ADVENT – WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR?
a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, December 4, 2016
Last Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent, which for Western liturgical Christians generally occupies the period from the fourth Sunday before Christmas through Christmas Eve. In such traditions, it is a canonical season for which a specific color of draperies and vestments is used. Depending on the specific branch of Christianity, the Advent color is violet, purple or blue. Whenever churches change their colors, it’s kind of a big deal. It requires an investment of time and money that says, “This is important! Pay attention!” But I grew up in a fundamentalist family. So I never heard of Advent until I was 21 years old.
My wife, my three daughters and I moved from our rural county to a university town where we started attending a Community Church whose minister, the Rev. John Vavroch, was ordained in the Lutheran tradition. Lutherans pay attention to the liturgical seasons. Rev. Vavroch was an elegant, charismatic, intellectual, gentle man with a shock of stark white hair. Where he led, the congregation gladly followed. I didn’t know a soul that was not impressed and influenced by this holy Christian man. That remained our church until my wife got it in our divorce about five years later, which was long enough to become familiar with Advent. Between the customs of Charleston Community Church led by Rev. Vavroch and a close friendship with a German member of that congregation, I became familiar with the Advent wreath, Advent calendars, and the idea of the first Sunday of Advent being the beginning of the Christian year.
On the first Sunday of Advent each year, Rev. Vavroch would lead the congregation in lighting the first candle of the Advent wreath and the church choir, in which I sang, would lead the congregation in singing Advent hymns: “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending,” “O, Come, O, Come, Emmanuel,” “Saviour of the Nations Come,” “Gabriel’s Message” – not Christmas carols but hymns that looked forward with longing to something yet to happen. There were no moments of bombast even though Luwayne Arnold usually rocked the organ till the rafters shook. Advent was a quiet season of decoration and preparation in advance of the celebration that was coming. The Advent calendar taught us it was a countdown or, alternatively, a build up to the arrival of Christ on Christmas. One way or the other, it was a time of waiting. A time when gratification was delayed. Waiting. Waiting.
We were only at Charleston Community Church for a few years before I grew away from Christian beliefs – especially as that church taught them. So when the final breach came and my wife got the church in the divorce, and the people took a side because they found out I was gay, it was the sense of community and tradition that I missed.
A year later I was on exchange in Frankfurt, Germany. Most of the people I knew there were only culturally Christian, paying their church tax year after year, mostly without complaint, but being strongly agnostic or mildly atheistic or “spiritual but not religious” in matters of belief and devotion. I didn’t know a single person in the year I was there who attended church for anything other than christenings, concerts, and an occasional wedding. I attended choral and organ concerts in the churches of the city during Advent. But the greater cultural life of the city was in the concert halls, at the theatre, in the department stores, in the Weinstuben, in galleries, and in the Christmas market that filled the historic Platz, or plaza, in front of city hall. In Germany, for me Advent went from a time of liturgical waiting to a time gingerbread cookies (Nürnberger Lebkuchen) and mulled wine (Glühwein). In Germany, Advent was about Gemütlichkeit, the warm fuzzy comfortable feeling that doesn’t translate into English. It was a cultural way in northern climes of dealing with shorter daylight each day leading up to the winter solstice.
And then I went on to experiences in other countries – Romania and Japan – where a communist regime or a non-Western culture presented different ways of shaping the year that did not depend on this liturgical cycle. Advent faded from my consciousness until I found myself in a leadership role in my home UU congregation in Mt. Vernon, Illinois.
We were a small congregation of atheists and neo-Pagans mixed in with liberal Christians and lapsed Christians and Jews married to lapsed Christians and experimenting Buddhists and practitioners of yoga. And we had to figure out what we could do seasonally that would be friendly to people who missed the Christianity they were raised with and people who were supremely grateful to finally have Christianity at a distance at least in this one part of their life. How can you do both? Especially when we didn’t have an experienced leader who had spent time sorting out how the pieces can fit back together meaningfully after the urn shatters and the ash has scattered. A member with secular, Quaker, and Lutheran background missed the liturgical season of Advent. She wasn’t comfortable with the virgin-birth part of the Christmas story, and so her Christmas was totally secular. But Advent she could do.
