or a process of acquiring security and comfort and friends like notches on a belt. If life is merely a process, the pursuit of a goal, we would have achieved it by now. If life were merely a matter of discovering a method for satisfaction, we would have discovered it by now. If life were merely a puzzle offered for solution, we would have solved it by now. So what is the advent, that it keeps returning every year, and the process, that it keeps going around and around in circles?

It is not process at all. It is a revelation. It is an eschaton and an adventus that returns again and again because the eschaton is not an ending, the adventus is only a revealing. What is revealed and understood is up to us, and it is not a telos, an end, a purpose. It is, if anything, a mystery. It is a call to change. It is a call to life. It is a cry of struggle. It is a cry of joy! It is the apocalypse because it brings an end to the old, and the birth of the new! But it is only birth; it is beginning, not ending; adventus, not eschaton. It is the end that starts the beginning. Is there a telos to the whole of Creation? Then it is in Isaiah's vision of the Peaceable Kingdom, when life goes on and all the nations inquire of the Lord. It is in the judgment that brings wickedness to a final end and life into the ages to all people. It is the swords beaten into plowshares and the poor raised up while the proud are cast down. But that is not an eschaton, either; not an end, but merely a beginning. Swords need always to be turned to plows, the proud need always to be thrown down and the poor need always to be raised up. This is not an end but a constant beginning. In our end is our beginning, and in our beginning is our salvation!

But that salvation comes only from the vision, from the child, from the one whose sandals we are not fit to untie. The one who rises to rule us all; the one in whom we all hope. And hope, like Advent, renews us again and again and again. As Paul said:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

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