I’m not ready for Advent this year. Maybe it’s this prolonged pandemic, this extended Ash Wednesday bleeding through page after calendar page—in which case, I’d be somewhat relieved—or maybe it’s my growing familiarity with what goes on behind the curtains as the audience lines up for their caramel popcorn—a very real possibility I must contend with—either way, this year feels a little off, a little “gently out of time,” as one of Blur’s lesser-knowns goes.
Today’s word is “tender” but unlike 2 or 3 years ago, this year, I know that today’s word is not tender—I understand the logic of these selections & the readings they come from, & I know that there is nothing tender about the lectionary on this Sunday. As one author recently put it:
“People are longing for signs of hope and cheer. And yet, the lectionary readings that announce the beginning of Advent this year perform their own kind of interruption into our present moment. They do not easily align themselves with twinkly lights or ornaments, or even the early arrival of Christmas trees in people’s homes. Instead, they are texts that swirl with judgment and waiting, with portent as much as advent…Read across each other and together, these four texts fracture our sense of time in the present moment by resisting closure.”
The “tender” image we have today comes from another that Jesus uses to describe vigilance—at the end of the world! Or maybe, the destruction of Jerusalem. Or maybe both—a calamity that’s already happened AND also yet to come; Jesus can be maddeningly imprecise like that, sometimes.
But the kicker’s that Advent has always been this mad indeterminacy, this heightened anticipation of a be-coming that has already been and will be-come again—we’ve just had to play catch up & get in better sync this year. It may have taken a pandemic to do it. It may have needed multiple pivots, plans & pre-recorded Sundays for our calendars to finally realign.
It may have, but I’m still trying. Not there yet, but close.
“Tender is the day
The demons go away
Lord I need to find
Someone who can heal my mind
Come on, come on, come on
Get through it.”
The Now/Not-Yet dialectic is one of those Christian modes of speaking that can be helpful for understanding the cosmic drama heightened at Christmas, but it can just as easily fall flat; God-talk as sleight of hand, paradox as mental illness. It’s like Santa sneaking into your home unnoticed—hard to believe.
I didn’t celebrate Christmas for many years because I didn’t believe. And yet, that time was filled with a pious devotion that I didn’t fully understand. I venerated heterodox saints & sang along with their alternative hymnals—saints like Pablo Neruda & hymnists like Mikis Theodorakis, whose cantata shrouded my daily drives in & out of highly-securitized Beirut with a perfumed mist of secular prayer.
I first heard Theodorakis’s blend of mournful staccato in a film called Z, the devastating story of how Greece was “brought very low” by a series of fascist juntas. And I was moved by live recordings of his setting of Neruda’s Canto General in 1975, after the regime that imprisoned him & banned his music had fallen. There was hope there, in the space between those records. There was the privileged perspective of a beginning & an end, for sure, but also, there was a sense of that raw experience of the now & not-yet.
At the time, these radical icons stood for everything that Christmas was not—freedom, justice, solidarity, contra authority, oppression, obfuscation—but after a long journey that I’ve written about before, I saw that gap closing & felt how the Spirit—yes the Holy Spirit of Christmas—had been praying through me all those years.
Because what is the Lord’s Prayer without liberation? The word we translate as “deliver”—the word that in Spanish is “liberar”—is a red & black flag of rebellion against evil. And while we can spend most of our time debating the nature of this evil or evil one we oppose (ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ), it’s the doing-word that cuts to the heart of God’s will for us: to be liberated.
To pray for liberation casts all these secular prayers—these “groans of the prisoners”—in the same holy light on the same sacred pilgrimage, before the self-same love of the divine.
We don’t have to believe it in our heads for this to be true, because the Spirit believes it for us.
“The Lord is my strength and song;
And He is become my salvation.
The Lord strong and mighty,
The Lord mighty in battle.”
(‘Uzi,’ a hora with words from Isaiah 12:2 & Psalm 118:14)
The genealogy of social justice movements can be traced far back into the biblical prophetic tradition, & part of the work of liberation involves pointing out these continuities, in hopes of strengthening the bonds of solidarity across cultures & causes. That sort of thing is in the back of my mind whenever I do these writing projects—I hope to perform this reconciliation of differences by expressing how they’ve converged in my life. But at the same time, I’m very aware that true differences can’t be easily merged—and that’s not necessarily a problem.
It starts to become one when true difference is disavowed in a misguided bid for unity; like that interfaith group I joined shortly after moving here, where a Black immigrant was often asked to open our meetings up with a prayer, but also told not to evoke the name of Jesus, so as not to make anyone uncomfortable. Praying to anyone or anything in particular in a context like that is scandalous, & that’s a community organizing hurdle that speaks to a deeper theological truth, as well: Christmas is a scandal. It cannot be both true AND make no difference to the world.
In my lifetime, I’ve seen an arc among progressives from an open hostility to faith that I participated in, to a much more nuanced rejection of what punk-rockers Bad Religion—banned in Lebanon when I was growing up because of their anti-cross logo—calls “the American Jesus.” I saw it with my own eyes in a march here in Seattle, when a street preacher spewing hate was drowned out by a half-dozen zoomers chanting: “Jesus is love, Jesus is love.” This is a beautiful arc of a hopefully renewed covenant between the Church and the world.
But there is something even more deeply divisive about our faith; it makes strong claims. It has heavy baggage. It’s not just American Jesus—it’s the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, it’s the very grammar of people and power and land and nation that play significant roles in this cosmic drama.
These are the elements of our story that I’ve always struggled with; when so much wrong is done in this Lord’s name, are we really singing the same song?
Good students of theology have ways of untangling these thorny subjects—I would not be a Christian if I did not believe this to be possible—but as we tell the story of Christmas this year, it’s important that we remember that what Christians celebrate is more than a cup of hot cocoa by a crackling fire—it’s a statement of purpose, and, yes, maybe even a declaration of war. We do more harm to our friends & comrades when we disavow the strength of our claim to follow this incarnate God and undermine the difference that a God incarnate makes to the world.
So what is this cosmic drama about? Towards what end? Christian speculation about “the end” is called eschatology—study of the eschaton—but “ends” are more about purpose & that has a name too: telos. The two are often linked, however; how you think it all ends often carries with it a why.
Throughout my college education, teleology was a dirty word. This was in the epilogue to grand narratives like communism, after all, & we were that batch of young travelers blinking in the high noon of the sobering day after the last. No longer were we to “immanentize the eschaton,” which seemed perfectly reasonable, given the awfulness of strong men and their planners’ utopias. Think global, act local, be present and mindful—these were the imperatives of the here and now.
But the funny thing is: just as we begin to witness thousands of young travelers trailing us in the twilight with new visions of progress—just as new socialisms & new communisms are beginning to form in opposition to the new old-fashioned fascism making its ugly return—so too are we realizing that the telos & ultimate end of the Christian story inaugurated at Christmas was never that distinct from those grand narratives of human flourishing, and indeed, could have been a healthy corrective to their overreach.
God does indeed want to immanentize the eschaton—the whole distinction between heaven & earth underlying the split between transcendence & immanence is, in fact, a porous border. As NT Wright puts it: “Normally hidden from human sight, heaven is occasionally revealed or unveiled so that people can see God’s dimension of ordinary life…Heaven in the New Testament is thus not usually seen as the place that God’s people go after death: at the end, the New Jerusalem descends FROM heaven TO earth, joining the two dimensions for ever.”
So what is this cosmic drama about? Nothing short of a new heaven & a new earth—a New Creation—and we play a part in that plan. Indeed, as the priest who prepared me for reception into The Episcopal Church put it: “The moral life of Christians is about living in service to that final end.”
What that means exactly for you & what that means precisely for me, & how these things add up in our common life together—well, piecing that together is half the fun.
Today’s Advent word has particular resonance for the times we’re in; across the world, people are attempting to rebuild—reschedule, reopen, return… In Lebanon, this reconstruction of the new normal is particularly acute, as whole swathes of Beirut’s fabric are still being resewn after August’s blast, by groups like @Rebuild_Beirut.
Our lectionary readings these past five days have also been full of longings for restoration & reversal of misfortunes—for return to the Lord. This imagery is in some ways a hyper-abridged summary of the whole story of God’s people: first, there is misalignment with God’s will, then there is realignment. Rinse & repeat. It’s the pattern that shapes the whole Bible and, unsurprisingly, it’s the subtext of all of church history.
But what’s interesting about the word “rebuild” in the Hebrew Bible is that it’s not really there: בְּנָא, bena, to build or to make—the same word can also mean to re-build. You’ll notice that slippage when comparing passages in the King James Bible with more modern translations; the word choice is interpretative.
So what does it mean when “to rebuild” is always in reality to build again? Many of us are beginning to let the implications of that insight sink in: there is no actual return to normal, there is no CTRL-Y redo—the act of restoration is always constructive; the question of what to retrieve, what to preserve, & what to replace is always open.
So as we sit amidst the rubble of many disasters, both natural & otherwise, let’s keep these questions open, at least for a little while. After all, Jesus said he would rebuild the Temple in three days, & that was because he first was to break through the gates of hell. There was no rushing his rescue plan.
And there is no rushing our own. As the saying goes: when you’re going through hell, keep going.
“The sound of wind, the sound of a new fire.”
