“What is more harmful than any vice? Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak—Christianity.” That’s a quote from Nietzsche’s The Antichrist. Nietzsche understood what—& how—Christianity valued, and he vehemently rejected it for that very reason. To his eyes, Christianity is worthless because it values the unworthy.
Interestingly enough, Nietzsche didn’t really attack the person of Jesus the Christ; he called Jesus the “only one true Christian.” But he certainly got the Christ he opposed all wrong, & without the doctrine of the Incarnation—without the Advent story—that’s easy to do. With no appreciation of that mysterious move from the infinite to the finite, & the bottomless well of love that this move signifies, Nietzsche was under the thumb of some other god:
“The Christian assumption that we recognize God most clearly in this figure of someone tortured to death goes completely against our fixation on power & domination. Christ appears in the Gospels as the man for others, he has nothing but his love: no weapons, no magical tricks, no privileges…For those who mocked him, God was identical with power & rule. But the only capital with which he came into the world was his love, and it was as powerless and as powerful as love is.” (Dorothee Sölle).
That’s exactly what Nietzsche found so depraved about Christianity. He couldn’t imagine a God that does more than perform love, but rather, *is* love in God’s very being: “All other deliverance is based on a mere shift from a bad state to a good state, to another place, to another time, which does not change us in the process. Such hope for power, for the intervention of an omnipotent superiority & unassailability, has always deceived people. God is not the extension of our false wishes, nor the projection of our imperialism” (Sölle).
When we misunderstand Christmas, we misunderstand God, & we misunderstand ourselves. Christmas is God’s reassertion of God’s created order: that we are God’s beloved image-bearers in a world of infinite worth—and we have a job to do.
I had a strange sense of déjà vu as I started thinking about today’s word. Free associations started forming, one after the other—radix, root cause, radical change—but it was like I’d been here before. I even checked to see if “root” was an Advent Word last year, which it wasn’t, though I could have sworn that I’d rehearsed these lines before. That’s the shadow side of ritual. Our stories get a little too patterned, our vocabulary too familiar, & if we’re not careful, our sense of the world & our place in it ends up a little too safe.
Next Sunday, I’ll be speaking at Epiphany Seattle as part of a formation session called Advent Voices, based on the Advent Word for that day. I won’t say more about Sunday’s word now, but through this exercise, I’m wondering: what if the universe, at its very root, was fundamentally serendipitous? What if God was all about surprise? Would our theologies collapse & our grasp of the cosmos fall into chaos? Or would we learn to be more open to being continuously refined & redefined by that anarchic love that makes sense of an existence given as gift?
I received two separate pieces of news from Lebanon today that reinforce this idea for me. One involved a group of young ideologues building an app for all the wrong reasons, now calling it quits, & the other was of a child rights project I helped start, now coming to fruition over a year after leaving my former employer. Both these stories have weaved themselves through mine for several years, & the details aren’t important; I just know that the seeds we plant are unpredictable, & only love takes root.
Associative structures are already forming in my head with sentences like “love is the seed,” “love is the soil,” “love is the root,” etc. But as Christians, we’re in danger of getting too comfortable with our words. We need to keep returning to the sources, to learn how these parts all fit together, as though for the very first time—we might even be surprised by just how little we actually knew.
Because even when things go as we’d hoped, that anything goes anywhere—that anything works at all—should astound us.
“Nature is always already graced…Faith is not alien to reason [because] reason doesn’t belong to a separate natural realm, and faith doesn’t belong to a separate realm of grace…Just as grace is the perfection of nature, faith is the perfection of reason, [hence] theology is the perfection of philosophy…[They are] different intensities, if you like, of a single spectrum, a single sphere, a single order of knowledge, a single order of existence.(Simon Oliver)
And so, all of a sudden, you’re faced with a vision of the salvific grace of God, not arriving as something extrinsic, or unexpected, or unanticipated within the created order, but arriving as the very fulfillment, the consummation, of that created order. And so theology—not arriving as something alien to philosophy, but theology arriving as the consummation of philosophy…Always interlinked, never collapsed into each other, just as grace isn’t collapsed into the order of nature—the distinction does not betoken a division between them. They’re not separate realms; this isn’t a dualism.
Creation is a sacramental order, a symbolic order, that is to be read, that participates continually in the Divine, and therefore, is luminous with the light of its Creator.”
“Father, I have so many sins, I’ve made so many mistakes in my life.”
“Let yourself be consoled.”
“But who will console me?”
“Where must I go?”
“To ask pardon. Go. Go. Be bold. Open the door. He’ll caress you.”
That’s a quote from Pope Francis, imagining a conversation between penitent & priest on the subject of confession. He adds: “The powerful God who created the heavens & earth, the hero-God—if you want to say it that way—became our brother, who carried the cross & died for us, & is capable of caressing us and saying, ‘Don’t cry.'”
Raised a Maronite Catholic, I confess that this is one of those cases where I cannot separate the art from the artist. The confessional is far too bound up in the worst parts of organized religion in my mind that I struggle to look past the medium to read the message—a beautiful message, yes, one that can only be experienced to be appreciated. I’ve been there. I’ve felt that caress. I just didn’t need a priest involved.
