I returned to the congregation I served as pastor for a dozen years and was refreshed by the community of Christ and a service of Lessons and Carols for Advent.
I was thirsty for Advent. I don’t buy into the paranoia pitched by Fox News about a so-called “war on Christmas,” but I do lament a war on Advent. The uber-religion of soulless capitalism (I pray there still exists a soul-full version) pushes a commercially palatable version of the holiday, and way too many churches have surrendered. It’s an orgy of fund-raising and carol singing and feel-good charitable extravaganzas capped off by heavy partying and bowl games right up to New Year’s Day and beyond, with one last sputter on Super Bowl Sunday.
But at St. Luke Lutheran in Glen Ellyn there was not a single carol on December 7, but a completely Advent worship service built around the ancient “O Antiphons” of the church.
What struck me most, besides the gorgeous music and the seriously good oral interpretations of the readings, was how relevant the Advent message is for the church in the world in this day and age.
For weeks now in America black people have been taking to the streets to cry out for justice. And way too many white people have reacted with anxiety and extreme defensiveness. Again, Fox News has become the chief public exponent of this type of reactionary hype. And people are ripe for it. “All those young black men – they may indeed have been young and unarmed – but don’t say they were innocent. And don’t blame us. If you blame a white policeman, you are blaming all of us. And those young men were resisting. They were tainted. One of them stole some items from a convenience store. One was selling loose cigarettes. And blacks prey on blacks, sometimes, at least. And many of them take drugs and many are unemployed. And the wrong-headed, socialistic welfare state gives out all kinds of goodies making them even more lazy and dependent. They are just begging to be shot down, aren’t they? And with so many rich black entertainers and athletes and a black President, we must all accept that racism can no longer be an excuse for being poor or being shot dead by the police.”
What a hell of a lot of defensiveness and anxiety and obfuscation and contortions of reasoning! What a hell of a lot of effort is being expended so that our society would not have to examine and correct injustice!
But Advent invites us all to be confident in facing our own sins and shortcomings. Advent can make us bold to take on the monstrous sins of society as well. Isaiah 40 foretells the lifting up of valleys and leveling of mountains. Exodus 6 reminds us that God covenanted himself to an enslaved people, and promises “mighty acts of judgment.” The “shoot of Jesse” proclaimed in Isaiah 11 is one who “with righteousness…shall judge the poor…and with the breath of his lips…shall kill the wicked.” This is a God who, according to Isaiah 42, and over and again in Scripture, is said to “bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” This is a God who authors salvation by gifting people with the forgiveness of their sins (Luke 1) and who punctures the arrogance of those who think they have a corner on moral and religious truth—all with the words and witness of a little child.
What a refreshing thing Advent is! To all of this anxiety, and defensiveness, and resentment of whites in reaction to the cries of the poor—the cries of those trapped in high crime neighborhoods—the cries of people of color who are simply afraid that their children will be gunned down by paranoid and poorly trained police—to all of this Advent says, “We Christians believe in a God who hears those cries and who sides with the poor and the prisoners. We believe in redemption. We believe all these people—even welfare recipients, and convicted felons, and street protesters—are children of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. We are bold to confess our sins and expect forgiveness even for ourselves, even for our racism and defensiveness. We believe every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low. We believe the glory of the Lord is in justice for all; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”
America needs a great big shot of Advent!