Advent 2

Awaken. The rebellion of redemption beckons.

THE FOUR SUNDAYS in advance of Christmas make up the season of Advent, the “coming” or the “arrival.” The weeks provide a time to prepare spiritually for the two “comings” of Jesus — one that happened and one that is still expected — his birth and his return. 

In recent years, Advent has mostly emphasized waiting or happy anticipation. The candles (which are variously blue, purple and pink, or white) in the wreath represent four themes of hope, love, joy, and peace. With each passing week, as more candles are lit, light overcomes the darkness of December in expectation of Jesus’ coming.

There is, however, an older tradition that seems oddly resonant this year. The four weeks lift up theological themes related to endings — death, judgment, heaven, and hell. As such, Advent was a season of penitence, confession, and fasting, like a “little Lent.” This view of Advent emerged in the Middle Ages, reaching its zenith of spiritual popularity — perhaps not unsurprisingly — during the Black Death.

I’ve always found medieval Advent morbid. But, remembering how meaningful the old practice was during a time of pandemic, I wanted to revisit it this year. In these weeks, I’ll look at the traditional themes in some new ways, reflecting on them in relation to some of my favorite Advent poetry — the work of Madeleine L’Engle.

The Second Sunday of Advent’s theme is Judgment.


TWO POEMS by Madeleine L’Engle:

Advent 1971

When will he come
and how will he come
and will there be warnings
and will there be thunders
and rumbles of armies
coming before him
and banners and trumpets
When will he come
and how will he come
and will we be ready

O woe to you people
you sleep through the thunder
you heed not the warnings
the fires and the drownings
the earthquakes and stormings
and ignorant armies
and dark closing on you
the song birds are falling
the sea birds are dying
no fish now are leaping
the children are choking
in air not for breathing
the aged are gasping
with no one to tend them

a bright star has blazed forth
and no one has seen it
and no one has wakened

The Birth of Wonder

As I grow older
I get surer
Man’s heart is colder,
His life no purer.
As I grow steadily
More austere
I come less readily
To Christmas each year.
I can’t keep taking
Without a thought
Forced merrymaking
And presents bought
In crowds jostling.
Alas, there’s naught
In empty wassailing
Where oblivion’s sought.
Oh, I’d be waiting
With quiet fasting
Anticipating
A joy more lasting.
And so I rhyme
With no apology
During this time
of eschatology:
Judgment and warning
Come like thunder.
But now is the hour
When I remember
An infant’s power
On a cold December.
Midnight is dawning
And the birth of wonder.


REFLECTION

Advent 2: Judgment

I woke up yesterday morning to the news that Middle Church in New York City, a congregation where a good friend is the pastor, was on fire. The pictures on Twitter were horrendous — the neo-gothic shell of the historic building engulfed in flames. It seemed a photograph from hell. “Why?” I asked my husband, “Why them? Of all churches? They surely don’t deserve this!”

The traditional theme for the second Sunday of Advent is judgment. And the images from Middle Church captured the way we generally think of the end of things — a conflagration of God’s displeasure, a raging inferno of destruction, and a divine verdict we fear will be unfair: Why? Why me? Why us? What did we do to deserve this? What did I do? We fear judgment.

We think that judgment is about us — that it is mostly a private affair between each person and God — an eternal ruling that results in our final state either in heaven or hell. Our imaginations are shaped by medieval images, the great cathedrals of Europe with warnings of judgment carved in stone over their entries; or, by American evangelicalism with turn-or-burn sermons and revivals, and preachers shouting the torments of hell.

But Advent speaks to something larger than our individual anxieties about personal salvation. It reveals that judgment is already underway; it is not just some future state. Through history, we humans have been subject to empires of oppression and violence, our dreams denied as we toiled on behalf of systems designed to benefit only a few. We’ve yearned for justice, for relief, to be treated with dignity and respect. The Bible describes a better world - an age where every person sits under his or her own vine and fig tree, where there is no war, and where all are invited to feast at God’s table of abundance. Jews and Christians alike tell a story of two kingdoms — the one we suffer under and the one we await — the empires ruled by the likes of Pharaoh or Caesar and the longed-for reign of God.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan refer to these two kingdoms as the “imperial kingdom” and the “eschatological kingdom.” They describe the difference and the tension between the two as follows:

The imperial kingdom of Rome — and this may indeed apply to any other empire as well —had as its program peace through victory. The eschatological kingdom of God has as its program peace through justice. Both intend peace — one by violence, the other by nonviolence. And still those tectonic plates grind against one another (The First Christmas, 69-70).

The world shook as empires arose and expanded by the sword. But Advent announces that their time is ending: “Fear not!” proclaimed the angel, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord…Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

The eschatological kingdom — peace for all people, peace through justice — is at hand. No longer are these minor tremors, a mere shaking, but the empires of the world will clash with the arriving kingdom. Earthquakes, thunder, storms. The tectonic plates crash and the whole of creation groans — Advent is the San Andreas fault of human history — empires will shatter, crack away, and fall into oblivion as God’s dominion approaches.

And that’s the judgment of Advent. The kingdom of violence and the kingdom of justice contend at the arrival of the Prince of Peace. What we have known as empire stands in judgment — and it cannot win. Imperial oppression is revealed for what it is, the death of creation and humanity: “the song birds are falling, the sea birds are dying, no fish now are leaping, the children are choking in air not for breathing, the aged are gasping with no one to tend them.”

Yet, a bright star has blazed forth. Peace on earth. Light in the darkness. Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you (Isa. 60:1). Midnight is dawning. And there, at the darkest moment, the birth of wonder. Judgment is no longer the fearsome worry of “Why? Why us? Woe is me!” Rather, judgment is cosmic salvation — the glory of God contends against all the harm and loss and pain: By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in the darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:78-79). Pretentious emperors can no longer hide behind their wealth and privilege — the light of judgment shines, revealing their lies, sin, and evil. Judgment does, indeed, burn. It burns with the fire of justice, the hope of God for a truly equitable and harmonious world. This judgment is the unmasking of empire, the birthing of true peace.

At the coldest moment. When things seem worse than ever. As children choke, as elders die alone. Advent’s judgment destroys all that afflicts and imprisons us. The light of healing and liberation breaks. Awaken. The rebellion of redemption beckons.


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Although Madeleine L’Engle wrote beautifully about Advent’s power to overcome the empires of injustice, she also wrote:

“And what good did it all do? The heart of man is still evil. Wars grow more terrible with each generation. The earth daily becomes more depleted by human greed. God came to save us and we thank him by producing bigger and better battlefields and slums and insane asylums. And yet Christmas is still for me a time of hope, of hope for the courage to love and accept love.”

As I’ve reflected on these difficult days — days when I want judgment to cast its light on the works of darkness — I’ve wondered if the opposite of judgment is love. When we wonder what we’ve done to “deserve” all these hard things, we might see that illness and grief are not our fault. When we “deserved” to be cast away, we are accepted. When we feel we “deserve” no pity, we are invited to the feast. This season, amid all that is unfair, uncertain, and unjust, can you find the courage to love and accept love?


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PRAYERS

God of the keen blade,
which cuts the roots 
of arrogant power:
you raise
voices of promise
in the dry lands of our desire
children of faith 
from the stones of the earth;
make us ready to receive
the Spirit and the fire of love,
wild and fierce and free;
through Jesus Christ, the one who is to come.

Steven Shakespeare

The earth is becoming a wasteland:
Breath of the Most High, come and renew it.
Humanity is becoming a battleground:
Child of Peace, come and unite it.
Society is becoming a playground:
Key of Destiny, open doors to our true path.
The world is becoming a no-man’s land:
God-with-us, come and make your home here. 

—Ray Simpson


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GIFTS FROM THE COTTAGE

This December, I’m offering personalized and signed copies of Grounded and Grateful for sale. To order books, please download this form. You can return a completed order via email or snail mail, with options to pay with Venmo or by check. 

Books make the best presents!

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THANKS

The readings in this issue are from Miracle on 10th Street and are used with the blessing of Madeleine L’Engle’s granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis (follow her on Twitter @charlottejv).

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