What Are We Waiting For?: Re-Imaging Advent for Time to Come

What Are We Waiting For?: Re-Imaging Advent for Time to Come

by William H. Petersen

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Overview

• Both practical and scholarly
• Offers a new perspective on Advent, including resources

Everyone knows that Advent is about waiting, but author William H. Petersen asks, What Are We Waiting For? In this book, he argues for a liturgical renewal in the life and mission of the Church by proposing an expanded, seven-week observance of Advent, taking its cue from the shape and substance of the Revised Common
Lectionary, while noting (and critiquing) the Church’s complicity in the “Christmas culture.” Resources for a more authentic observance of Advent (other than a simple short four-week count-down to Christmas) are proposed and presented.

With a renewed emphasis on eschatological formation into the Body of Christ during an expanded season, this counter-cultural approach gets beyond the secular and commercial Christmas preparation madness. Instead, it provides the Church (and the seasonally harried Christians who make up the Church) with the opportunity to enter each new liturgical year not simply as engaging a routine cycle, but with ever deeper understandings, broader horizons, and higher expectations in furthering our life and mission as reflection and agent of the Reign of God/Kingdom of Christ.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780898690378
Publisher: Church Publishing, Incorporated
Publication date: 09/15/2017
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

William H. Petersen, PhD, DD, is Emeritus Dean & Professor of Bexley Hall Seminary and has been a priest in the Episcopal Church since 1966. He has served congregations, college chaplaincies, and seminaries in Iowa, California, Wisconsin, Ohio, and New York. In seminary and parish contexts, Dean Petersen has taught ecclesiastical and ecumenical history, liturgics, and, through the medium of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Christian spirituality. He has also represented Anglicanism on national and international ecumenical dialogues and agencies. His continuing memberships include Societas Liturgica, the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, the North American Academy of Liturgy (founder of the Advent Project Seminar), the North American Academy of Ecumenists (past President), and the Consultation on Common Texts. He is a graduate of Grinnell College (AB, 1963), the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (MDiv, 1966), and the Graduate Theological Union (PhD, 1976). Bill and his wife reside in Fairport, New York.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Expectations

What Are We Waiting For in Advent?

Advent is, as it has always been, a season of waiting, expectation, and anticipation regardless of the changes that have re-imagined the season over the centuries. Its basic anticipatory nature holds true in either of the large historical traditions of Eastern and Western Christianity. While Advent is venerated as a kind of "winter Pascha" among the Orthodox, it is not, however, regarded as the beginning of the new liturgical year. By contrast, in the Western Catholic tradition (and for all its derivative traditions once or several times removed), Advent stands as the inception of the new year. Whether it has been shorter or longer, Advent inaugurates the cycle of liturgical observance moving from Christmas and Epiphany through Lent, Holy Week, and the Great Fifty Days of Easter to Pentecost and thence from that culminating feast to the long "green season" of ordinary Sundays, coming around again at last to Advent.

For all of this historical and contemporary congruency of mood there nevertheless remains the question already broached. It has to do not with the mood, but with the message of the season: What are we waiting for? A rather terse initial response to this question has already hinted at the conclusion: We are living in expectation of the full manifestation of the Reign of God / Kingdom of Christ. As liturgy is related to life and vice versa, there is here, then, an implicit claim that we await this result in and for the human community as we also anticipate it in and through our worship. That is directly the crucial interplay in the search of our inquiry. Thus, as the focus of this chapter, the dimensions of our substantive question and its gist will be addressed through three subsidiary queries: (1) where would we look to discover the answer; (2) what about the parousia (second coming) problem; and (3) how can the substance of the season be succinctly explicated?

