Monday, December 13, 2004

A Reading for the Third Week in Advent

At the risk of spending time in prison for violation of the copyright laws, I make fair use of the reading that follows to accomplish two purposes: first, to put into words an aspect of Advent that I have been inadequate in articulating, and second, to pay homage to one of the most under-appreciated theologians of the twentieth century, William Stringfellow (of blessed memory). This reading is taken from the Advent readings collection, Watchh for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, published by the Bruderhof house, The Plough (and, since the demise of that house, by Paulist Press), for reading on December 7 (irony probably fully intended). It seems also appropriate to post this for the Third Sunday in Advent this year, because John the Baptist sits at the center of the gospel reading for the day’s mass.

This is Stringfellow:

We live now, in the United States, in a culture so profoundly pagan that Advent is no longer really noticed, much less observed. The commercial acceleration of seasons, whereby the promotion of Christmas begins even before there is an opportunity to enjoy Halloween, is superficially, a reason for the vanishment [sic] of Advent. But a more significant cause is that the churches have become so utterly secularized that they no longer remember the topic of Advent. This situation cannot be blamed merely upon … the electronic preachers and talkers, or the other assorted peddlers of religion that so clutter the ethos of this society, any more than it can be said, simplistically, to be mainly the fault of American merchandising and consumerism.

Thus, if I remark about the disappearance of Advent I am not particularly complaining about the vulgarities of the marketplace prior to Christmas and I am certainly not talking about getting “back to God” or “putting Christ back into Christmas” (phrases that betray skepticism toward the Incarnation). Instead I am concerned with a single, straightforward question in biblical context. What is the subject of Advent?

Tradition has rendered John the Baptist and Advent figure and, if that be an appropriate connection (I reserve some queries about that), then clues to the meaning of the first coming of Christ may be found in the Baptist’s preaching. Listen to John the Baptist.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). In the Gospel according to Mark, the report is, John appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It should not be overlooked, furthermore, that when John the Baptist is imprisoned, Matthew states, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt. 4:17). And later, when Jesus charges his disciples, he tells them to preach the same message.

For all the greeting card and sermonic rhetoric, I do not think that much rejoicing happens around Christmastime, least of all about the coming of the Lord. There is, I notice, a lot of holiday frolicking, but that is not the same as rejoicing. In any case, maybe outbursts of either frolicking or rejoicing are premature, if John the Baptist has credibility. He identifies repentance as the message and the sentiment of Advent. And, in the texts just cited, that seems to be ratified by Jesus himself.

In context, in the bibilical accounts, the repentance that John the Baptist preaches is no private or individualistic effort, but the disposition of a person is related to the reconciliation of the whole of creation. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

The eschatological reference is quite concrete. John the Baptist is warning the rulers of this world and the principalities and powers, as well as common people, of the impending judgment of the world in the Word of God signaled in the coming of Christ. …

The depletion of a contemporary recognition of the radically political character of Advent is in large measure occasioned by the illiteracy of church folk about the Second Advent and, in the mainline churches, the persistent quietism of pastors, preachers, and teachers about the Second Coming. That topic has been allowed to be preempted and usurped by astrologers, sectarian quacks, and multifarious hucksters. Yet it is impossible to apprehend either Advent except through the relationship of both Advents. The pioneer Christians, beleaguered as they were because of their insight, knew that the message of both Advents is political. That message is that in the coming of Jesus Christ, the nations and the principalities and the rulers of the world are judged in the Word of God. In the lordship of Christ they are rendered accountable to human life and, indeed, to all created life. Hence, the response of John the Baptist when he is pressed to show the meaning of the repentance he preaches is, “Bear fruits that befit repentance.”

In another part of the Bible traditionally invoked during Advent, Luke 1:52-54, the politics of both Advents is emphasized in attributing the recitation of the Magnificat to Mary:

He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted those of low degree;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.

In the First Advent, Christ the Lord comes into the world, in the next Advent, Christ the Lord comes as Judge of the world and of all the world’s thrones and pretenders, sovereignties and dominions, principalities and authorities, presidencies and regimes, in vindication of his lordship and the reign of the Word of God in history. This is the truth, which the world hates, which biblical people (repentant people) bear and by which they live as the church in the world in the time between the two Advents.

Thus, Brother William.

A blessed time of watching, waiting, and repenting to you.


Anonymous said...