That’s one reason why I like the Episcopal Church so much. They have priests, but every Sunday, the whole church becomes a confession box:
“Let us confess our sins against God & our neighbor.”
So we kneel.
Imagine that. I don’t kneel much in everyday life.
Then we say: “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, & deed, by what we have done, & by what we have left undone.”
No ifs, buts, or “well actually”—no details or specifics, because no matter what our hearts are confessing in silence, we know that these words are true for all:
“We have not loved you with our whole heart.”
“We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”
There’s something incredibly leveling about that. The priest offers absolution, but that part isn’t as important to me as pushing back against a world-system designed to sell us the feeling of invulnerability. Many of us fall for that, so imagine ourselves to be the only ones falling apart.
Spoken confession consoles us; silent confession trains us to live outside of our own self-images. In a bulletproof world, even something that simple can saves lives.
“There is conflict—God be blessed.”
“A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed—what gospel is that?”
“Everyone who struggles for justice, everyone who makes just claims in unjust surroundings is working for God’s reign, even though not a Christian. The church does not comprise all of God’s reign; God’s reign goes beyond the church’s boundaries. The church values everything that is in tune with its struggle to set up God’s reign. A church that tries only to keep itself pure and uncontaminated would not be a church of God’s service to people. The authentic church is one that does not mind conversing with prostitutes and publicans and sinners, as Christ did—and with Marxists and those of various political movements—in order to bring them salvation’s true message.”
“Advent should admonish us to discover in each brother or sister that we greet, in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ…This is what Advent is: Christ living among us.”
I’ve been fascinated by “living water” for many years. In college, as I was embarking on the long, dry season of militant atheism that would mark a good part of my adult life, I made a short film based on the concept with closeups of water, glass, & soluble ink. So I looked up the term today: living water, in Hebrew: מַֽיִם־חַיִּ֖ים, mayim-ḥayyîm; in Greek: ὕδωρ ζῶν, hydōr zōn.
It’s interesting to read biblical commentaries on passages that feature it; the Prophet Zachariah spoke about living water flowing out of Jerusalem, & most Christian readers have historically associated it with the Holy Spirit or the spread of the Gospel itself. A Jewish commentary I found online doesn’t even translate it that way—living water is just spring water, & the prophesy is about hydrology. Duh.
But the “symbolical” interpretation of this water of life isn’t completely unfounded. Jesus seems to be doing it himself with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:10). One commentary puts their moment of polysemy this way: “The phrase, living water, frequently signifying…only springing water, or running water, in opposition to that which stagnates—the woman mistook his meaning and replied, Thou hast nothing to draw with.”
I like the idea of Jesus doing wordplay; I like the idea of holding both meanings together, even more:
“Why did He not simply say to this woman, ‘If thou knewest who I am?’ Why did He use this periphrasis of my text, ‘Who it is that saith unto thee, “Give Me to drink”‘? Why but because He wanted to fix her attention on the startling contradiction between His appearance and His claims—on the one hand asserting divine prerogative, on the other forcing into prominence human weakness & necessity…Some of you will remember the great scene in Shakespeare where the weakness of Caesar is urged as a reason for rejecting his imperial authority…But we listen to our Caesar & Emperor, when He asks this woman for water, & when He says on the Cross, ‘I thirst,’ & we feel that these are not the least of His titles to be crowned with many crowns…Unless He had said the one of these two things, He never could have said the other…Unless the dry lips had petitioned, ‘Give Me to drink,’ the gracious lips could never have said, ‘I will give thee living water.’”(Alexander MacLaren)
With so many of my friends in the United Kingdom shocked and dismayed over their recent elections, I want to dedicate today’s Advent Word to this beautiful piece by Josie Sparrow, contributing editor at the UK’s New Socialist. You’ll find Josie’s full article in the link in my bio, where I’ll leave it for the rest of the season, in honor of the gathering of comrades everywhere and year-round:
“‘Christmas,’ I’ve heard it said more than once, ‘is Tory.’ This made me sad. It’s true, I think, that all collective liberatory politics involve moments of personal discomfort; that a refusal to rock the boat is often at best selfish and at worst violent. But I also wonder this: how can I really feel comfortable or cosy knowing that so many precious humans are cold, and hungry, and without shelter? How can I feel comfortable knowing that my hygge-branded blankets were produced by exploited workers?…I want to say that cosiness, then, is a political process, a collective process of co-creation: together, we build a world that comfortably accommodates us all. A world that keeps us warm, that nourishes our hearts and bodies; a world of conviviality, of being-together, of reciprocal comfort and mutual care.
I have begun to see sparks of this world-to-come as I have moved through the winter streets. The gathering of comrades: the very young and the very old, the privately educated and the state school dropouts (hello!); people with disabilities; people of all genders or none, people from every imaginable ethnic or cultural background—people who have likely never met one another before, but who now meet with trust and with openness. The sharing of smiles, sweets, scarves. The people in cars or on the street who stop to offer words of encouragement and support to canvassers. The café workers who refuse payment in gratitude for our efforts. All of these moments of ordinary and beautiful magic, co-created through collective endeavor, through coming together, in hope and in love, to fight for the world we all deserve. Our destiny, our fate. Each one of us, a light in the darkness.”