An Advent of Doubt and Struggle
by Debra Dean Murphy, special contributor
Advent is my kind of season.
No, not the pseudo-Advent of most Christian piety with liturgically-correct hymns and texts on the Sundays of the season and full-on Christmas hoopla all the other days, but this one: the ancient, autumnal interval of darkness and foreboding with its achy uncertainty blanketing landscapes both inner and outer. This Advent offers room for doubt and struggle. It grants permission to rest in — rather than to resolve — the tensions and paradoxes, the sometimes maddening contradictions that shape the life of discipleship.
We read the appointed texts for the Sundays of Advent and they are startling in their bleakness, their familiarity inuring us to meanings inscrutable, ominous, perilous. (Unless we subscribe to the Left Behind school of hermeneutics, in which liturgical Advent doesn’t exist and these texts are never bad news for us).
What the season reveals in its hymns, poems, texts, and traditions is that we begin the Christian year not by embarking on a straightforward path to nativity joy but by acknowledging the gaping chasm that exists, as Rowan Williams has put it, between “our deepest and holiest longing and the reality of God.”
Prophetic oracle is a fitting literary companion for traversing such a divide. While the lectionary texts for Advent are rooted in a time and place that have everything to do with their significance for our own time and place, it’s the apocalyptic form itself that provides strange comfort to those of us with less than sunny spiritualities. We are not very sure of ourselves, theologically and otherwise. Our questions often consume us, overwhelm us. More than anything, sentimental Christianity makes us want to run away from church and never come back.
But the Advent rantings of John the Baptizer and the little apocalypse of Mark’s gospel intrigue us and are part of the reason we stay. There’s something interesting going on here, something that even an accommodated church can’t quite tame, obscure, or ignore. The God spoken of in these ancient texts is saving a people and redeeming all of creation. In this work we sense, with Flannery O’Connor, that “grace must wound before it heals.”
And we also sense that the three-fold coming (adventus) of Christ — as baby refugee, as word and sacrament, as glorious Lamb of God — is more political than personal: He comes to “shake the powers in the heavens” that justice at long last might be established, that the politics of fear and the economics of scarcity might be exposed as the fraudulent scams they are. In Jesus is abundance — life and health and joy for all. For the brooding skeptics and cynics among us, indeed for all Advent people, He is the apocalyptic thief who breaks in not to rob us but to give us the goods.
Maybe a domesticated church — even one that observes pseudo-Advent — can hear this good news with new ears.
Photo by Stuart Anthony/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0.
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
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