Everywhere I looked, the Advent readings were just too too for my congregation. So I worked on creating readings that drew from more sources. There are four candles on the Advent wreath. There are four cardinal directions. Members with an earth-centered spirituality were familiar with calling the quarters, greeting the spirits of the cardinal directions. Each of the four Advent candles is traditionally associated with a specific quality or virtue: Hope, Love, Joy and Peace. So I created a reading for each Sunday of Advent which addressed the spirit of a cardinal direction, centered on the candle’s symbolic meaning, included select bible verses associated with Advent, reacted to the waning light preceding the winter solstice and the following promise of light’s return, and ended with a blessing, a metta, if you will, for all present. The UU fellowship in Mt. Vernon. Illinois, still use this set of readings for the Advent wreath each year. Perhaps you would call it syncretic. But it offered multiple ways in to a set of symbols that many otherwise felt excluded from. I am grateful to my home congregation for the opportunity to craft something that was more broadly inclusive than they first thought possible at this time of year.
This year I want to find that inclusive spark within the older tradition, the tradition before Advent became a shopping season, before it became simply a gateway to the more festive time. Advent within a tradition that only briefly was mine and that for more than 30 years has not been mine. What does liturgical waiting in a religion I no longer identify with have to say that is meaningful to my Jewish-influenced Unitarian Universalist life? What does it have to do with you and the shape of your kind of Unitarian Universalist life? What messages translate to the larger world without adding in bits from other traditions? What are we waiting for?
Yes, the starting point to the answer is that those who are waiting are waiting to celebrate or commemorate or otherwise recognize the birth of one who would become a first-century rabbi and anti-imperial activist whose teaching so impressed a small group of followers that, after he was executed as an enemy of the state, they would develop a set of practices and identities centered on their experience of him. Waiting for Christmas. That is the simplest understanding of Advent. And given early Christianity’s adaptation of preexisting holidays, the placement of Christmas so near the winter solstice allowed some great metaphor to shine into the story. The person waiting to celebrate a spiritual Christmas is, at the same time, awaiting the return of the light of the sun, the dawning of new light in the world. The gospel tellings of the nativity story intertwine unexpected happenings in the natural world with the purpose understood in the life being narrated. Advent awaits the birth of a child who will increase understanding and justice.
This is a later addition to the meaning of Advent. The Latin adventus, from which the English word “advent” comes, is the translation of the Greek word parousia, commonly used in early and Eastern Christianity to refer to the Second Coming of Christ, not to the nativity. And the origin of the word “advent” anticipates the coming of Christ from three different ways: the birth of the baby in Bethlehem, the coming of God into each human heart, and the establishment of perfect justice and peace at the end of history. And here is the way that this period of pre-Christmas penance and fasting or at least self-reflection and preparation can be meaningful to Unitarian Universalists who don’t take the Gospel as gospel, so to speak. For those of us for whom the Second Coming of Christ or the herald angels singing or the star shining on the spot the magi seek is not meaningful or for whom the idea of God entering the individual human heart seems frivolous, this is the meaning of Advent that is true to the liturgical season’s origins. The story of Jesus, liberally rather than literally understood, is the story of an ancient leader promoting justice in a time of an expanding empire imposing its will on subject peoples. The belief that God enters the human heart, liberally understood, is a trust that the human heart can, against all odds, prepare itself to do the work of justice. And the teaching of the Second Coming of Christ is a teaching of a goal, an ideal, a hope to strive for of a messianic age, a time when what has gone wrong in human society will be set right, a time when empires will lose their crushing power and justice will grow and flourish.
So here we have a true nugget of Advent, not altered to fit our pattern of disbelief or different belief, but preserved and interpreted to speak to the world now. We are not at all times ready, prepared to birth justice. We are not at every turn equipped to fight the crushing power of empire. The ideal, the age when perfection is ushered in can lose its power to motivate just action when the heart is unprepared.
But we live in a world that urgently needs us to prepare. So we have Advent.
We live in a world where the empire that has crushed Native Americans for hundreds of years continues to do so at Standing Rock and on poverty-stricken reservations. The world needs us to do the soul work so that we are prepared to act as allies for justice.
We live in a world where African Americans have been kept down through systemic patterns and practices that prevent the growth of justice and equity that would allow equal flourishing, where that systemic oppression that benefits others poisons the well from which we would draw justice. We need to prepare to dismantle unjust advantage and unjust oppression.
Sexism, misogyny, heterosexism, homophobia, and so many more destructive attitudes and behaviors are waiting for us to bend the arc of justice earthward.
And so we have Advent. A time of preparation. A time for the soul to get ready to act to dismantle the injustice inherent in the power of empires. This is not an addition to what the season means. It is its essence across time.
Amen and Blessed Be.
© 2016 by Rev. Paul Oakley