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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Advent Struggles
distributed 12/6/02 - ©2002

The folk in our parish were often mad at us during Advent. They wanted to sing Christmas carols, and we insisted that it wasn't time for that yet.

But, they said, Christmas had come to the grocery store and the shopping mall. Joy to the World and Silent Night were part of their daily soundscape. Why wouldn't their co-pastors let them sing out these favorite songs in church?

We tried to explain some basic ideas about the church year, and the different roles played by each season. Advent is a time of preparation. The celebration of Christmas begins at Christmas Eve. While most of them understood the theory, they didn't like the practice.

In the end, as our pastoral sensibilities began to temper our theological absolutism, we relented somewhat, and mixed Advent hymns with Christmas carols through much of December.

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I still like the idea of keeping Advent pure. It is a richer season when we can immerse ourselves in a few weeks of self-examination.

Of course, it is usually difficult and painful to enter into that spirit of real reflection. We're likely to discover -- or, even more likely, to remember -- things about ourselves and our world that we don't like. We'll become aware of the need for profound personal and social change.

And that's just the point about devoting Advent to such distressing preparation. The good news of Christmas isn't very profound if everything is just fine already.

The first verse John Wesley's classic Advent hymn reads:
      Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
      Born to set thy people free;
      From our fears and sins release us;
      Let us find our rest in thee.
The incarnation has a message about freedom and liberation. The birth of Christ among us is tied to release from our sins and fears.

If we dredge up the commitment and courage to take a close look at ourselves, we may be able to see those things that we'd rather deny and ignore. We may be able to see how we are enslaved by the powers and principalities of the world, by economic systems and social values. We may come face-to-face with the deep-seated fears and anxieties that keep us from living fully and joyously. We may be forced to admit to our own sin and guilt, our all-too-eager participation in corrupt and oppressive systems, and our all-too-common sins of omission as we fail to stand up for our deepest beliefs.

If we take Advent seriously, we might come to Christmas with the realization that we are finite, sinful, hurting beings who are held captive by powerful forces that are beyond our control. And that is not a nice place to be.

But then, come Christmas, one of two things could happen.

  1. We could reclaim the wonderful good news of Christmas, and discover with a vivid awareness how the saving work of God in Christ provides hope and healing for the very things that have hurt us. We could come to a fresh appreciation of the forgiving grace of God that frees us from sin, and the liberating power of God that frees us from our bondage.

  2. Or, after confronting all of those painful Advent realities about ourselves and the world, we could find that the Christmas message doesn't really help us with our hurts and fears after all.
Therein lies a great danger for the pastors and preachers of this world. If we invite our folk to delve deeply into the Advent disciplines, if we call upon them to confront the demons within and the threats out there, then we'd better have a message of hope and salvation that can handle what they find.

Do we have a gospel of forgiveness that is powerful enough to heal people who participate every day in a globalized system of exploitation? What word of grace do we have for those who knowingly buy clothes made in sweatshops, and feed their children food drenched with chemicals?

Do we have a believable word of hope for those who know that the rich diversity of life on Earth is being decimated? Do we have any genuine comfort for those who live in stark terror about climate change, the super-bacteria that resist antibiotics, or epidemics of chemically-induced cancers?

Do we have a message of liberation that can free people from their bondage to a global system which weaves economics, culture, technology and politics into a powerful web of seduction and control?

If we call upon the members of our churches to wrestle with Advent, then we have a responsibility to have a genuine proclamation that they will recognize as good news.

I'm convinced that the saving power of God in Christ is equal to that task. But I'm not so sure that the pastors and teachers and counselors of the church know how to give voice to such a radically transforming gospel. And there are not many who seem willing or able to take the revolutionary step of living the counter-cultural life that is tied to being a follower of Christ (myself included!).

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Advent and Lent are not the only seasons when people wrestle with sin, fear and bondage. Christmas and Easter are not the only times that we should proclaim the hopeful and healing promises of God.

But the issues do come to a head for us in Advent's penitential days of preparation.

May we all find the deep trust in God that will enable us to look deeply and honestly at ourselves and our world. And may God give us the faith and the discernment that will enable us to proclaim genuine a message of hope and healing.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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