Tuesday, November 30, 2010

they shall beat their swords into plowshares

Or, happy Advent, everyone.

I wrote this in December '07, while I was living in Camden, trying blindly to figure out what I was doing and who I was. It was kind of a hard year. Camden's isolating, even if you have a community around you. I was working as a grant writer at the time, which didn't pay much, and I was freaking out about applying to (and paying for) grad school. And it was a couple months after my friend Ben died, which...well, it threw a lot of us off, to say the least.

Advent is about anticipation, about waiting. It's what I like about the liturgical year: it gives us time to celebrate, wait, mourn, repent. Sometimes it demands things of us (mourn now, think about your failings now) but--in contrast to how I felt growing up evangelical--it doesn't manipulate emotion. Rather, it provides space for it. And I like that.

In any case, I was looking this over and I thought, well, I don't live in Camden anymore, but it still makes a good Advent reflection.

I never believed in Santa Claus as a kid. My parents didn't tell me he wasn't real; they just never mentioned him, always emphasizing the birth of Christ rather than the appearance of presents under the tree. Besides, we didn't have a fireplace in Long Island, and who ever heard of a Santa who came in through the door? One year, when I was in first grade, I told my mom that I was going to believe in Santa. She said okay, sure. It lasted about a week.

I was, however, a firm believer in Narnia. When we would go to friends' houses, I would look in every closet and touch the back wall, just to make sure. When I got back from Oxford [after my junior year of college], my dad looked at me and said, "Did you go looking in closets for Narnia?" I kind of rolled my eyes and then said yes...I did. I still believe in Narnia.

When I think of Narnia during Christmas time, I think mainly of a long-term Advent. A hundred years, in their case, waiting for Aslan. For us, here and now, this season reminds me of the fact that we are in a perpetual Advent, waiting for Christ. Waiting for justice, and peace, and love...It is especially apparent here in Camden, where the devastation of poverty and violence has taken over. Camden's new heaven and new earth will be a long time coming. In my community, Andrea calls what we try to do "practicing resurrection,"* taking things that are dead and raising them to life. A greenhouse in the middle of one of the most polluted areas in the city, where 60% of children have asthma from the poor air quality. Gardens and composting where trash litters the streets. Arts and theatre where beauty seems to have been drained out of life. My boss has a little card on her desk that says, "We will plant olive trees where before there were thorns." In Camden, the waiting for Christ's birth is more than opening the slots on the Advent calendar (though we do that, too). It is waiting for newness. The upside down kingdom, if you will--I always think of Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation."

Narnia had its hundred-year winter melt away with the coming of Aslan (and Father Christmas as well; can't forget him. Always winter and never Christmas, gone forever). And we wait, as they say at Mass, "in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ."


*stolen from the initimable Wendell Berry's Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front

(Also, apologies to my non-Christian friends reading this. I realize the furor around Christmas can be a bit much.)


  1. Actually, as a Christmas post, I thought this was rather nice. (Especially since I went to church with my in-laws last Sunday, and was treated to an overlong sermon about the importance of the death on the cross, and the resurrection... which the pastor prefaced by admitting that it was far more appropriate to Good Friday or Easter. I'm sure I wasn't the only one in the audience thinking, "Dude, then why are you doing this?")

    And I'm much more comfortable hearing the Meaning of Christmas from people who actively work to bring about the Kingdom, than I am from those who just, y'know, wait for it.

    So, yeah. Not a Christian; still enjoyed the post.

  2. Thanks, Michael. I agree with you on that sermon--while, in a sense, Christ's death and resurrection are the end to which Advent looks, it's not exactly the most appropriate type of sermon. That's what the liturgical year is *for*, dammit.

    Plus I can't stand overlong sermons. I've become used to the ten-minute homily, which works well in either case--if the priest sucks at homiletics, then you don't have to listen for long. If he's good, well, just more incentive to come back again. The 45-minute sermon that I used to sit through as a teen is just overkill. And half the time it's because the preacher likes to hear the sound of his own voice (ok, maybe that's unfair, but I get grumpy about these sorts of things).

    I tend to think that all people who work for good are working to bring about the Kingdom, but that's just my perspective. Just waiting for it goes against every bone in my body.

  3. Except, advent is about awaiting the second coming through meditation on the first. It's really not about the death and resurrection at all. It's about what comes after and how it's prefigured in what came before. The inherent inversion in the image of the King of Kings, born in a manger pointing to the unique shape of the heavenly kingdom. They will beat their swords into plowshares, study war no more, etc. To focus exclusively on the death and resurrection misses the entire struggle of what Christianity is about at the time of Advent. We wait, hope, and act in a post-resurrection world that is nevertheless still in the grip of sin and death. We don't get to console ourselves with "Well, eventually Jesus is born, dies for our sins, and conquers death" because that's not the end of the story. We are living the end of the story, trying to figure out what it means to follow a resurrected Christ who has yet to return in glory.

    Incidentally, and on the subject of waiting, that was basically the substance of the sermon at our church this past Sunday: it is important to meditate at this time and reflect, but we must ask ourselves what is the shape of the kingdom of God and what are we doing to live it out? It came complete with a dig at the richest nation in the world being unwilling to provide health-care for its poorest citizens. (Our church is majorly involved in homeless ministry in downtown Austin, but they are not a hospital or an insurance company, before anyone asks what the church is doing to care for our poorest citizens.)

  4. @Rebecca: That's very true--I don't think I really meant "the end" as in the complete end when I wrote that. Advent does prefigure the second coming, which is why we don't end with "Christ is risen;" we end with "Christ will come again." The culture I grew up in focused so heavily on Christ's death and what it meant for us (pray this prayer, get saved!) that it often missed everything else. I'm still trying to get away from that.

    Working with people who are homeless is hard, especially when you realize that you can't do things like provide health care and a good job and income, and that sometimes all you can do is provide a warm bed and a meal. So kudos to your church. That's what we should be doing. The upside-down kingdom is a slow-growing thing.

  5. @ Rebecca - you're in Austin? I'm in Dallas. Kudos to your church; helping the homeless has plenty of built-in difficulties, and the Powers That Be seem intent on adding more difficulties as often as they can.

  6. Also... Sarah, can I talk you into taking a position as a minister with the Disciples down here in Texas? If I have to go to these things, I'd far prefer to have you writing the sermons. {g} (Actually, my attendance is a lot more voluntary than that makes it sound.)

  7. @Michael: *blush* I'll take that as a compliment. But I don't think the Disciples would have me, mostly 'cause I'm, y'know, Catholic. If I wrote sermons, there would probably be many references to dead writers. Lots of Eliot, Flannery O'Connor, Gerard Manley Hopkins. And Bob Dylan and Seamus Heaney, but they're still alive.

    My aunt lives in Dallas (well, in Coppell, but close enough), and I've been down there in the dead of summer. I'd rather freeze up here in the winter than be down there in the summer. No offense if you like the heat, of course. I'm just a Northeasterner to the core.

  8. I was going to suggest that you write a book - "Sermons For The Literate", maybe - but then it occurred to me that Himself would never use such a thing. Pity, really. On the plus side, I went to my parents' (Episcopalian) church yesterday, and the sermon there was vastly more engaging. So there's hope even in waiting, I suppose.

  9. Ah, the Episcopalians. My parents go to an Episcopal church now; I kinda wonder if I would have left Protestantism if I'd grown up in that church.

    You just paraphrased part of my favorite Eliot poem: "there is yet faith/but the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting."