Walking in the Light of the Lord

First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 2:1-5

Psalm 122

Romans 13:11-14

Matthew 24:36-44

There is a moment before the sun rises when, even though it is still dark, you sense the coming dawn. It is so close that you can feel the new day’s sun bathing the terrain with light. It is so close that your anticipation causes you to scan the horizon for the first thread of light, but it is not here yet. So you wait. You wait for the day to arrive. This is what the experience of Advent is all about, as we can see in our lectionary readings for this week.

We might imagine what this waiting looks like – perhaps sitting on the porch or in your car – staring into the abyss of the last remnant of the night. It is true that Advent is a time of waiting and anticipation, but the images presented to us in these texts are far from motionless, as though we can do nothing but sit in the darkness, something akin to a waiting room at a doctor’s office. Instead, we find these lessons to be full of movement. The vision in Isaiah speaks of a time when Israel and the nations will travel to the mountain of the Lord (2:2-3). This is echoed in Psalm 122, a psalm of ascent sung on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In response to this movement of peoples, instruction and the word of the Lord will go forth (Isaiah 2:3). Romans 13 also draws on the theme of journeying by exhorting readers to “live [literally, walk] honorably” (13:13). This time of waiting is certainly one of expectation, but also one of motion.

In the anticipation ahead of dawn, we become keenly aware of the pervasive darkness that surrounds us, the shroud that will flee when the light finally arrives. Likewise, our Advent anticipation is set in sharp contrast with the characteristics of the world that surrounds us. The Romans text names some of this darkness, and Isaiah mentions the proliferation of swords and spears. Last week, while in Nagasaki, Pope Francis once again called for the abolition of nuclear weapons and decried their capabilities not only for physical destruction but also for cultivating distrust between different countries and peoples.

That war, violence, and animosity grip our world is no secret; we are confronted by this reality every day in the news and even in our communities. That they are tied to the vision of Advent is perhaps a bit more surprising. As the word of the Lord goes forth from Jerusalem, the people repurpose their swords and spears for creative uses within a renewed cosmos. The divisions brought about by hatred and violence are reconciled so that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4). A new reality of peace spreads over the land. As a result, Advent enables us to exercise judgment or discernment about the world around us and to see this darkness in a new way, as the penultimate reality that will soon give way.

Paul tells us “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers” (Romans 13:11). The “now” in focus here is not the result of the clock or calendar changing. Hence, day-and-hour speculation is useless (Matthew 24:36, 44). However, something has changed; the winds have shifted, and something new is emerging. The night will not last forever; the day is coming, and it is very close. In fact, the approaching day brings us closer to the fullness of our salvation.

This moves us to hope – the primary focus of Advent, especially on its first Sunday. As we liturgically anticipate the coming of the Christ child, so too we hope for the coming of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. To live into this hope, however, requires that we keep awake (Matthew 24:42). Otherwise, we will miss the approaching dawn. Even so, this wakefulness is not a static activity either.

We begin Advent journeying toward God’s city. Throughout the Christian tradition, Jerusalem has signified the eschatological destination of the pilgrim church. Here it is no different. Jerusalem, “built as a city that is firmly bound together,” underscores the role of the whole community of the people of God in this hopeful vision. Indeed, we do not walk alone. So let us eagerly await the sunrise and clothe ourselves with Christ (Romans 13:14), all the while remembering Isaiah’s encouragement to “walk in the light of the Lord!” (2:5).

Photo Credit: Go Placidly Amidst the Noise and Haste

Where is the Lord?

“Where is the Lord?” When we hear that question, it usually comes from someone who is lamenting the loss of an older practice or custom, such as prayer in public schools or businesses closing on Sundays. There is often a depth of frustration hidden beneath the question, presuming that the Lord is nowhere to be found. In other words, when this question is asked, the speaker sees things going awry. Read more

Worshiping the Ascended King

Note: This blog post concerns the lectionary passages for the Feast of the Ascension (May 30, 2019), which can be observed on the Sunday afterward (June 2, 2019).

The ascension is an oft-neglected feature of Jesus’ story. There are several possible reasons for this. First, conceptually the ascension seems to some to be an understood part of Christ’s resurrection. Along these lines, several Pauline texts are not always clear in distinguishing Christ’s resurrection from his ascension (see Ephesians 4:8-10). Second, not even all the gospels discuss the ascension. In fact, only one gospel explicitly mentions this occurrence. Finally, because the ascension occurs forty days after the resurrection, its commemoration always lands on a Thursday, leaving it prone to be forgotten between the sixth and seventh Sundays of Easter. For all of these reasons (and perhaps many more), it is good to examine the lectionary texts appointed for this occasion. Read more

Behold the Glory of God

Transfiguration Sunday
Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36

Transfiguration Sunday stands as the culmination of the season after Epiphany. We began with the light of the star that directed the magi to the child Jesus. We followed Jesus to the temple for his dedication and witnessed the early stages of his ministry, including his baptism by John. Now, the light of this season brings us to the mountain of Transfiguration.

