Advent

(Un)Carnation—Finding the Divine in the Man, Jesus

By J.C. Mitchell

I am participating in the UncoSynchro blog, a writing collaborative effort from ‪#‎Unco14‬‬‬, focusing on subversive themes of faith and life. The theme for December is (Un)Carnation.

I have claimed to have a low Christology ever since seminary.  What that means has changed at times, but any good theology should not be carved in stone, and even when it is just ask Moses, it can be shattered.  When I say low Christology, I am referring to the importance of Jesus’ humanity, yet our scriptures are all written after Jesus walked the earth.  So we depend on scholars and especially those of the Jesus Seminar to shed light for us. Now there are some who think the Pauline writings are the most important to knowing the man Jesus because they were written the closest to his life, and others who dismiss Paul altogether because he did not know him.  There are those that see Jesus as a peace loving forgiving leader, and those that think he was a zealous revolutionist.  


Thus it is actually easier to for people to agree on Jesus the Christ as God, pre-existing, and still sitting at the right hand of the Father.  You can refer to the Nicene Creed as a great early example of Christians making a statement together about the divinity of Christ, and yes, that includes his humanity, but there does not seem to be an attempt of to create a concise statement of consensus about the man, Jesus of Nazareth.  We have generally moved to acknowledge he did not have blue eyes and a northern European complexion (but honestly I did meet those who still held onto that image when I served in ministry in rural America).  


So while there are great differences in Christianity, almost all Christians can still agree with the Nicene Creed, even if they define some of the terms differently or have a different understanding of its statements, for it deals with Jesus as part of the trinity, part of God: it deals with Jesus as God.  So why then do we celebrate the incarnation, as if it is the most important part of our year?  There are many reasons why in the 21st century we celebrate Christmas as the largest holiday, and as most of my readers will know, the popularity of Christmas can be traced to secular need of a celebration this time of year that could be nominally associated with one’s religion, as these people were themselves only nominally associated with the church.  This escalated in the 19th century with a poem, The Visit from Saint Nicolas, and a book, A Christmas Carol; snowballed with merchants to the holidays we have now.  I am not cynical, for I love Christmas, the secular extension of Thanksgiving to New Year’s, while also wary of the capitalists’ take on this celebration in the dark, awaiting the light (but we are offered lights to buy).  


However, Christmas has become something so huge and I am aware the celebration is not really of the incarnation, but rather the birth of a Divine King.  This is truly why the birth narratives were included, so that one would not follow the Gnostics who could not understand, believe, and/or accept that Jesus was a person.  The incarnation: Jesus the man, the son, the carpenter, the preacher, the healer, the man that walked in Nazareth to Jerusalem, is what I ponder when I hear him called Emmanuel, God with us.  Advent and Christmas have let me down in such exploration.  During Ordinary Time we explore the ministry of Jesus, but when we look at the feast that celebrates the Incarnation, it is about a baby king, which was bowed to by shepherds and magi, to demonstrate his divinity.   Even those who understand the meaning of Advent will be exploring the return of the Christ, not the incarnation.


To explore the Incarnation, to explore the answer to WWJD, to explore Jesus of Nazareth the man, will not result in an easy creed Christians can agree.  However, what I have observed when one does explore the humanity of Jesus, they must depend on anthropology as well as other disciplines.  The anthropological exploration of theology helps remove the human violence and fear of death from the Divinely Inspired message of love and life.  When we search for the historical Jesus, we depend on anthropological methods to set the scene, and thus it becomes clear what is cultural and of human origin in scriptures, and what is written that has been influenced by the Divine.  This is an essential part of our theology, for when the scriptures are read with the 21st century mindset, we project our own culture upon the scriptures.  Written in such a different time, in very different languages, they were also written in styles we struggle to understand.  However, when we search for Jesus the man, we must grapple with the huge cultural differences that are reflected in the scriptures and see the greater truth, what I would term “God.”


So even if we cannot unearth 8mm film of Jesus or his own memoirs, we must search for this man who is also divine, and in doing so create awareness that humanity has interwoven its fear and violence, with God’s call of love and life, into religion, including Christianity.  So while I will celebrate Christmas in all its forms, I will continue to search for the man Jesus to help me to see the Divine in the world.  



Letting go of the soapbox

It all started last week when I was coming out of the supermarket parking lot, onto a street with road construction.  The light turned yellow and another oncoming car was approaching. My first instinct was to gun it and make my left turn.  My second instinct was to slow down and allow the other car through, well, because it’s Christmas.

Actually, it’s Advent. But that’s not the point I’m getting at right now.

We often feel a little more charitable this time of year.  We will give out our spare change, hold the door for others, etc. all in the spirit of the season.  For those of us in clergy/leadership positions, we will speak about hope, peace, joy and love. We will ask our congregants to model this in their daily lives.

