Tag Archives: Advent

Being patient- the “not yet” of Christmas.

“The desert and the parched land will exult;
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.”

As a metaphor this is a beautiful idea, that the wasteland and disappointed places inside myself have transformative potential at the coming of Sophia. But there is a chilling side to this metaphor in the year when we have had such a wet and abundant spring that everyone has harvested record breaking vegetables and roses (this in Australia) meanwhile the North Pole is fast disappearing (and how many species with it?)
But…
“Strengthen the hands that are feeble,
make firm the knees that are weak,
say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
with divine recompense
he comes to save you.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.”

All the limits we feel in our bodies and in our places in society will be overcome by the one who comes to “vindicate” the weak and frightened. There is radical hope here. How to read the hope together with the despair of a burdened earth? The psalm reminds us (as scripture does again and again and again) of God’s agenda, nothing to do with what you believe or who you sleep with but justice, relief, healing, sanctuary. God offers these to the poor and oppressed and calls us to be part of the movement of actualising her offers. I’d like to take that psalm on as a creed. The God I worship and call to is the God who does all those things. The hair-splitting theological points become irrelevant as God in this psalm, elsewhere in scripture and in the world rolls up her sleeves (shades of Washerwoman God here) and sets to work cleaning the house, nesting, making ready for baby Wisdom at Christmas and demands that as members of the household, the economy/oikonomia of God we do the same.

The second reading calls for patience (like every Mum ever talking to her small children about Christmas coming). Apparently we can’t hurry grace. We are also asked to stop complaining about each other, I would not think this refers to people who cry out against the genuine oppressions that God abhors but rather the nitpickers who judge other people’s sexual morality, spending habits or lifestyles and completely miss the point that God is coming to spread radical hope and justice and above all LOVE. We can all be a little bit mean-minded and judgemental at times, we all know better than others how they ought to live their lives. God doesn’t seem to have time for all that though because there are real things to be put into order (strangers to be protected and widows and orphans to be sustained).

The gospel could be read simply as part of the story of John the Baptist, a great prophet one who called people to repent back toward God and tried to open them up for the radical possibilities in Christ. There is also the bigger picture of reading the signs of the times. We keep wanting more and more and more proof and certainty before we make any decision or act. Jesus here seems to be advocating a boldness in the gospel. Don’t follow every reeed swayed by the wind, don’t expect your prophets packaged more perfectly. There are already voices of prophecy telling us about our times (there are the plants telling us the climate is skewed, there are the refugees telling us capitalism has failed the world). Take on the news you don’s wish to hear (that we must all repent radically and immediately) in order to make way for the Word that we do want, the hope and salvation of the world.

So pressed for time energy and money this year, so bereft of hope I do not know what I can bring to the table of celebration, in what way to connect with God in this coming season of Christmas. Patient waiting with the pregnant Mary is all the action I can offer at this stage, but also accepting the refocussing and repentance of the advent readings, to prepare myself for hope, for tiny baby-voice Wisdom to wrap delicate but insistent fingers around my finger and bring me back down to her level. To first steps not yet taken; to angels singing in Luke’s remembrance of the beginning or mysterious gifts and sudden journeys that are Christmas in the gospel of Matthew. And John reminds us to open our hearts to the Word- full of grace and truth. If we already had all the answers I guess we wouldn’t need Christmas.

Justice shall flourish … and fullness of peace for ever.