Because of this occasion, the lectionary passages for this week play on one another, at some times subtly echoing each other and at other times directly referring to one another. For example, Moses’ face is glowing or shining when he returns from talking with God. The psalmist exhorts us to “worship at [God’s] holy mountain” (Psalm 99:9), and Paul challenges us to proceed into the world with “unveiled faces” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Moreover, the imagery in these texts is fertile, offering us the imaginative resources not only to see Christ transfigured, but to encounter God’s creation in a transfigured manner as well.

In the gospel lesson, Luke follows Matthew and Mark in describing Jesus’ meeting with Moses and Elijah, symbolizing the law and the prophets, respectively. Only Luke, however, tells us that the three of them are discussing Jesus’ “departure” (Luke 9:31). This word, which could be literally translated as “exodus”, hints at more than Jesus’ coming itinerary. Indeed, the deliverance of Israel flashes in the background and is linked to Jesus’ final destination of Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die. This is an appropriate place to be, then, on the Sunday that precedes Ash Wednesday and the start of the journey of Lent.

When we read these passages together, a comparison between Moses and Jesus comes to the surface. We are reminded that the shiny appearance of Moses’ face (and by extension, Elijah’s on the mountain of transfiguration) is a reflection of God’s full glory. By contrast, Jesus’ whole self becomes “dazzling white” (Luke 9:29), becoming the source of that glory and not its mere reflection. Moses went up the mountain to meet God, while Luke tells us that Jesus was already praying on the mountain when this theophanic event occurred. Finally, Moses descends from the mountain with commandments from God (Exodus 34:29, 32), but Jesus descends the mountain after the voice from the cloud instructs the disciples to “listen to him!” (Luke 9:35). In short, he is the commandment of God.

Without a doubt, this theophany serves to identify Jesus as God. As the psalmist states, “let the peoples tremble” (Psalm 99:1), and we see this trembling in Peter, James, and John and in the Israelites who met Moses after he came down from the mountain. Paul writes, however, that there is a crucial difference between these two encounters. For the people of Israel, with their hardened minds, the veil not only kept them from seeing the full glory reflected on Moses’ face; it also prevented them receiving the fullness of God’s message through Moses because the veil kept them from perceiving the fading of the reflected glory (2 Corinthians 3:13). According to Paul, this veil must be removed, but this is only possible by turning to the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:16). By being unveiled through Christ, we are “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

There is one more thing related to this theophanic imagery: it should not lead us to set Christ’s divinity over against his humanity. Sometimes sermons and commentaries will describe Christ’s appearance at the Transfiguration as the former breaking out of the latter, as though his humanity obscures and even eclipses the divine. At its extreme, such a claim would set Jesus’ two natures against one another and threaten to divide him into two persons, though even more modest versions of this claim can offer a rather pessimistic view of human nature.

To be sure, it is not simply a commandment that descends from the mountain, but God in Godself. Nonetheless, God is incarnated in Jesus, which also transforms how we might view all things creaturely. John of Damascus declares that “The divine light is radiating from an earthly body. The godhead . . . enables the body to share in his own brightness and his own glory” (Homily on the Transfiguration of the Lord). That is, the divine has come near in Christ and revealed true human nature as sharing in the divine presence.

Irenaeus of Lyons stated that “the glory of God is a living [human being]; and the life of [humanity] consists in beholding God” (Against Heresies, 4.20.7). What does this mean? Perhaps that the divine light of Christ’s transfiguration does not happen over against his creaturely body, but through it, prompting us to seek and recognize the ways in which the divine light permeates the created order.

Luke notes that the Transfiguration occurs eight days after the previous episode. This is different from Mark and Matthew, who echo Exodus 24’s use of “six days later.” That the Transfiguration occurs on the eighth day signals a new creation that emerges in front of Peter, James, and John. Certainly they encounter God’s presence, but they also encounter a transformed world through that same presence.

Along these lines, Paul challenges us to embrace the world through the “sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2). That is, the Spirit’s freedom helps us see how the world might be redeemed and transformed in the light of the God who is a “lover of justice” and who “established equity” (Psalm 99:4). We do not lose heart (2 Corinthians 4:1) because we trust that God will ultimately transfigure the entire cosmos.

Watching and Waiting for Peace

In our household, our children participate in the rhythms of the liturgical calendar. To help them learn about Advent, we use a simple song (to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”) in our weekly litanies. It begins: “Advent is a time to wait….” My three-year-old daughter, whenever we bring up this theme, has developed the habit of responding, “But I don’t like to wait.” She is right (about herself and all of us). Waiting is hard, which is why our journey through Advent is so important. Read more