#AdventWord 2018, Week 3

#Rejoice

Today’s #AdventWord is ‘rejoice,’ and I’m sharing a snippet of last night’s Christmas concert at Seattle First Baptist, which opened with a song of bittersweet anticipation: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”

This classic carol set the tone for the whole night, as bright jewels of the Western Christian tradition were cast against the dark backdrop of current affairs—tear gas at the borders, the words of women made lesser-than, people of color gunned down in the street with impunity. . . This sociopolitical interweaving may surprise some people, but Seattle First Baptist certainly made it sound effortless.

Their hymnal was a gentle but bold call to prayerful action; “The promise of light is you, and you, and you.” Amen.

If you hurry, you can catch their second concert today at 1 o’clock.

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete or Rose Sunday. This Sunday unites Roman Catholic and most mainline Protestant churches in song, with words from Philippians 4:4–7: “Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I will say, Rejoice.”

This photo is the carol we sang last night at Seattle First Baptist, taken from a copy of The Episcopal Church’s 1982 hymnal book. Fun fact: the inside cover notes that this copy was dedicated for use at St. Peter’s Episcopal Parish on January 19, 1986, during a visit from the Primate of Nippon Sei Ko Kai, the Anglican Church in Japan.

#Sing

Today’s #AdventWord is ‘sing,’ and I’m sharing this prayer from a memorial held in September for two orcas that had passed away in the Salish Sea. I’m remembering it now, after watching a documentary called ‘What Was Ours’ on the struggle to reclaim indigenous material cultures in Wyoming.

My sister-in-law recommended this film to me; maybe it was because it featured my church, The Episcopal Church, as an ambiguous dialogue partner in the story; maybe it’s because we’re distantly related to the Bishop of Wyoming featured in the film; or maybe it was because I once got worked up at her dinner table talking about indigenous rights. In any case, it’s a gentle whale-song of a movie, not unlike this prayer; I encourage you to watch it.

This prayer was shared at the memorial in Seattle by a mother and her daughter, who spoke of the orcas—Tahlequah and her calf—as a mother and her daughter. They spoke about these creatures as equals, and prayed for them as equals, and marched for them as equals. Theirs was a worldview that really tests the limits of the common sense that keeps our economies running; the same way that wanting to bury old artifacts stored in anthropology museums tests the limits of scientific reason, and that the necessity of self-sustaining a community through casino revenue tests the limits of moral judgement. Decolonization starts from deep within the structures of what we think is “normal.”

#Ancestor

Today’s #AdventWord is ‘ancestor,’ an admittedly tough word to feel inspired by, sixty-six hundred air miles or so from my place of origin. If this were another year, I’d have shared a story of the mustachioed strongmen of my grandfather’s village; my ancestors who, legend has it, built our family’s church in the dead of night, with our strongwomen standing guard with rifles. The drama of this scene was due to the intra-Christian tensions that my hometown likes to say we’ve grown out of since then. In any case, I don’t have any photos of my kin at hand.

So I’m thinking about more spiritual ancestry, instead. I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of ‘A People’s History of Christianity,’ by Diana Butler Bass, who makes a strong point about the cultural politics of history, today: “We inhabit a post-traditional world—a world of broken memory—in which some tell history badly, others do not know it at all, and still others use history to manipulate people to their own ends.” When it comes to the Christian faithful, she calls this condition “spiritual amnesia.”

The point she’s making probably wouldn’t have jumped out at me if I hadn’t been noticing some of the unexpected effects of this broken memory among progressives in this city, including progressive Christians. Diana talks about how this particular tribe rejects tradition as much too painful; a blocking out of cultural memory that’s almost post-traumatic. I recognize her diagnosis, but want to push my kin in Christ a bit more; I see spiritual amnesia as also symptomatic of cultural myopia.

I expect that sort of thing from conservatives, but the culture wars in this country have narrowed the terms of debate so much that progressives of all faiths & none will make statements about Christianity—or religion!—that betray an unspoken faith in Western history as the last word on human experience. But the past is never past & our ancestors are many; to treat our stories as a linear march through time—destination: this mess that you & I, in particular, are in—to either defend or denounce, is to do violence to that plurality—&, I’ll add, to the surprising universe we inhabit.

“And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” (Matthew 3:9)

#Wash

Today’s #AdventWord is ‘wash,’ another weird one, probably intended to evoke the cleansing of sins—a real fun conversation starter for your next holiday party. But I have actual washing up in mind, as we carve out time to spruce up our apartment for visitors this Christmas break.

So I remembered St. Thérèse the Little Flower, and found a modern-day icon of her doing the dishes; she holds up a plate like the Eucharist, symbolizing the sacrificial love she saw in the little deeds she could offer. In doing so, I found another quote from another saint—Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who said: “Wash the dish not because it is dirty nor because you are told to wash it, but because you love the person who will use it next.”

Then I started to feel annoyed; maybe the twee graphics I saw for sale featuring these & similar aphorisms put me off; or maybe it was the “Catholic mom” blogs that featured them—in any case, Lord help me, the dirty Marxist inside had questions: “Who gets to be loved? And who is always doing the damn loving?”

There’s nothing more humbling and convicting than asking yourself those questions. I know I certainly don’t love enough.

So I kept searching for what I remembered of St. Thérèse, and came across an odd expression: “the science of love.” There is, apparently, a minor tradition built on that notion, which she helped popularize. Indeed, the Catholic Worker & anarchist, holy Dorothy Day, claimed: “love is a science, a knowledge, and we lack it.”

