The size of Advent matters

By Phyllis Strupp
Posted Dec 13, 2011

[Episcopal News Service] A bank recently foreclosed on yet another house in our neighborhood. The family of four had struggled to hang on financially for years, to no avail. One day they came home, and the locks had been changed. The wife was despondent, while the husband was enraged. That very night, he broke into their former home, ripped out all the custom cabinets, and hauled them away. By his reckoning, the bank stole his home, and he settled the score as best he could.

Getting even tastes good to the aggrieved party. But Advent reminds us of a bitter truth: in the grand scheme of things, God is the aggrieved party and we are all the transgressors.

The period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s has become a great secular spiritual celebration, often referred to as “the holidays.” Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, the winter solstice, Christmas, Kwanza, and New Year’s get lumped into one big lit-up joyfest. Appetites for “picture perfect” holidays are fed by commercial interests pushing a parade of “must haves” or “must dos” that absorb money, time, and attention. Comparatively, Advent is a buzz kill, with the daily office full of doom and gloom readings from the ancient prophets. How easy it is, to avoid “celebrating” this somber side of Christmas. But if you want a traditional Christian version of the holiday season, Advent is a “must do” − and it doesn’t cost a penny!

Advent and Christmas used to have more in common. In the 6th century, a penitent Advent season was added to the liturgical calendar. For centuries, Christmas was a more subdued religious holiday celebrated not at home but at church.  Then came Charles Dickens, who helped to transform England’s Christmas celebration into a joyous event, marked by food, family, and charity with his popular story A Christmas Carol. This famous fable describes how the miserable, tight-fisted Ebenezer Scrooge got his groove back through reflection and metanoia (a spiritual paradigm shift, translated from the New Testament Greek as “repentance.”) So it is more about Advent than Christmas! Surely Dickens got his inspiration for Scrooge from the prophet’s words in Ezekiel 28:4-5:

By your wisdom and understanding
you have gained wealth for yourself
and amassed gold and silver
in your treasuries.
By your great skill in trading
you have increased your wealth,
and because of your wealth
your heart has grown proud.

Perhaps A Christmas Carol failed to popularize Advent because it is not so easy to conjure up the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. The next best thing to a visit from these three spirits is the teachings of the Old Testament prophets.

The lectionary year B is now in full swing, heavy on Advent readings from the prophets Amos and Zechariah with a sprinkling of Isaiah, Habakkuk, and some others. Two notable character traits of the prophets are:

1.    They understand measuring.
2.    They have a clue about what God is up to.

The readings contain numerous references to measuring objects or time as a proxy for how God judges people. For example, Amos speaks of a plumb line (Amos 7:7-9) and a basket of ripe fruit (Amos 8:1-2) as a tool for understanding God’s judgment of Israel. