Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is not for the faint of heart. As the midnight of the Christian year, the season of Advent is rife with dark, gritty realities. In this book, with her trademark wit and wisdom, Rutledge explores Advent as a time of rich paradoxes, a season celebrating at once Christ’s incarnation and his second coming, and she masterfully unfolds the ethical and future-oriented significance of Advent for the church.
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About the Author
Fleming Rutledge is an Episcopal priest, a best-selling author, and an acclaimed preacher. Her book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ won Christianity Today's 2017 Book of the Year Award.
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A Five-Part Advent Series for the Christian Century
Not long before the onset of the cancer that finally killed him, King Hussein of Jordan undertook a small mission. He paid a personal visit to the families of some Israelis who had been killed in an Arab terrorist bombing. There was no talk of money or reparations; instead, the king quietly sat with the mourners, and by his calm demeanor, unhurried manner, and undivided attention was able to convey a sense of solidarity with them across the Arab-Israeli divide. The reaction of the relatives was out of all proportion to the simplicity of the gesture. By all accounts, they were deeply moved by Hussein's expressions of personal involvement in their loss. Their grief had been acknowledged. More memorably still, it had been acknowledged and shared by a king.
The star of Diana, Princess of Wales, has faded a bit in the year since the first anniversary of the funeral that was watched by two billion people. Though it is improper and unprofessional to venture an actual diagnosis, it does seem that she was emotionally troubled in some way. As we have learned more about her obsessions and failings, many have felt a little embarrassed about their initial reaction to her death. Among media people, there has been a lot of second-guessing about excessive coverage. Still, in all the hundreds of hours of television and the thousands of words written, I never heard anyone specifically identify the factor that I believe accounts for much of the extraordinary public outpouring. The various talking heads spoke of her beauty, accessibility, modernity, vulnerability, compassion, and common touch — all correct so far as they went — but no one precisely identified the combination that made Diana exceptional.
Many famous people have engaged in charitable activities. Show-business figures such as Danny Kaye and Audrey Hepburn have made an impression with their commitment to various humanitarian causes. Other personages have elicited near-fanatical devotion because of their beauty, talent, personal chemistry, or skill in creating a media image — Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Jacqueline Onassis. Eva Peron comes to mind, another glamorous blonde who died young and was adored by the common people. None of these, however, were able to combine in one person what was given Diana to do. In the Princess of Wales, majesty stooped. That was the key to her power. President Clinton, even in his heyday as empathizer in chief, could not convey what Diana could, because a president is not royalty. The symbolism of Diana was this: she was seen as one who was willing to lay aside her princely prerogatives to come alongside those who are downtrodden.
It may seem to be trivializing Hussein, a man of great accomplishments, to mention him alongside the unformed and often frivolous Diana; indeed, the two are not really comparable. I bring them together here simply to show that in spite of our democratic instincts, the royal archetype is undimmed in the collective unconscious. It is no denigration of Hussein to observe that Diana, because she bore the aura of the British monarchy along with her own, was uniquely able to put her ur-princess image together with a readiness to come alongside those who have no status in the world. Many who saw the video of her Angolan visit would agree that Diana's ability to communicate her concern for the wretched of the earth took the breath away. I read the testimony of an American physician who had accompanied her on hospital rounds where there were no cameras. He said she did not hesitate to caress and linger beside patients with disfigurements and symptoms that were distressing even to medical personnel. That capacity, the doctor emphasized, cannot be faked. When it is offered generously and unstintingly by a beautiful young woman who is the living embodiment of everyone's image of a fairy princess, the impact is astonishing.
Much of the grief for the princess was neurotic, like human behavior in general. I am making a different point, having to do with the power of symbols. Diana was certainly an instinctive media genius, as the first Queen Elizabeth might very well have been had she lived in our century. Elizabeth I was a great monarch in part because the people knew that she loved them, and her processions through the countryside were specifically designed to allow them to love her in return. In her limited way Diana also knew how to use her immense candlepower for the good of ordinary people. This is the right use of royalty.
These thoughts are meant to suggest that the feast day of Christ the King presents us with an extraordinary opportunity. We were speaking of archetypes; something greater than archetypes is here. We were speaking of the strength of symbolism; something stronger than symbolism is here. If it is true that there is unique power in the combination of royalty and stooping, then there has never been anything comparable to the errand of the Son of God.
In Jesus Christ we see the One "who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be clutched at, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave" (Phil. 2:6–7). The problem with much of our Christology nowadays, it seems to me, is that we have concentrated so much on the stooping that we have lost sight of the royalty. More than half of the biblical message is thereby eliminated, for it is the combination that counts. Thus we read in Exodus 3, "Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, 'I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.'"
The God who is so terrifying that we must hide our faces from his resplendence is the same God who has come down to deliver his people in their extremity. That is the secret. The Son who "sits upon his glorious throne with all the nations gathered before him" (Matt. 25:31–32) is the same One who, at the very apex of his cosmic power, reveals that the universe turns upon a cup of water given to the littlest ones in his name. An outpouring of the love of our hearts toward this King will therefore transcend the merely neurotic. Acts of mercy toward his little ones are vindicated already in the court of heaven, because they are taken up into the divine life of the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us.
Blaise Pascal evokes a sense of existential dread in his famous line: "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me." Three hundred years later, W. H. Auden wrote in a similar vein in the Advent section of his long, dramatic poem For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. He pictures the human being forsaken in a blank, fathomless universe:
We are afraid Of pain but more afraid of silence; for no nightmare Of hostile objects could be as terrible as this Void.
The wrath of God is a principal theme of the pre-Advent and Advent seasons in the church. There is no more challenging task in theology than interpreting it for today. Pascal and Auden both interpret it as silence — Deus absconditus. C. S. Lewis wrote, after his wife's death, "Where is God? When you are happy ... and turn to him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms. But go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain, and what do you find? A door slamming in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence."
The wrath of God can be viewed as silence from a quite different perspective. I have a newspaper clipping in my file, dating back to the apartheid era in South Africa, reporting that Desmond Tutu, then bishop of Johannesburg, had just returned from one of his trips abroad where he openly sought support for the fight against the racial policies of his country. At an airport news conference in Johannesburg, he declared that he was not at all worried about his passport being confiscated yet again. Having one's passport taken away is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian, he said. Even being killed is not the worst thing. "For me, one of the worst things would be if I woke up one day and said to people, 'I think apartheid is not so bad.' For me, this would be worse than death." This is surely a clue to understanding the wrath of God. A god who remained silent in the face of atrocities would not be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It has been given to Bishop Tutu more than almost anyone else in our time to be the human voice and face of the God who has not remained silent.
Other governments, other voices have chosen silence. The Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification, for example, was given an insufficient mandate; it was hamstrung by the military into continuing the same policies of cover-up and denial at the highest levels that gave the Guatemalan civil war its sinister character in the first place. Likewise in Argentina and Chile, blanket amnesties permitted state-sponsored killers to pursue lives of comfort. General Pinochet was allowed to slip away to England to enjoy teas with Baroness Thatcher. Voices have been heard, however, from the underground. The Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo have not been silenced. The families of the Chilean "disappeared" are voiceless no longer. A retired Argentine captain confessed to dropping as many as two thousand political prisoners from airplanes. Argentine president Menem, clearly afraid of more revelations, has urged former military executioners and torturers to confess in private to priests, calling on the country not to look back, to "move forward." It will not do. Bishop Tutu has shown the world that the only way forward is the way through. With all its faults and limitations, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was able to demonstrate that although they were determined to seek reconciliation and move into the future, justice had not been abrogated. As Bishop Tutu said to the victims, "Something seriously evil happened to you, and the nation believes you." Thus the wrath of God against injustice has broken the terrible silence.
The lectionary designers lost their nerve when they appointed Psalm 85 for Advent II. They omitted its vital center, verses 3–7:
Thou hast taken away all thy wrath:
A failure of imagination was at work in this excision. Jettisoning the references to God's wrath deprives us of the good news that his wrath has been turned away. The lovely verse 10 has naturally been retained ("Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other"), but the prior omissions have robbed us of an opportunity to understand that righteousness and peace cannot kiss until "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against ... those who by their wickedness suppress the truth" (Rom. 1:18). Ask Bishop Tutu.
The premier personage of Advent is John the Baptist. When he appears on the banks of the Jordan, the cover-ups come to their appointed end. Two thousand years before all the Watergates, Irangates, and other sordid "-gates," John came proclaiming God's imminent judgment on the venality of governments, the corruption of police departments, the greed of financiers, the selfishness of the rich, the self-righteousness of the religious establishment. In the end, he became one of los desaparecidos himself, executed without a trial in the dank dungeon of the local strongman, thus becoming truly the precursor of the One whose way he prepared, the One whose death at the hands of the political and religious ruling classes signified the final judgment of God on all the powers and principalities.
There are cover-ups of all sorts. There are families that will not acknowledge the alcoholism that is destroying them. There are people who are making their loved ones miserable but will not go to a therapist. There are secretaries who cover up for bosses, business partners who cover up for each other, colonels for generals, bishops for clergy, parents for children. Advent is the season of the uncovering: "Bear fruit that befits repentance. ... Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees"! This is the right time to root out the cover-ups in our own lives, as we wait with bated breath for the lights to come on and the announcement of the angel that God is not against us but for us.
"The Two Faces of Advent"
Who among us would tolerate John the Baptist for even a few minutes? I understand that there is a medallion called "Laughing Jesus" being handed around. We will wait a long time, I suspect, for an image of "Laughing John the Baptist." John is the principal personage of Advent, with two whole Sundays focused on his preaching, but for some years now I have been offering a yet-unclaimed reward to anyone who can find him on an Advent calendar. There is nothing in his message to correspond to the well-loved "Peace on earth." John is not wishing us good will; he is calling down judgment upon our heads.
In the late '60s, the Catholic Interracial Council of the Twin Cities produced some remarkable — quite shocking, actually — Christmas cards. In 1968 the outside of the card was red-orange, with the words of the Benedictus (Luke 1:78): "From on high our God will bring the rising Sun ..." Then you opened the card to find a stark black-and-white photograph of a small African American child caught by a ray of sunlight as he sits listlessly in the shadows of a slum courtyard. Along with the photo is the rest of the verse: "to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death" (v. 79). The contrast between the outside and the inside caused heads to snap back. My husband and I still think it is the best Christmas card we ever received. The next year (remember, this is 1969) the card had some words of John the Baptist ( John 1:26) on the front, in red: "There is One among you ..." Opening the card, one sees another black-and-white photograph, this time of a young Vietnamese girl with the blank, stunned expression we recognize from so many pictures of children in wartime, and the rest of the verse: "... whom you do not recognize." Propaganda? Dubious Christology? Politically heavy-handed? Maybe. But even the relatively benign Baptizer of the Fourth Gospel lends himself easily to messages of startling currency. This year, the child would be a Kosovar Albanian, or East Timorese — or, yet again, an American child sitting in the shadows of poverty.
Advent has two faces. One of its faces is apparent in the first lines of Advent hymns: "Hark, a thrilling voice is sounding!" "Sleepers, wake! a voice astounds us!" "Rejoice, rejoice, believers, and let your lights appear!" This is the Advent mood of rapturous expectation as the time of fulfillment moves toward us. The other face is that of John the messianic herald who stands on the frontier as the ages collide, destined to bear the impact. This face of Advent is that of the apocalyptic woes, the tribulation that overtakes all who stand their ground in the place of greatest pressure as the age to come pushes against "the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away" (I Cor. 2:6). Thus John flings his accusation against the religious leaders: "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" This is almost always read aloud with the emphasis in the wrong place; it should not be on "you," because that enables us to distance ourselves from the "you," as though we ourselves were not being addressed. Rather, the emphasis should be evenly divided between "flee" and "wrath to come," so as to indicate the gravity of the coming judgment upon the godly and ungodly alike. John himself stood under this sentence of wrath. He did not flinch from his vocation, even though the strange mission of this Messiah was hidden from him. We think, based on what we know from Matthew 11:2–3, that John was expecting the Avenger. He did not yet know the secret, that the Vindicator would take the place of those who stood under judgment and in the shadow of death. It was not shown to John in this life; nevertheless, he held the piece of ground that had been prepared for him and now appears together with Mary the mother of God at the side of the exalted Christ. Combined in John is the paradox of Advent: the coming triumph of God is made manifest precisely in the darkness of this present evil age (Gal. 1:4).