I sank into that thought like a warm bath. Love, you see, is less a personal virtue than a harvest or machine; something we nurture or build up together, so that all of us can share in the holy communion of doing the dishes, cleaning the litter box, & scrubbing the floors—from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs, because, according to St. Teresa of Avila, “our Lord moves amidst the pots and pans.” Amen.

I took this photo while searching for yet another Thérèse—St. Therese Parish, on the banks of Lake Washington in Madrona. This car is well beyond the “Wash Me” phase.

#Ablaze

Today’s #AdventWord is ‘ablaze,’ & you might as well keep scrolling—I’m reflecting on the ambiguities of Christian symbology, so help me God.

We usually think of baptism as a water rite, but John the Baptist also talks about a baptism of fire. More specifically, he warns of one who will “baptize with the Spirit and with fire.”

Water, fire, spirit—Christians today are divided on the meaning & efficacy of these images, due in no small part to their very ambiguity as elements.

Now, Peter Leithart is not a theologian I often turn to, but his Theopolis Institute publishes articles & sermons that take metaphorical imagery so seriously, that even the urban witches & wizards of this city would probably approve.

In one such article, a church deacon connects the element of fire with the priestly & prophetic functions, and notes how, in scripture, fire “can be a blessing or a judgment; it can even be God himself.” The point he is actually arguing builds off of a peculiar “denominational distinctive” that makes my reference to this even more dangerous, but I’ll gingerly make my way over these coals, & go straight to his conclusion: sacramentally speaking, “the fire that defeats the wicked simultaneously exalts the righteous. The Holy Spirit…will destroy you or empower you.” Ouch.

There’s much to wince at in that statement—and yet, I’m drawn to this imagery like a moth to a flame.

If there’s one thing we won’t accept today, it’s being “judgmental.” And yet, what is the love of justice, if not a kindling of holy fire? Another contemporary heresy is to expect someone to change, or—worse!—to change you. But what is love, but a molotov against the barricade of the self?

Fire-and-brimstone types will have particular categories of people in mind when they shout out words like “judgement” & “repentance,” but I know and you know that the wicked & the righteous are simultaneously within us all 🔥💯

#Sign

Today’s #AdventWord is ‘sign,’ and one of the joys of taking part in this month-long challenge is walking around the city with senses heightened.

“The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language or to the statements uttered…Walking affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc., the trajectories it ‘speaks’” (De Certeau, 1984:90). Thus, walking with a word in mind becomes a kind of even more deliberate talking-back; not quite exegesis, but certainly interpretative. At its most rewarding, this flânerie verges on Dalí’s “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge,” where the brut “objectivity of the associations and interpretations” are allowed to deliriously speak up.

But that’s not how it usually goes; most of the time, the words we use already come to us as preconceived symbols. Take a moment and go through the litany of ideas you already associate with today’s word—stop sign, signs & wonders, sign of the cross, sign of the times, sign on the dotted line… every iteration comes with its own set of evocative imagery and potential place-markers.

More usually still, we walk the streets along predetermined paths, shaped by work patterns, bodies of water, traffic flows, social circles and city planners. Our city comes to us preconceived as well, and just like in language, our urban idiom will eventually become unthought and automatic.

That’s where I find the beauty of Christian liturgical thinking. The church calendar, the collects and hymns, the whole ritualistic rubric of celebrant call & congregant response that might seem so creepy to outsiders—all of that takes very seriously the repetitiveness of life. Sometimes this will be drudgery, just like our daily commute can be; other times, this will be generative, as would catching a new angle of a familiar block in our neighborhood.

At its most rewarding, a bright star emerges as a sign of something new, but new-found recognition of something that has always been there can be just as satisfying.

#Expect

Today’s #AdventWord is ‘expect,’ and my photos are from yesterday’s ‘Blue Christmas’ service at Immanuel Lutheran, home of ICS. Last night was the Winter Solstice—the longest night of the year—& for many people, this season is especially long & dark; Christmas just doesn’t feel how it’s “supposed” to feel, so services like this are the Church’s way of acknowledging that experience. It’s the community coming together to share in the burden of grief & depression, when rejoicing just doesn’t make much sense.

In her reflection, Rev. Priscilla spoke of the paradox of our faith as resting on our worship of a God whose “victory is different from what the world would have us think.” The messianic hope of “O Come Emmanuel” & Isaiah’s promise of comfort to God’s people—we believe that hope was fulfilled in a baby!

Our faith is in a God who chose to redeem the cosmos by first becoming dependent on his mother’s milk. That’s not the kind of God the world expects. In ‘A Generous Orthodoxy,’ Brian McLaren puts it this way: “Jesus comes not as a loud, bullying macho general but as a vulnerable baby. Jesus lives as a poor Jew without ecclesiastical or political power and models not a conquering arrogance but a filial submission, not rugged independence but courageous obedience, not angry dominance that threatens with suffering but loving faithfulness that suffers instead. If Jesus truly reveals and images God, this vision of God is vastly different from the tough macho judge and angry male potentate that many people think of when they think of God.”

As Christians, then, we’re meant to expect and live out the unexpected. The very fact that many who carry Christ’s name still act like they worship some other warrior deity speaks to just how unexpected God’s self-revelation really is. That glory was revealed at the cross & the empty tomb, but it began with a child born to migrant parents, forced to sleep in a barn.

Chaplains on the Harbor, an Episcopal ministry in Gig Harbor County, puts it more bluntly: “Baby Jesus was homeless.” If that idea speaks to you, consider supporting their work at teespring.com/chaplainsontheharbor

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