The Utopian vision in Isaiah’s first reading, gives us some idea of what was wrong with the world in the time this text was developed. The writer is longing for the world to be ruled by “wisdom and understanding…counsel and strength, a spirit of knowledge an the fear of the lord”. This vision involves a radical sort of justice that looks beyond the shallow and the popular to the deep experiences of the oppressed. Nature itself will put off its need to compete and destroy each other with animals lying together peacefully and safely.
In 2016 a rationalist age of markets and worship of “the economy” and the image of each special individual this both soothes and attracts us but also fails to seem achievable. Of course lions eat lambs, that is natural and we ascribe to “nature” a whole host of negative human behaviours besides. But within the Jewish roots of our Christian tradition is an idealistic call to challenge the current view of “nature”, the essentialist and inevitable acceptance of injustice and inequity. As the people of God, our work is to achieve a more peaceful, wise and just world. The advent call is the call by a vulnerable baby that in Matthew’s gospel overstepped national boundaries to be recognised by foreigners (magi), and hated by the status quo (Herod), that is our Christmas movement to become uncomfortable for the unjust powers of the world and to break boundaries in radical inclusion and openness. If we are lions, we need to pull back from devouring; in so far as we are lambs we need to be courageous and visionary.
Even though the psalm talks about a “king” bringing God back in line with the ruling class, there is an idealistic view here of a king who is ruling for the poor and afflicted. Kingship in this ideal is not the exploitative relationship we often see in the privileged and the powerful of our world, but is a radical challenge to the greedy and the exploitative. “Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace forever”.
This is a useful ideal to aspire to in so far as we are “kings”, in our relationships of leadership and power in our worlds. How do we treat our own children? Our elderly? Our employees or student? How do we “rule” over a group of people, who do we advocate for in our decision making and what values underpin our pronouncements? This is also an ideal worth holding our own leaders to. No-one can rule or govern forever but people and the times they live in go down in history as more or less peaceful and abundant.
The second reading from Romans encourages us to go to the scriptures for instruction, seeing the scriptures as sources of hope and practice. It also advocates harmony between believers, which at times gets interpreted by the powerful in the church as a sort of obedient group-think, but I don’t believe the idea here is to stifle debate and questioning, just for everyone to be considerate and ready to accept compromise so that life and liturgy together may be possible.
The reference to the “circumcised” and the “patriarchs” is broken open by a sudden appeal to the Gentiles, to be welcomed and “at one-ed” with also. The writer here claims that the idea of broadening out the inclusive vision was already written into the heart of the tradition, so the sort of change that accepts the challenge of the other is in no way a departure from the tradition we hold dear but the most faithful following of it. Who are the “Gentiles” of our time? Who do we seek to keep out? Muslims? LGBTIQ+ people? Women who have a vocation to ministry? Single mothers? It is someone who challenges our sure knowledge about the right way to live and the hegemony of our own way of life.
Having focused ourselves on justice and inclusivity by these readings, the gospel sweeps in the voice of John the Baptist giving us our advent call to “repent”. People often seem to think repenting means feeling sorry or guilty but in fact it isn’t a feeling at all it is an action of achieving radical change within ourselves, of turning around and facing the opposite direction to the negative one. Last advent I reflected on the unacknowledged need in me for so many years to “repent” of my heterosexuality, which is not to imply that people who are heterosexual are wrong, but that it was wrong for me and not what God had created me for, I always knew this deeply but in the cowardly way of a child began a path of obedience to my cultural context instead of my calling. Repentance is finding those spots of wrongness inside us, not necessarily “sin” in the sense of doing wrong, but the blockages from God’s grace and hope and the inability to respond to God’s call to live what we were created.
John the Baptist is concerned with more than personal identity-work of course, he is a huge threat to the status quo which is why he is ultimately put to death. But he also reminds us that it is our repentance, the ways we choose to radically alter our way of life toward hope and justice that prepares the way for Jesus/Wisdom to enter the world. John’s radical asceticism is unattractive to the modern gaze. He wears itchy, dirty clothing and eats an inadequate diet. I don’t want to emulate quite the minimalism of his lifestyle but instead I want to let him refocus me on what really matters, not always having the finest materials next to the skin or the prettiest appearance or the most tantalising foods (no not even at Christmas when we hear the call of the “economy” to spoil ourselves and others in this way) but what deeply matters is the repentance that leads to radical justice and hope, the world-altering growth that welcomes into the world God’s Word.
John also reminds us to be wary of relying on our religious pedigree, our alliance with an institutional church and reminds us the survival of the institution is NOT THE POINT since God can raise up believers from the very stones (a theme that is alluded to at Palm Sunday and other places). Our call is to “produce good fruit as evidence of [our] repentance” to actualise God’s reign not to get right a series of rituals and self-aggrandisements. John gives us a terrifying view of a purifying, cleansing, judging God to come- speaking back into the first readings preoccupation of fear of God. The point I take from that is not that God is terrifying and punitive but that there is an implied threat/warning to those who continue to oppress others, especially in God’s name. We can read all the grace and forgiveness and rehabilitation of the sinner in the mission of Jesus (and I do take comfort from this) nevertheless a call to repentance remains and it is a strong demand from God not a half-hearted suggestion. We may repent imperfectly and be forgiven but we outright ignore God and God’s beloved poor (the earth may be included in this) at our peril!
In conclusion I circle back to that beautiful vision of the first reading, of buds and shoots and new growth where we thought we saw decay. The jacarandas were late to blossom this year but they got there. Life wants to spring up and live abundantly. Let us embrace life as we enact and expect the radical transformation of the world from the vulnerable baby who is also the Word.