That line’s from Bachar Mar-Khalife’s song, Ma Fi Chi, featured in yesterday’s post. A Lebanese artist, Bachar is the son of the venerable communist minstrel Marcel Khalife; I’m not sure why his surname looks like a contraction of his patriarch’s, but I’ve interpreted it as a playful poke at dad’s hallowed status, as well as an irreverent nod to our shared heritage—“Mar” = saint in the Syriac Christian tradition.
I first heard of Bachar when he was embroiled in a controversy over his song Kyrie Eleison, & that’s as good a place to start my story with my Maronite background as any—it’s my complicated relationship with an identity, a community & a state apparatus in one nutshell. Indeed, one of my earliest attempts at scholarship involved my losing my holy forking shirtballs with a Bishop I was interviewing re: the so-called Catholic Media Center’s outsized political influence in Lebanon—which, in hindsight, was probably the first clue about my ill-fit for academia.
But that’s not what I really want to write about today; with distance, with time to heal, with clearer thinking & better reading, I’ve found my disappointment with & estrangement from these Eastern Christian roots becoming less important to my self-understanding. Breaking free from what I experienced as oppressive bonds of kinship, some fifteen years ago, has now taken me full-circle, back to a kind of spiritual fraternity with my ancestors—not exactly friendship, but far from antagonistic.
I’ve had more time to consider them without the noise of partisans ringing in my ears like belligerent bells. And the festal fireworks I loathed for what I considered to be their identitarian arrogance are now just lights in the distance, marking out the contours of questions of indigeneity, colonialism, & ressourcement.
What does it mean to belong to a colonized people who became implicated in colonialism? What does it mean to be beleaguered refugees who took on the mantle of state-nationalist power? What happens when strength in weakness becomes a false narrative of perpetual victimhood?
With these questions, I’m thinking about the history of a people who trace themselves back to Antioch, a community with roots in the hinterlands of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, in Syria, & a migrant family who finally settled in a village nestled among seven hills & refused to assimilate to the Roman Catholic & Greek Orthodox majority—we were to have a church of our own & we were going to build it ourselves! That’s what I have in mind, but the same questions could be asked of the whole of Christendom. What do we do with this problematic history of refusing to die but also being a party to death?
My connection to Lebanon & the Maronites now is sort of like their connection to Antioch & the Syriac world—indirect & somewhat romanticized. In fifteen more years, I may assimilate even further into this Western frontier, much in the same way that the Maronite Church itself has Latinized over the centuries.
But I hope to do so as a traveler bearing gifts—the treasures that my foremothers & forefathers refused to give up. I can see them now more clearly for what they are, or what they can be, in this new light—this new fire.
“Creatures trace the symbols of Christ.”
(St. Ephrem, Hymn on Virginity, No. 11)
One of the hidden pearls of my foremothers’ & forefathers’ Antiochian faith is Mar Ephrem (c.306-373), the Syriac poet-theologian of Edessa, who wrote his strikingly fresh insights into God’s cosmic drama in hymns, not treatises. In fragments like these, Ephrem sings praises of a Christmas cosmology that feels almost “liberal” & “woo-woo” in its expansiveness:
“Mary has formed the members of his body, but many wombs have given birth to the Unique Son; the womb of his mother gave birth to his humanity, but creatures have given birth to him symbolically.”
This is a view of a cosmos where “the elements of matter are…visual means that express the work of God.” Works, expressions, manifestations—that’s what Christians mean when they say the word “glory.” ‘Glory TO God’ is a shout, a proclamation; ‘Glory OF God’ is a statement of intent written across the whole universe.
As one writer puts it, “Ephrem is a representative of a Christian view that God and the “holy” are immanent in the world. Ephrem sees connections between everything in creation as possible pointers to Christ. All that is required is the eye of faith.” All that we need is to seek out God’s glory all around us, because the whole of creation glorifies God & “is by its very nature revelatory & Christological.”
But Ephrem is positing something more specific than earthcare or even eco-theology. He writes: “Consider, O discerning [human], that you are the image of God & the bond of all creation, both of the heavenly & of the terrestrial beings, & whenever you bend your head to worship & glorify God, all the creations, both heavenly and terrestrial, bow their heads with you & in you, to worship God; & whenever you do not worship & glorify [God], all the creatures grieve over you & turn against you, & you fall from grace.”
This hopeful but very serious anthropology is where the Syriac tradition truly shines in ways that feel so modern & relevant to this time of epochal change. What it teaches is that, as Fr. Rob put it during my formation classes before reception:
“Each of us is a particular creation within God’s larger Creation. Each of us is a unique constellation of experiences and divinely bestowed gifts (physical, spiritual, and more), and so…each of us is called to one or (more likely) more vocations [that] somehow manifest Christ’s mission in a unique way.”
As creatures made in the image/icon/symbol of God, we are a part of God’s glory, yes, but we are also Christ’s hands—literally his manifesto, from “manus”—rewriting the world.