The Third Sunday of Advent
“They’re lining up the prisoners and the guards are taking aim.”
A confession: I do not know how to write about these Advent texts as if the events of the last month (and the many months prior) were politics as usual in the United States of America. You know—a couple of slick, scripted candidates square off, make promises they won’t keep; one emerges the victor, half the nation sighs and shrugs, and then we all get back to the business of our busy lives. Good God, no.
In fact, I think the events of the last month and what they portend for the future put into sharp relief the piercing critique that the texts of Advent bring to bear on the politics of fear and intimidation, on authoritarian rule and its contempt for truth, on stunningly ill-prepared leaders and their fragile egos.
The prophets of Israel saw both the farce and pressing danger of corrupt imperial power. And they were relentless in their attempts to rouse an anaesthetized populace who, as Walter Brueggemann notes, had “for so long lived in a protective, fake world that their perceptual field was skewed and with their best looking they could not see what was there to see.”
In the appointed texts for this weekend, we are summoned to better vision, urged to see clearly what is really going on and to imagine God’s good future of justice and well-being for all of creation—people, plants, everything.
Isaiah’s vision of fecundity and abundance is a powerful bearer of ecological health. In the first few verses of chapter 35 we see not a postcard-worthy romantic idyll but a reclaiming of the goodness of creation after the ruinous effects of monarchical power and colonial rule. The psalm-like, lyrical beauty of these lines follows Yahweh’s blistering judgment in chapter 34 of unchecked power and those who collude with it. Imagining the world whole—creation renewed—is not wishful thinking but a form of resistance and the casting of a counter vision to the infuriating script of “this is how things are.”
Followers of Jesus are in the business of counter-visioning and we will need to ramp up, recommit to, or enact for the first time forms of resistance if, as promised, protected federal lands are opened up for fossil fuel extraction, the Keystone XL Pipeline project is reinstated, the Paris climate agreement “ripped up,” the victory at Standing Rock overturned. If, as promised, persons are placed in positions of authority and influence who say they are offended by climate science, who believe global warming is a myth, we will have to be hyper-vigilant and steadfast in our opposition. Love—not antagonism for its own sake—will require this of us.
For we will do these things not out of partisan loyalty but because we believe we are called to participate in God’s work of redemption and restoration, because to be a creature is to make common cause with other creatures, because matter matters, and because of our kinship with all that is.
Plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer has coined the evocative phrase “the grammar of animacy” to say that the whole created order pulses with life, that unseen energies animate “a world of being.” She calls this a kind of reverse linguistic imperialism, a granting of subjectivity to “pines and nuthatches and mushrooms”—to everything. The prophet Isaiah assumes this wisdom when he says: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” (Is 35:1-2)
This kind of personification is not a crude anthropomorphizing of the non-human world but a recognition—as all the sciences from plant biology to quantum physics affirm—that everything is connected. It is also deeply political, for, as Kimmerer asks,
“What would it be like to be raised on gratitude, to speak to the natural world as a member of the democracy of species, to raise a pledge of interdependence? No declarations of political loyalty are required, just a response to a repeated question: ‘Can we agree to be grateful for all that is given?’ . . . . What happens to nationalism, to political boundaries, when allegiance lies with winds and waters that know no boundaries, that cannot be bought or sold”?
The Advent texts this week also speak of the return to health for the blind, the deaf, the lame, the mute, the leper (Is 35:5-6 and Mt 11:5); of justice for the oppressed, food for the hungry, freedom for prisoners; hope for the beaten down, protection for strangers, widows, and orphans (Ps 146:7-9); and of new life for the dead and good news for the poor (Mt 11:5).
Hebrew scholars remind us that vv. 9-10 in the Isaiah passage (“The redeemed shall walk there and the ransomed of the Lord shall return”) refer not to spiritual redemption but to the overthrow of concrete economic realities. To redeem a person is to buy her back from indebtedness or slavery. Likewise the healing of physical disabilities in Isaiah and Matthew is not spiritual or metaphorical. Healing in the New Testament has close associations with “salvation”—to be saved is to be restored to bodily health and returned to community.
And yet when we hear these texts read aloud on the third Sunday of Advent—this Advent, this liturgical season of sober preparation that sits alongside this political season of bitter division and fear—we might be tempted to despair. I confess that I am. Where is this longed-for health for the most vulnerable among us? the promised hope? where are justice, new life, and good news to be found? What concrete economic, social, and political realities conspire against such flourishing and how will we resist their proliferation, and their catastrophic consequences, in the weeks and months ahead?
We might, as Leonard Cohen did in the music he gave us just before he died, both complain against God and lament human cruelty:
If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame
But Cohen’s mourning, by echoing the words of the Kaddish—the Jewish prayer for the dead—is infused with praise:
Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
This is the paradox of biblical faith—a questioning that finds no easy answers but, like the earth to which we are kin, breaks into song. This is the “lullaby for suffering” that holds beauty and brokenness together. This is Torah. This is Gospel.
And when Cohen intones the Hebrew word Heneni (“here I am”), he not only prays Kaddish for himself but he invites us to offer ourselves for the healing of the world. Which might mean simply the mending of a broken relationship. How am I, after all, to be restored to my neighbor who will be jubilant on January 20?
We observe Advent in the growing darkness—the darkness that increases until the winter solstice and the darkness we create for ourselves and others. But maybe, this third week of Advent when we light, impossibly, it seems, the pink candle of joy, we can try to sing with gladness and try to practice the hardest text we’ll hear as we gather with others to pray—the words of St. James who says “See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient.”