But we also will use these seasons to preach out.  We will speak out about commercialization, consumerism, the “real” meaning of Christmas, and the inclusion of other holidays.  We will speak out for the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the marginalized, the homeless.

All of these are good things, but they can quickly turn into soapboxes, and often soapboxes=negative campaigning.

After coming through the election season we just faced, I realized I have had it up to here with negativity.  I feel it not only in the emotions of anger, bitterness and frustration, but I feel it in my very bones and muscles. Negativity has worn me out.

I’m tired of standing on the soapbox preaching against things.  Instead, as I approach the halfway point in Advent, I’d like to turn to encouragement, trust, hope, love, peace and joy—all those things that are traditionally part of the Advent season, all those things we often preach but don’t even practice in our preaching.  Perhaps we get a little too John the Baptist from the pulpit at this time of year instead of being more like Mary and Elizabeth.  Not to create a masculine/feminine dichotomy, but rather, singing and praising the wonders of God rather than calling those who aren’t like me “You brood of vipers” is a little more appealing, and a little more enjoyable (although I do love me some good John the Baptist moments) after this last election cycle.

So as we continue to prepare for Christmas, maybe this year, let’s rant less about consumerism and say more about how to celebrate the coming of Christ into our lives in a new way that doesn’t require consumption.  Let’s find ways of encouraging and building up one another rather than ranting soapbox-style about everything we perceive as Not From Christ.

This isn’t to say there isn’t a time and place to get angry. Our Savior didn’t turn the tables over for nothing. John the Baptist had a good reason to get angry.  But we’ve had four years of anger and bitterness in this last election cycle, and the anger and bitterness is still spilling over into the political discourse right now over the fiscal cliff.  Maybe it’s just time to try a different approach, at least for a while, to take a breather.  For we remember the same Jesus who before the cross said “Woe unto thee,” and after the cross said, “Peace be with you.”  There is a time and season for righteous anger.  There is also a time and season for encouragement and joy in what God has done and is doing.  Maybe it’s time to let go of our soapboxes, at least for a while, and give in to hope, peace, joy and love.

Hope comes in small packages

By Rev. Mindi

Sorry for that terribly cliche title. But bear with me.

I’m in that weird post-election pre-Advent what-do-I-write-about phase. You know, the calm before the storm for pastors, because the next month will be ca-razy!

As a pastor, I’m constantly challenged by outside the church of what I need to preach about, because outside seems to be where so many are.  Outside the church is the real world of political struggle, conflict over debt, taxes and support to the poor; outside is where the difficult questions about ethnicity and religion are happening over in Gaza and Israel; outside is where the “nones” are and we need to reach them and we need to abandon this old way of doing church so we can get out there and be with the “real” people.  Outside is where the homeless and poor are. Outside, outside, outside. The church is stuck inside and is cold and boring and dying.

*Yet this week I heard the story of a 70-something woman who is finding new life after almost dying. After being unable to walk she is starting to learn a new musical instrument. I know another who is reclaiming a passion for art that they had in their teens but lost in their adult years.  Another is struggling with a child who has AIDS, another has a grandson they have never seen.  Another’s brother is in rehab and another’s child is pregnant and not seventeen.  I know grandparents raising children and grandparents going back to school for another degree.  I know of elderly volunteers at elementary schools and young environmental activists reorganizing the church’s recycling. 

For all the criticisms of the church that we might have, for all the “new” and emergent churches that are making a difference, our old churches can still make a difference, too, and may be doing it under our noses.  There are days I throw my hands up in the air in ministry and think, “These people will never change, they’ll never grow out of their habits and they never want to do something new.”  And then I peer under the surface and find they are reaching out in new ways, but also living into hope in new ways.  They are miracles in and of themselves.  And they love their church.  And sometimes they just don’t know what to do, and they know the way they have always done things isn’t the best way, but they are trying their darndest.

So sometimes I think those of us, and I am including myself, who get all critical and huffy about the church being stuck in the past, need to take a moment to pause before the craziness of the world and be thankful for the problems we have, for the people we are with, because these are the real people in our lives.  We may see the conflict in Israel and Gaza and wonder how in the world we can make a difference.  I have friends involved in petitions and protests and peace conferences and interfaith dialogues—they are doing good work.  But the grandparents who keep an eye on the neighborhood kids in our small city streets—they are doing the work of peacemaking as well. 

For those of us in our small churches, let us be thankful for what we have, let us work with what we have, and let us see those miracles, those stories of living hope, and do what we can to tackle the small problems in our lives.  Who knows?  Maybe we can reach out to some of those “nones” by our everyday ministry and stories of hope. 

This Sunday I’ll be dusting off the Advent wreath and getting ready to participate in the traditions that this church has held for a long time, some of which the meaning has been lost.  But there is hope here, hope in the living stories of the people who still gather here, and the meaning of these traditions becomes apparent when I remember that: this is a community of faith, and the ritual of tradition at times stirs in them hope that even when they are gone, things will continue on, and that they won’t be forgotten.