Finding Advent's Focus

Recently, as I was in the midst of an active retirement that still involved teaching a liturgics course for seminarians, my class had come to the topic of sanctifying time and an introduction to the liturgical year starting, of course, with Advent. At the outset of the session, I asked the seminarians to engage in a kind of thought experiment. Inviting them to suspend disbelief for a moment, I asked, "If you knew absolutely nothing about the season, where would you go to discover the focus and meaning of Advent?" Even though they were all adult learners, the instant response revealed a generation gap between instructor and students: "Google!" several shouted out amid the silent affirming nods of the rest of the class. When I had recovered some composure after laughing at my own naiveté in this age of instant information, I refined the question to "Where in an ecclesial context or a church source would you look?" After further conversation, it finally emerged that the Scriptures might provide such a source and, more particularly, the Scriptures as arranged for proclamation in worship by the readings of the church's lectionary for the Sundays of the season itself. Leaving aside the controversies of the sixteenth century about the purpose and propriety of lectionaries, these Sunday-by-Sunday organizers of Bible readings are inextricably tied to the use of a liturgical calendar as they both support and exhibit the annual cycle of the ecclesial year.

The Sunday and seasonal Scriptures, whether arranged for proclamation in public worship by the Revised Common Lectionary or the Roman Catholic Ordo Lectionem Missae, provide particular and appropriate portions of the story that inform and shape the very being and activity, the life and mission, of the Christian congregation as the eucharistic assembly. Charts of the two lectionaries with préces by the author for every reading may be found online at www.churchpublishing.org/whatarewewaitingfor.

So to this point in our query about where we might go to discover the meaning or focus of any particular Sunday or season, the lectionary stands out as the treasury to which we might have recourse in our quest. Two other factors ought here to be mentioned as foundational to how the lectionary thematically shapes and defines our worship. The first has to do with the reform that produced a three-year cycle of readings. In the Vatican II reform, a three-year lectionary was established with each year focused principally on readings from the synoptic Gospels of Matthew (Year A), Mark (Year B), and Luke (Year C), with the Gospel of John deployed as either supplemental or for particular seasonal interpretive purposes. Yet perhaps the most significant aspect of this more comprehensive provision for the proclamation of Scripture within the Eucharist was the restoration of lections from the canon of Hebrew Scripture. This development of the lectionary persistently calls to mind not only our Jewish roots as Christians, but our debt to that heritage within the People of God.

The second element of the liturgy that supports the lectionary as providing the thematic structure or focus to any particular Sunday celebration or continuing seasonal observance is to be found in the collects for the church year. These thematic prayers at once form a conclusion to the eucharistic assembly's Gathering Rite and the transition to the Liturgy of the Word. While the actual structure of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is not as clear about this pattern as it could be, the more recent Evangelical Lutheran Worship 2006 clearly sets forth this pattern for eucharistic worship, showing the "Greeting" and "Prayer of the Day" (Collect) at the transitional point from Gathering to Word. Furthermore, where the current prayer book shifted some of the ancient collects or provided new ones for the sake of a better match with the three-year lectionary, ELW 2006 provides three collects for each Sunday of the year so that the thematic prayer presages the readings of a particular year's cycle even more directly. In any case, however, the Collect/Prayer of the Day serves its traditional function as a succinct thematic gateway to the readings in the Liturgy of the Word.

So, to reiterate the point of the discussion thus far, the major lectionaries along with the collects or prayers of the day in the liturgical year directly provide the source from which the meaning or focus of a particular Sunday or season can be discerned. Here, then, the singularly pressing question of Advent — "What are we waiting for?" — comes to the fore. To determine this focus or meaning, regardless of whether an expanded season of seven weeks or the present truncated four week period is under consideration, the lectionary becomes central.

For assessing the focus and meaning of Advent, then, it will be well to begin with the Gospel readings as providing the climactic moment for the Liturgy of the Word. In the presently predominant four-week season, the Gospels set for the first Sunday in the three-year cycle announce (Year A) that the Son of Man is coming unexpectedly (Matt. 13:36–55), so (Year B) be ready for you do not know the day (Mark 13:24–37), and, to put a fine point on it (Year C), Christ is coming in power and glory (Luke 21:25–36). According to the synoptic pattern of the cycle, then, by the second week we find the focus on John the Baptist taking up his mission to prophesy that the Kingdom of Heaven is near and that its appearance will bring salvation. In the third week this eschatological focus is made even more explicit by meeting the expectation created by his proclamation with the direct statement that Jesus is the Messiah, the One who will fulfill all this. At this point, then, we are three-fourths of the way through the season without a single reference to incarnation, preparation for the Nativity, much less the taking of a spiritual pilgrimage to Bethlehem.

It is only in the last Sunday of Advent (coming only seven or, more often, fewer days before Christmas) that a transition toward incarnation, Nativity, or Bethlehem even begins to appear. The Gospel readings for that day focus in the cycle's order on: Joseph's espousal to Mary, the Annunciation, and the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. In the RCL these pre- Nativity readings are supported in that focus for two of the three years by substituting a Lukan canticle, the Song of Mary (Magnificat) for the Psalm. Keeping in mind that Mary is the archetypical symbol of the church as bearer of and witness to the Word of God, the Magnificat stands out in this liturgical setting as emphasizing and summarizing the implications during prior weeks of qualities associated with the salvation or vision of human flourishing inherent in the Reign of God / Kingdom of Christ.

With that supporting note from the Magnificat, we may turn to the other lections of these four weeks to ascertain whether and to what degree they support the Gospel readings, defining in their singularly eschatological character the focus and meaning of the Advent season. A close reading of the préces composed for these online OLM and RCL lections clearly shows that they do so, whether taken from early Christian writings or the Hebrew prophets. The themes for these weeks prior to the end of Advent revolve around two poles. First, from the prophets comes proclamation of God's impending judgment in the world, coming as a cleansing agent from an heir to David's kingdom and resulting in a new day for God's creation, whether the vision is of the desert blooming or the Lord's glory revealed in the peaceable kingdom realized on God's holy mountain. Second, from the Epistles comes also a call to "Rejoice!" as the day of God's judgment is identified with the disclosure of Jesus Christ in the world as the "root of Jesse" and, therefore, David's heir. Coupled with this emphasis is the petition, especially in Paul, that we (hearers both then and now) may be found blameless in this "day of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Given the witness of the lectionary, then, there can be little doubt that the focus and meaning of the Advent season is principally and profoundly discovered in an emphasis on the culmination of what God has achieved "for us and for our salvation" (Nicene Creed) in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. From that point, in terms of the Gospel, the outcome is clear: the Reign of God / Kingdom of Christ is not only established, but it will overcome the depredations of the world. The eucharistic liturgy is not only a reminder of and witness to this for Christians, it is an anticipation in hope of its ultimate manifestation to all. Hence, as the antiphon/refrain for the hymn version of the canticle Dignus es succinctly states of every Eucharist: "This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia." But the canticle itself is even more evocative of the eschatological Advent focus at the beginning of the liturgical year:

Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain,
Blessing, honor, glory and might be to God and the Lamb forever. Amen. [Antiphon]

For the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign.
Yet even given all this, there remains a question about whether an annual four- week Advent season is adequate to the task of providing the eschatological formation clearly envisioned by the thematic Sunday lectionary in that period. It is no secret that cultural forces and influences starting well before these few weeks impinge upon the time. There are also patterns and influences within the church that can lead all-too-often to ecclesial complicity with that now global "Christmas Culture." Consideration of these matters will be the focus of Chapter 2. For the present, suffice it to take notice of the fact and to suggest stepping back from the four weeks to take a larger perspective upon what the lectionary offers as a focus and emphasis for the three weeks prior to the short version of Advent.

During the long green season of "ordinary" time after the Feast of Pentecost, the Gospel readings in the three-year cycle tend to lead us around the Galilean countryside where, like his original hearers, we are invited to ponder Jesus's parables of the Reign of God / Kingdom of Christ. These considerations often follow upon or introduce evidential signs of healing and reconciliation characteristic of that Reign / Kingdom. There is, however, a distinct, not to say, sharp, change in the atmosphere provided by the lectionary after November 1.

From the first Sunday after the Feast of All Saints, the lectionary begins dramatically to dwell not on likenesses of the Reign of God / Kingdom of Christ, but precisely on its powerful proximity. In these November weeks, the Gospel readings speak of a time of sorting out, of judgment, of Christ's appearing and sovereignty. Such themes are adumbrated or supported by the other readings. The prophets provide us with alerts that God will "shake heaven and earth"; will raise up an heir to the line of David; and justice will abound. Pauline writings — aided and abetted by passages from Hebrews and Revelation — speak directly and urgently over these three weeks of the coming of Christ (and what to do in preparation for "the Day"); reminding the community that we have been transferred into Christ's kingdom; and, as a sign of hope for the whole world, proclaiming Christ's reign over all things, disclosing him as the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end of a redeemed humanity in a renewed creation.

It may be understatement in the face of such a barrage to say that this is scarcely business as usual. It is, to use a major theme of the Advent season, a wake-up call with maximum and persistent volume. In other words, the new "Day" is upon us, replete with the eschatological themes that will continue to characterize the season all the way until the final week of the Advent season. Here, then, is a prima facie case for seeing the entire seven-week period as an expanded Advent season. What might be the shape and feel of such a season is, as noticed previously, the focus of Chapter 3. Meanwhile, this discussion of "what are we waiting for?" in Advent, short or long, is intended to raise the suspicion that the season may need to be re-imagined. Directly addressing the need for such a re-imagination is the burden of Chapter 2.

For the present, it may be claimed that the longer rather than the shorter season provides over time a better formational opportunity. With its overarching and consistent lectionary focus on the Reign of God / Kingdom of Christ comes the possibility during an expanded Advent of a more conscious and conscientious entry into an eschatological mode of ecclesial life and mission. Precisely because it involves a shaping and sharpening of attitude and exercise — faith and work in that order — it may prove more effective than the well-intentioned, but often ineffective resolutions that people tend to make at the start of a new year.

In all this, as always, much will depend on how the season is observed and celebrated. For both people and presider, this will require much of our worship: attention in an Advent mode to prayer and preaching, to song and ceremony, from gathering to going out. But in everything there will be necessity to attend to the proclamation of God's story in such a way as to incorporate worshipers to the point that it becomes their story. To reiterate, then, the point of an expanded Advent is simple: to make the season we observe congruent with the lectionary we already have.

The Problem of the Parousia

Thus far the argument for undertaking an expanded Advent has focused on the lectionary that shapes this season of anticipation and expectation by asking "What are we waiting for?" The answer has consistently been "the Reign of God / Kingdom of Christ." Yet it might be objected that a preliminary question to What? is Who are we waiting for? And this question will refer us directly to what the New Testament calls the parousia ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) — the appearance of Christ in glory, to put it briefly. This, of course, was a highly pertinent question for the early Christian community founded upon their witness to Jesus's resurrection and the fact that he was with them now in a manner different from their previous experience.

In general terms of classical usage parousia carried the meaning of "presence" and, derivatively, of "appearance" as the first stage of a person's coming or advent. More technically, parousia developed into an official term for the visit of a person of high rank, especially of kings and emperors visiting a province. Religiously, the term came to be expressive of the epiphany, appearance, or presence of a deity. By the time of the Roman Empire the political and religious meanings were conflated as the divinity of the emperor was explicitly proclaimed. Though parousia is used in the New Testament along the entire range of its meanings, from everyday to technical, it not difficult to understand why in the vast majority of instances it refers to the appearance or manifestation to all of Christ in glory. This anticipated fulfillment of the implications of the resurrection stands as direct challenge to Roman imperial politico-religious claims.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "What Are We Waiting For?"
by .
Copyright © 2017 William H. Petersen.
Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments,
Preface Advent over Seventy-Five Years: A Personal Reflection,
Introduction,
CHAPTER 1 Expectations What Are We Waiting for in Advent?,
CHAPTER 2 Problems Why Do We Need to Re-Imagine Advent?,
CHAPTER 3 Solutions What Would Be the Shape and Feel of Such an Advent?,
CHAPTER 4 Resources How Can We Observe an Expanded Advent?,
CHAPTER 5 Concerns How Can Practical and Pastoral Questions Be Met?,
Bibliography,

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