It is Advent. The beginning of the church calendar, four weeks, four Sundays to celebrate the coming of Jesus. It is a mystery, divine and definitely material that those four weeks of Advent match the most consumerist and stressful season in America. Many churches change the colors of their draping’s and vestments for Advent, for four weeks the colors are purple and blue, colors of promise and hope. Promise and hope amid the mad rush to buy things, to entertain; impress and compare all that we have, the gifts and love we give and get, against standards that sometimes seem impossibly high.
Advent offers a quiet place, more than the first four weeks of the church calendar, Advent is a perspective. Advent asks that we might remember in the scrum of the season that Jesus is coming. Jesus in his body, his flesh and deeds, will bring the promise of hope fulfilled and love. Advent challenges us too, to reflect. What is hope to us? When Christmas comes and Jesus is among us how will we, with Him, work to make a better church and a better world?
Jesus was born to a world that was materially rich, flush and fattened from a Roman peace that nonetheless left many out. Israel was a disappointed, anxious place, a state that might feel familiar to Americans today. The hopeful Maccabean revolt was corrupted. Originally an earnest, righteous guerilla fight against Greek conquerors that threatened more than the Jewish state but the very survival of that faith, the Maccabean revolt evolved into a corrupt and venal government. Israel then was a Roman client state.
Maccabees (a single family before it was the name of a movement) sat on the throne and ran the Temple. They had no ties to David and the royal line or Aaron and his family that GOD made keepers of the Temple. Worse, the Maccabees were corrupt. The Temple, so sacred to Jews, was effectively a treasury exploited to enrich the illegitimate priests and to pay off Roman overlords. The Maccabees even took Greek names.
Confronted with corruption and decay, many Jews turned to their faith, they sought meaning and freedom in the profession of greater belief. Three especially remarkable groups came out of that search: the Essenes; Pharisees and Sadducees. The Essenes are familiar to us today because of their library. Their well-disguised collection of holy books and other writings has been called the “Dead Sea Scrolls” since its discovery in 1946. The scrolls have been subject to intensive research and debate, then and today. The Essenes dropped out of society. They fled civilized Israel for the desert and lived a monastic-like life. Their settlement was communal; likely they demanded a vow of poverty and observation of strict rules. Isolated and radical the Essenes waited hopefully for the Apocalypse. John the Baptist was probably an Essene before leaving for his own corner of the wilderness to prophesize and anticipate the coming of Jesus.
The Pharisees were like todays rabbis. Strictly observant Jews, Pharisees did not drop out of society, they carved out a sacred niche in it. Law and scripture being, necessarily, open to interpretation the Pharisees emphasized scholarship and teaching. There were among the first people Jesus impressed, when he spoke to them as a child [Luke 2:40-50]. Their thoughtful investigation of Jewish law and emphasis on teaching had much to do with Jesus and the dissemination of His message, the Apostles called Jesus rabbi, or teacher. Pharisees, to a degree, prepared an eager and demanding audience to receive Jesus and his teachings.
The Sadducees remain a mystery. They were probably connected to the Temple and its priests; they might have been scholarly too. The only certainty about the Sadducees is that they often clashed with the Pharisees and any other group with claim to Jewish religious authority. It was an ample and anxious world Jesus was born to, still, common to nearly everyone in Israel was a powerful longing and hope. Hope for change; hope, for the Jews, that a prophet would come and lead them to a better; just world.
The stress between hope and a world that threatens to overwhelm us is a conflict we might consider during Advent. Advent is the beginning of the Church calendar. Jesus has not come; it is winter. We are aware He is coming; we are waiting, anxious and hopeful, like those original Jews in Israel; as all people in the depth of winter anticipate spring; summer and the return of the sun. There is virtue in waiting. Advent challenges us to focus on hope, the hope that Jesus will fulfill.
The church calendar, like life and most stories that we tell, has a beginning, middle and end. Like in stories, we tend to prefer the dramatic parts. Christmas is very popular, Jesus is born! He is here, He is hope fulfilled. We can, finally, bask in the intensity of his love. He offers the security of answers, answers we could not find and to questions that are hard to ask. He teaches not only with words but with works. For the Apostles and those that find Jesus in prayer or elsewhere, his presence has the power to literally remake the world, to heal. Jesus’ life is the dramatic part but Advent is where the story starts.
In America the stress of the season is apparent everywhere. Crowded malls, incessant “Christmas” music in stores, whispering like conspicuous subliminal messaging: ‘Shop! People are expecting gifts! You don’t want to seem cheap, or worse, poor.’ There are sales ads all over the place, work parties, friend and family holiday parties. Expectations are that everyone is included but the state and meaning of relationships are sometimes too little considered. Celebrations are not always gatherings of good will and healing but judgment and convention. And when we escape these things, there is still the knowledge that this is not a perfect world. Christmas is coming! Isn’t it obvious that we are still sinners, that we have not loved our neighbors as we love ourselves? Stress was there for the original Jews in Israel, waiting for a prophet in a disappointing world. And for later Christians too, especially those in the North where the Episcopal Church has roots. In the North where the ritual expectation of Jesus was linked to the very real darkness and longing of winter.
Waiting with longing and swept up in the excited; anxious rush of the season, Advent challenges us to take a step back, to stop and consider. We might reflect on what great comfort Jesus and his church is to us. What comfort Jesus, His message and example of love is to our always fragile humanity. We might ask what meaning hope has to us. What do we hope for? Can we, in our lives, make that hope real? Jesus will come, the church calendar promises that too. Like us, among us, thin and warm to the touch, Jesus will show us the profound power of love and the fragility of flesh. He will redeem us, show us that we are not limited by sin but by how fully we pursue our potential. Advent is the season to consider what that potential is and what it will be for each of us, individually and together.
Advent challenges us to prepare. When we dream of better world, what do we see? We are waiting, we are swept up in the swirl of the season but soon Jesus will come. He will help us get there; to that better world we see when we dream.
–KC Crain blogs at www.georgecrain.com