Plowshares

I wrote this to share at church, then in the rush I left my notes at home and had to “wing it” at church. Thanks to the supportiveness of everyone it went OK. The photo is a flower arrangement I made for church before being reminded we don’t do flowers in Advent. I rehomed it with my sister, who absolutely deserves flowers!

Today’s first reading always makes me smile and think of the activist movement “Plowshares” who advocate active resistance to war…I felt they deserved a mention.

The whole reading is replete with an active response to God- it is a movement of people, streaming towards God’s mountain to learn and be led to actively change our ways. The symbolism of changing weapons of war to implements of growing food has much to offer and I have made it the focus today for our liturgy which as always centres a communal meal as a symbol of shared abundance in every way.

Turning to the book of Isaiah however, and reading on from this idealistic vision, it all turns very bleak very quickly and that also can be our experience. The transformed reality we celebrate in coming together for communion, is not the lived reality of the world around us- the power-infused relationships, the cynical politics and parsimonious economics of our time. So glib escapist religious fantasies that “it all happens for a reason” will not serve us in our lead-up to Christmas, and if we listen to our tradition we will need this feast to be something more than a “feel-good” fest.

If we stream to the mountain, the sometimes steep mountain that is scripture, we might be looking for instruction, leadership, community, active response, transformation but we do not escape our reality by doing so. Nor do we escape our complex interwoven identities where we are both benefiting in some measure from unjust systems and also perhaps ourselves oppressed (or at least limited) by rigid systems of control.

And then the letter to the Romans bids us to “wake up” from sleep. This is a time for consciousness, not a time to let the familiar and the dear rituals of Christmas lull our consciences to sleep, not to leave it all up to God. Advent is a new year, it’s a time to get serious about the “reign of God” we celebrated last week, to begin again a cycle of movement toward that point toward a not-yet reality of God’s vision realised. Can we see God as a baby that needs our protection? An unborn possibility inside us? A desire for beauty and truth to take over our lives?

In the gospel, two people who seem identical are somehow not. One is “taken” and one is “left”. There is no radical difference we can see between one and the other but perhaps by implication as we go about our ordinary lives in our limited world God can see the details, the good intentions and the small acts of love which may never be perfect but do somehow matter after all. I don’t like the hyper-individualism that seems to come through here, as if I want to distance myself from my sister or brother and be smugly pious. But let’s deconstruct this picture by a return to the image of weapons, transformed into tools for growing food. Then let’s take care to remember that food is for feeding and sharing not just for grasping and selling which devolves food production back into war. Can we transform this image of two women grinding meal, or two men working in a field by refusing to buy into the oppositional, competitive factor? Then, both may come to share in the radical hope of God’s coming after all. Is grace contagious? We can only hope.

So this Christmas, I will eat and drink and participate in the celebrations and I don’t feel guilty about that. But I will give thought to the changing climate, to the impoverished and imprisoned families and try to temper my excess and share my abundance. And this advent I will choose who I wish to be this liturgical year. Come, let us go to the mountain of this tradition/faith we hold together, back again into the heart of our communal longing for all to be right. Let us light in our hearts the candle of hope and allow that interruptive and transformative power in. Jesus, Sophia, eternal Wisdom and Word.

 

Preparing for transformation

I have been feeling a bit uninspired and even (here’s a confession) judgemental as Christmas approaches and all I hear is a whole lot of consumerist drama about presents and food and decorations and which unpleasant relative people are going to half kill themselves in order to please (all while matching the napkins to the baubles and making glittery centrepieces). I wonder that people who usually come across as sensitive and thoughtful suddenly seem to bury themselves in consumerism and stress and as a result some of them (the active ones who have to do all the work) wind up snapping “I hate Christmas”, while the ones who have a high emotional investment in “receiving” a perfect Christmas- gifts, invitations also end up disappointed as the reality can never match the expectation brought to us by that ”John the Baptist” equivalent of the consumerist religion, Santa.

Someone is going to argue with me that “Santa” is actually a Christian figure being based on St Nicholas but when I look at the North pole dwelling, red, no longer unfashionably plump, ruling class business owner and exploiter of elves and reindeer and his hiding in the shadows (making cookies of course), “Mrs Claus” I say “bollocks”. This myth may indeed have come out of an appropriation of  a Christian story but it has morphed so far I think it is even too late for reclaiming. Is noone apart from me uncomfortable with the Christmas pageants where this older (and often depicted as married) man has a sleazy relationship with teenaged beauty queens and Christmas fairies? This is not a version of Christianity I want to subscribe to, nor is the meritocratic lie that the children who get lavish presents are the “good” ones, and the ones with unemployed parents have done something wrong and deserve less. There is a popular movement for parents to “cut down” the number of presents they buy each of their children to FOUR. FOUR?? I only ever bought each child one (and maybe snuck in a book as well because I am naughty that way).

So I have been feeling anger and despair about Christmas, and I don’t like to admit this but I better- I have been looking down on people who think these things are so important- all the presents and hideous decorations and having the right fashionable foods (and too much of them). I have been reading Vandana Shiva (another “john the Baptist” figure but more to my taste) and agreeing that we privileged first-worlders use up the planet for empty crap, we don’t even get enough satisfaction to be worth the plunder and we are unhealthy as anything because of our over-consumption.

But I have survived this year, in a job that has some joyful moments on even the bad days, with one entire day nearly every week that I can devote to my favourite activity in the world of writing and I live with the most thoughtful young person in the universe who alternates getting me a coffee or a hug with his witty humour and undemanding habits. And if I find meaning in quiet times with him (no work for two weeks) and sunsetty evenings at the beach in the wet sand and the chatter of rainbow lorikeets and the company of the same friends who have supported and challenged me all year, and family members who do their best to tolerate me…then it is time to stop and examine my own privilege.

Because not so many years ago there was an impoverished, struggling single mother who felt cut off from relatives and other people alike- who saw judgement and rejection everywhere (even where it wasn’t) and who suffered through grey day after grey day under a burden of anxiety and self-hate and her own inadequacy. I have to remember her, who I was for so many years. And that grey-day woman wanted a bit of colour in her life and used tinsel and fairylights and wrapping paper and cards to try to make some fleeting connection to the rest of the human race and bought too many gadgets and gizmos to try to brighten up the lives of the children who were unfortunate enough to be stuck in her life. And that wasn’t “right” and it didn’t completely “work” but it provided some sort of fleeting relief and that is what it does for all the people who get caught up in commodified Christmases as well as the dating-at-any-price mentality which I think it related: the idea that you can’t be happy unless you have a partner.

And sitting in the relative wealth of Australian society we DO need to look at our consumption and we all need to cut down on it- every household, every individual but especially industry and the military! And I don’t want to return to an uncritical “bread and circuses” attitude to Christmas, granting that the consumerism alleviates a little bit of an existential angst for many people and leaving it at that. The first reading expects more than that from us…we are to point ourselves toward the joy and beauty that God calls us to (which can’t be giftwrapped or sent out for). But in my judgemental attitude I have thought about how to “break their hearts of stone” and I haven’t considered that that is not what I need when I get trapped in escapism and patterns of despair.

How instead do we embrace their hearts and offer them a home? The baby John the Baptist in the canticle is not praised for his incisive criticisms and his rousing hellfire sermons (alas because I think I would make a fantastic old-school preacher). He is told he will prepare Jesus’ way through preaching the “forgiveness of sins” through the loving-kindness (is this hesed?) of God to break upon us like a new dawning. Like finding out that I was a rainbow, not a brokenness. So somehow if we are to accept the impossible mission of John the Baptist (and even here I am mindful of how he ended up once he irritated the ruling class enough), we are to bring peace and loving-kindness and light to the world, not simply threats and criticisms. Do I detect God laughing at me, because she knows how I love a good criticism!

In the second reading, “Paul” (I am never sure when it is the real Paul and when it isn’t but this guy thinks it is) is thanking God for some supportive person/s who have shared the gospel with him. And I think of the people who fill my heart with gratefulness and light whenever I even think of them, and some of them are believers in God, and some are not. But what they all have in common is that they came into my life in a “before” time, when I was more depressed and they have to some degree walked into my darkness to greet me and accept me and show me the light of love. The people who saw something in me before I was ready to see it myself have (cumulatively) changed my life! So if we want to convert the next Paul, or even if we just want a better society then the call is to be prophets of love and light to the world.

And now I am beginning to sound more Christmassy I think which is good because next week is the “joy” week and the drought of advent-waiting will need to be ready to be transformed to a more expectant state then.

So back to the gospel, to our old friend John the Baptist. As an environmentalist I feel horrified shivers at his metaphor, but as a teacher who is interest above all else in social justice I resound with the idea of equalising. Despite the capitalist wisdom of the day “a rising tide floats everyone’s boat” the fact is we live in a world of finite resources, and for one to increase, someone else must pay the price. So to prepare for God’s kingdom, we must raise the status of the poor and the refugee AT THE COST OF THE WEALTHY who need to be made lower. While I feel quite poor still, on a world wide scale I am one of the (smaller) hills that will need to be smoothed down to exalt the real valleys.Isn’t it tempting to water down the redistributive demand of God’s revolution here and to say that all God really wants us to do is be “nice” and “moral” and “caring” in a bland way that doesn’t offend anybody.

But no! God’s demanding Word asks for nothing less than a complete overhaul of our social landscape to smooth out mountains and valleys into equality. Yes that is hard, hard work! But that is what it will take to have God’s reign in our lives. We can’t achieve this purely as individuals, we can’t just make ourselves “good” and “holy” people inside there is a social project and a struggle implicit in bringing God. “All flesh” are to see this salvation together, not singly while leaving brothers and sisters to suffer outside the gate.

So that is the Christmas to prepare for, the radical challenge that God’s word always brings to the powers that be. Prepare to be offensive to the Herods and the Pilates of the world when Jesus comes- prepare to be no friend to the wealthy Pharisees and to be seen on a par with tax-collectors and prostitutes. The restitutive, redistributive world of God’s Holy Wisdom is going to make a few changes around here. And we get to be part of that!

Oh come thou, long-expected

An unexpectedly beautiful start to my advent was my son’s end of year school Christmas concert- our last one as a family at this tiny catholic school. I braced myself for the usual nod to the traditional story of Jesus, Mary, Joseph etc (gospels blended together as though they didn’t each have their own particular flavour) and then a whole lot of painfully consumerist crap centered on santa, presents and whatever other Christmas kitsch that truth be told is not meaningful for my family. What I got was song after song of the “real” (to me as a Christian I mean) Christmas story, generally separating the shepherds from the kings (each class seemed to have a particular theme of one of the Christmas stories and follow that in 1-2 songs).

My son also compered (“beyond compare” as he put it) the whole show with some very silly jokes but I must admit that kept my interest. I don’t do crowds, I don’t do Christmas functions with tinsel and all that crap and I don’t do mixing with other parents as well as I ought to and I expected to hand awkwardly at the back wishing I dared read my book about transformative practice in early childhood (which is ever-present like a security blanket in my handbag). I was only there because these are things we are supposed to do for our children.

Once the children began their excellently rehearsed and surprisingly meaningful show though, the cynicism fell away and I began (a few days early) an advent journey that I didn’t expect. Thoughts flashed into my head of the Greens‘ small triumph (please note that even though the major parties as a whole are awful on the issue of refugees there are some greater-minded individuals even in those parties)  for getting SOME children out of detention this Christmas as I watched children dressed in vague semblances of ancient Middle-eastern garb. On of the classes had a particularly interesting theme. Their two songs were “Knock, knock, knock at the door” and “No room at the inn”. I suspect both of these had been used by the school in previous years but having both of those songs together struck me as a stance of mild but insistent resistance to the common-place values of the day. When the one knocking on the door of the overburdened, overfull inn is a little cute baby that is also God- then who wants to be the one who can’t even find them a stable to sleep in (I do realise that almost all of this story is a kind of popular midrash and the bible doesn’t speak of harassed innkeepers and stables).