We have plenty of poor people, people on Social Security and food stamps within our congregations.  We have plenty of reasons to speak out for social change and to act for greater change in the world around us.  And yes, we do need to step out of our comfort zones and we need to go out into the world.  But that doesn’t mean we are dead on the inside.  No, for those who have grown up in the church, put their faith in their community, there is life here, too.  And we need to honor and recognize and celebrate that life. 

So as I prepare for Advent as a pastor, to preach a familiar message once again, I am reminded that even in the familiar, I can find challenges and struggles, despair and conflict—and hope, hope, hope.  Hope that is alive in the lives of people going through chemo, recovering after a fall, searching for a new job, dreaming of college.  Hope of those with a family member in rehab, hope for those struggling with health care.  If there is one thing that Advent does, year after year, candle after candle, it is remind us that Hope is always, always possible, in the darkest of times. And maybe there is no greater place to find hope lived out than in the faithful in a small, aging church, as they light the candles year after year.

*obviously I have changed these stories, the details and ages because these are real people I know, but you may know these stories in your lives.

Here and Now: NPR Inspired Thoughts on Advent

This post, written by Alex Shea Will, was originally posted on congremerging.wordpress.com. There’s a program on NPR, broadcast out of Boston’s NPR affiliate WBUR, that I really love called “Here and Now.” Hosted by the wonderful Robin Young, the website describes the show as:

Here! Now! In the moment! Paddling in the middle of a fast moving stream of news and information.

Every year, after Thanksgiving and before Christmas, I always feel like I’m in the middle of that fast moving stream. (Except I’m pretty sure I lost the paddle and I’m just hoping I don’t crash into the shore.) No matter how many years I spend on earth, I’m consistently taken aback but the sudden change of current and intensity in the stream. Before I have time to prepare, I’m travelling way faster than I prepared for, thrown all over the canoe, and soaked to the bone. Between Black Friday and the hype of holiday shopping, if you’re not careful, that stream will throw you right out of your canoe.

Although, I can’ t blame this all on some “sinful,” rampant consumerism; these are truly stressful times of the year. Whether it’s the craze of shopping, the stress of travel, or even the time lost anticipating the magic of the season, it can be really hard to practice being here and now. Some might even say, after the conditions I described, who would want to be here and now anyway?

I wouldn’t.

I think that’s where the gift of Advent comes in.

For a season that is most memorable for it’s emphasis on “waiting,” whose very name comes from the Latin word meaning “coming,” it’s hard to see how Advent can help us find the here and now in this stream.

It takes a bit of work.

See, Advent may be about “waiting” and what is to come, but it’s also about beginning. The first Sunday in Advent marks the beginning of the liturgical year. It marks that moment when we begin the story anew. A story that without the proper welcoming of beginning feels as fresh as a tired, old song. Before we can wait, we must begin, and in order to begin we have to be, here and now.

This isn’t just a catch phrase about living in a physical point in time. Imagine me pointing to myself, imagine you pointing to yourself, because I’m talking about beinghere, inside of ourselves. While we are most notably waiting for the birth of the Christ child, Advent also reminds us of our waiting for ultimate reconciliation, the day when all the odds will be made even.

Take a deep breath. (Seriously). Exhale. (Thank you). Be here. Now. Four weeks of being here and now. Today is the beginning of what could be, what will be. What are you called to do as we wait? How are you called to usher in the coming reconciliation? We only find out when we welcome Advent with our full being, here and now.

The Way of Peace -- A Lectionary Meditation

This second Sunday of Advent is known to many as Peace Sunday. Peace is, of course, difficult to come by. The world is certainly not at peace, and if truth be told the same can be said of our communities and even families. Peace is in the minds of many a utopian dream that will never see fruition. The realist in me recognizes that peace is not something that can be easily attained and that perhaps there will be interim measures to keep order, if not peace, in the land. But that’s the realist in me, but that realism must be tempered by God’s vision of peace. It is a vision that is clearly espoused in Isaiah 11. But even if a direct appeal to peace is not as clearly present in the Romans and Matthew passages, what all three share is a vision of the Way of the Lord, which according to Matthew, John the Baptist has been called to prepare for.

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A Candle of Hope -- A Lectionary Meditation

We begin the Advent journey by lighting a candle of hope, and hope is in the biblical scheme of things more than wishful thinking. The hope that the season of Advent holds out to us as we light this first candle is rooted in the promises of the God who is ever faithful. It is rooted in the covenant relationship that exists between God and humanity. Therefore, we can gather and sing with a sense of purpose the final stanza of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”: O come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace. Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!” (Chalice Hymnal, 119). And so as we begin the journey we do so in the company of Isaiah, Paul, and Matthew’s Jesus. Each of these texts for the first Sunday of Advent speak to the hope that is present in us, and reminds us that we should continue to stay awake and live according to the promises of God.

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