Wow. So dead on. I find myself totally ignoring all references to Christmas, something I never knew about growing up. I don't want Christmas during Advent, and I especially don't want Christmas without Advent.

But this phrase in particular grabbed me: "That message is that in the coming of Jesus Christ, the nations and the principalities and the rulers of the world are judged in the Word of God. In the lordship of Christ they are rendered accountable to human life and, indeed, to all created life."

The reason it grabbed me: in my workplace, a subordinate will likely be punished for addressing his or her superior as a fellow human being. The rules of hierarchy supersede human relations as equals in God's eyes. In a previous job, I tried to point out that we underlings had authority to address the higher-ups as one human to another, but I learned in no uncertain terms that "superiors" may trump that relationship by the insulation of power.

For me, it touches deeply a yearning to be treated as a child of God, whether in church or at work (two places that have been particularly horrible in that respect).


Jim said...

I found a reference to Stringfellow's 1977 theme in a 2002 meditation published by iconographer Fr. William Hart McNichols

Like most facts, this was one of those I didn't know. Stringfellow was a lawyer who was passionately convinced that we should work toward overcoming social ills. Stringfellow died early, in 1985, at about 57 years old, and would have been 49 or so when he mused the theme outlined by Fr McNichols and echoed by you.

Not having the benefit of much theological education, I'm still ignorant enough to wonder about Stringfellow's posit that repentance is represented by the ideal of humanity's response on behalf of the reconciliation of all creation, as I understand Stringfellow.

Stringfellow also makes several pitches on behalf of eschatology and tries to connect it with politics: "The pioneer Christians, beleaguered as they were because of their insight, knew that the message of both Advents is political."

Perhaps another hundred readings will pull that message from the texts; right now, the message is a very personal, Jesus-on-one contact sport. Yes, we can extend "neighbor" into the distances we recognize 27 years after Stringfellow uttered this thought. But if we were to start with our neighbors next door, and then move up the block, in a social rather than political way, wouldn't we achieve the better result? If we act like Christians toward those whom we can touch, and it's contagious, would it take very long to spread around this little globe?

I may be running as long in comment as you were in exposition, and if so, my apologies. You bring up good stuff, friend.

Dwight P. said...

Ah, but Brother Jim, even the personal is political, so one-on-one as well as gestures on a grander, even global scale, are political -- that's the particular theme in Stringfellow's work. The political is all-embracing, in a certain sense -- the sense that the Reign of God extends from what I do with my money or my genitals to what world rulers do with their armies and policies. Jesus-on-one may be true, but it must be contextualized: There is nothing more "personal" than faith (which, after all, is another word for relationship with and obedience to the Lord of Life), but it is not a "private" personal. Human life, and so too the life of faith, is a social experience. That's why baptism from earliest times was done (with the exception of the bath itself) in public -- i.e., within the ecclesial assembly.

Begin with neighbors? Absolutely -- although before that, I suggest we begin with the extant congregation of which we are a part; there is plenty need for "living like Christians" right there. But forego grand programs -- e.g., voting or giving to the Heifer Project? Absolutely not -- despite what I may have been inclined to say earlier. (There are theologians in whose shadow I sit in awe who this year decided that to vote -- at all, for either candidate -- was to cast one's lot with darkness, and they refrained. I respect, but don't quite understand, their principle -- understand, not in the intellectual sense, for they wrote out their rationales with crystal clarity; but understand in the sense of "get," of "resonate to.")

I think, based on my limited reading of Stringfellow (who has been one of my heroes since my college days), that he would sympathize with Willimon (now Bishop, for heaven's sake) and Hauerwas in their book "Resident Aliens." I must continue to explore.

One final note: I was privileged to meet Stringfellow once -- not too long before his untimely death. It was the height of the Vietnam war, and he was one of those people that the FBI was sure to be following. He "lectured" on the text, "If we fail to speak, these very stones will cry out," and I have never heard a better sermon. These musings have inspired me to try to find my old cassette of that speech. It was enough to bowl over almost any person of faith, I think.

Advent blessings upon you, Jim.

Dwight P. said...

Oh, Jim, by the way, thank you for the link. (I had to jimmy it a little to make it work, but I got into the site.) As a consequence, I have new wallpaper on my computer. There are some really quite lovely icons there. (I haven't yet had time to read any of the reflections.) You may have also contributed to a financial crisis in my home!