“Send me the link to your blog” one of my friends (you know who you are) reminded me at the conclusion of the concert and I realised that as the purple jacarandas waved their liturgical colour at me, it was time to take my pain and despair at the plight of refugees and struggling impoverished families, and dispossessed Aboriginal communities, and cast-out queer or pregnant children and take all those pains on a journey into the world of the advent of baby Wisdom.

Please note I accidentally did Year A readings which means I am running one year ahead. Sorry.

I look to the first reading with its beautiful and complex imagery of “beating swords into ploughshares” and though I can problematize the plough, in the context of the poor overburdened earth; with Vandana Shiva I want to look for small, sustainable farming answers to feed people not rip earth and human cultures apart for profit. I think that the very active idea of taking the sword into your own hands and beating it into a ploughshare by hand- the sweat and effort and struggle to make something visionary and better out of the reality you are presented with- is an activist idea, not an idea of waiting for God to do all the work of salvation. As Christ comes am I working toward a world of (active) feeding not fighting? There is an advent challenge here…

I turn to the psalm and with a rueful grin consider how my honest writing about my anger and criticism toward the church and world and my impious grappling and debating with scripture (which will continue) has led me back into the household of the church after all (partly thanks to the crazy trust of people who asked me to preach this year as well as other disgruntled Christians who walk with me). My heart is somehow “glad” and feeling at home when my feet were standing back “within the gates” of  the church although I have learned enough to never be able to be the child at the table again (like when you visit your parents after having your own house). For the sake of people I love and am inspired by I will try to modify my criticisms with a peace born of kindness. God has made me strong with the gifts of anger and criticism, the challenge is to keep myself honest with generous serves of kindness and peace in how I express my valid criticisms. But I won’t water them down, as I feel God’s pull more strongly when I am honest.

The second reading gives a timely and stern talk to my activist self at a time of year when catching up with friends for drinks has become a high priority and plans need to be made for “the holidays”. It could also speak into the not-yet-published part of my lack of discipline. It’s time for me to wake from sleep and take the fullness of my life and call more seriously. Oh my call, how I try to run from it and neglect it! If I want Wisdom to come and transform my life and my overcrowded inn I need to be ready to make like a Christmas shepherd and leave the sheep to themselves long enough to visit her and give little world-changing baby Jesus a cuddle. I need to be like an angel and point out the extraordinary to interrupt the “business as usual” of the world. I need to be like a magus and follow the enigmatic call even though it drags me through the palace of Herod which seems counter-productive. I need to be like Joseph and not question the way God’s business becomes my whole life and my business. I need to be like Mary, so connected into the Wisdom of God that it wells up in me and grows and is born and changes the world. I can still have that glass of gluten-free beer with my good mates, I can still get involved with making things at work as good as possible, I can still enjoy the last weekend of Feast and the concert with Archie Roach that I am going to but this is not where my real life is. My real life is nurturing justice and resisting injustice and I need to wake up, have serious amounts of spiritual caffeine and get to it!

I’ve always had a problem with this gospel, but today I feel I can read it as a warning that “business as usual” is not going to cut it. In terms of the environment and the spreading hand of exploitation and oppression there is a lot of merit in an apocalyptic view toward politics. What is Christmas? Is it a holiday of excess and “God rest us all merry” while there are starving children and suffering strangers in the world we have built up for our ease and security? Comfort and joy for whom?

Sometime the “Son of Man” the “human one” is coming whether we look to that possibility or not. Scientifically our days as a species are numbered (and it’s a smaller number than people like to admit). What is the meaning of being? Do we hide from the interloper, Christ until he breaks into our lives like an unsettling thief? Do we acknowledge our need and look for the coming of one who will call us to radical transformation? Knock, knock, knock at the door. It’s advent!