As we make our choices about what to emphasize in Advent, we might reflect on our cultural situation. A rising chorus of voices identifies irony as the prevailing posture in our post-Seinfeldian times. For instance, Andrew Delbanco writes that the prediction of Jonathan Edwards has come true, that it is no longer clear that anyone is to be blamed or condemned for anything. This in itself is ironic, because even as we rejoice to subvert bourgeois values, we have somehow managed to enshrine them at the same time. A culture that can exhibit sliced cows in formaldehyde (never mind Madonnas decorated with dung) on the one hand, and sentimental illustrators like Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish on the other, in major museums at the same time with no sense of absurdity, can hardly boast of its refined sense of irony. Given the choice between sentimentality and irony ... well, let's go back to John the Baptist. Christianity is under attack from every quarter — not least from within its own ranks as we become more and more indistinguishable from everybody else — but the commanding voices of the prophets and apostles are still capable of lifting us out of the culture wars onto a plane that not even the most cynical Jesus-basher can successfully besiege. As secular critic Northrop Frye wrote appreciatively in The Great Code, "The simplicity of the Bible is the simplicity of majesty."
Advent has two aspects. The Advent critique of sentimentality is manifest in the season's refusal to let Christmas come too soon. Flannery O'Connor defined sentimentality as skipping lightly over the Fall into "an early arrival at a mock state of innocence." Those who station themselves in the Advent watchtower (Hab. 2:1) will be vigilant against that too-early arrival. As for irony, there is one thing that will speak to it, and that is personal witness at great cost. Bishop Carlos Belo of East Timor is an Advent witness, and, perhaps even more so, so is Bishop Basilio do Nascimento, who never left the country even at the height of the reign of terror. These are Christians who in one sense have already "come through the great tribulation" (Rev. 7:14).
As for nonsentimental, transironic Christmas cards, the Interracial Council turned away from its own best product in the mid-'70s and started offering cards with smiling, beautiful white and black people celebrating peace and joy. As far as I know, the Christmas cards of the Interracial Council dropped out of sight after they made that disappointing change. Advent, however, remains, with its paradoxical combination of waiting and hastening (II Pet. 3:12), suffering and joy, judgment and deliverance, apocalyptic woe and eschatological hope. It is the combination that counts. This is the way Christians live now, for "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never mastered it" (John 1:5 REB).(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Advent"
Copyright © 2018 Fleming Rutledge.
Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
A Five-Part Advent Series for the Christian Century 37
Suffering and Hope: An Advent Series for Grace Church, New York City, 1987 50
Expectation and Hope: Advent in the Writings of Karl Barth; A Three-Part Reflection for Grace Church in New York City, Advent 1986 57
"Something Evil This Way Comes" 62
Waiting and Hastening the Kingdom Yet to Come (Pre-Advent)
Waiting and Hastening 75
The End of the Ice Age 82
Whispers in Darkness 88
What's in Those Lamps? 95
The Hope of Heaven 101
The Voice of the Son of Man 107
The Universal Grip of the Enemy (Pre-Advent)
When God Is Silent 115
The Enemy Outvoted 122
The Call to Resistance 128
Righteous Deeds Like Filthy Rags 134
The Line Runs through Each Person 139
Justice and the Final Judgment (Pre-Advent)
The Consuming Fire 159
Save Us in the Time of Trial, and Deliver Us from the Evil One 165
Loving the Dreadful Day of Judgment 172
The Great BUT 178
Good Works and Words: Signs of the End 185
God's Apocalyptic War (The Feast of Saint Michael)
Silver and Gold on the Last Day 193
The Army of Saint Michael 200
God's Apocalyptic War 208
What Is Your Battle Station? 217
The Coming of the Lord (Last Sunday of the Church Year: The Feast of Christ the King)
King of Kings and Lord of Lords 225
We Will Be There 231
When the Man Comes Around 237
Who Are Those Wailing People? 243
Advent Begins in the Dark (Advent I)
Advent Begins in the Dark 251
The God Who Hides Himself 256
The Doorkeeper 263
The Advent Life for Nonheroic People 268
The Armor of Light (Advent II)
On Location with John the Baptist 275
Advent at Ground Zero 281
God's Cut-and-Fill Operation 287
The Axe at the Root of the Trees 293
The Armor of Light 299
Bearing Witness on the Brink (Advent III)
Advent on the Brink of War 307
The Bottom of the Night 314
Grace in a Violent World 322
A Better Bet 328
Beyond the Valley of Ashes 337
Waiting for the Dayspring 343
The Glory of Lebanon 349
The Sign of Immanu-el 354
King of the Last Things (Advent IV)
God on the Move 365
In the Bleak Midwinter 370
Somewhere beyond Mindless Fluffland 376
The Magical Reversal 383
A Service of Lessons and Carols for Advent
The Great "O" Antiphons of Advent 393
Index of Biblical Passages 403