Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Every year pastors embark on an often quixotic effort to guide congregations through the most countercultural of seasons. The deep hues of blue and purple that color Advent, the evocative readings that move between stark judgment and persistent hope, the hymns that resonate with the yearning, the sense of longing in our souls are all hard to sustain amid the controversy over whether stores should be open or closed on Thanksgiving, and whether there is a War on Christmas. (If there is a war, Christmas is obviously winning; the decorations are already up in Hyde Park and have been for a week.)
Well intentioned church members camouflage simple Advent symbols with profusions of greens and red bows while others lobby for more carols early in December. And year after year in raucous and charming children’s pageants a premature birth is celebrated before the Magnificat is read and Isaiah has offered a final word. Can Advent be saved?
For many pastors it’s an endless series of compromises with church school teachers tugging toward Christmas activities that seem easier for children to grasp and music directors trying to slow the momentum in order to have space for Advent texts that can’t readily be used other times of the year. Can Advent be saved? Perhaps the real question is, should Advent be saved?
Appeals to religious traditions and liturgical purity are not likely to persuade, particularly in traditions with a freer hand, liturgically. “No one can tell us what to do!” And persuading us that Christmas will mean more if we wait patiently for it works about as well as telling a teenager that sex will be better if they put it off for a few years. We’ve got to do better than that.
The best case for me is the fact that Advent, more than any other season in the church year, tells us the truth. It tells the truth about us. It tells us the truth about our world. If we’re honest, we’d have to admit that, in the words of a former Secretary of State, “the world is kind of a mess right now.” Let’s spare ourselves the litany. We know it. Too many of the busy festivities are as satisfying as cotton candy. How is it that something so appealing leaves us feeling queasy? Advent says, “Let’s be honest.” Captivity, mourning, and lonely exile are our lot in one form or another. And in our heart of hearts we know that all the forced and premature merriment is but a façade that will be stained with slush by the end of the month. Better to tell the truth.
But Advent tells us another truth, as well. This mess, while real, is not destiny. The deep blue that adorns many Advent pulpits and tables reminds us of the subtle change in the night sky as dawn is about to break and darkness begins to shade toward light. That time when troubled dreams that disrupted sleep are set aside for the promise of a new day. Lament may temper our hope, imposing its muted voice, but lament cannot extinguish hope. One lone candle is soon joined by another, and another, and another. The light grows. Hope presses upon us, answering our longing. Advent forms a stubborn hope, resilient in the face of the very real messes of our lives and our world. “Love stir within the womb of night,” we sing, “and death’s own shadows put to flight.”
Perhaps that’s what’s needed. Stubbornness. No, not now. Not yet. Not because we must. But because Advent’s more real than most of what occupies us during the hectic days. Can we be stubborn, persistent about observing Advent for no other reason than we need nothing less than an honest, stubborn hope in the midst of a world gone awry? Can we save Advent?
Of course, we don’t really save Advent. Advent saves us. It begins with the Psalmist’s prayer: “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” Be stubborn!
John H. Thomas
November 20, 2014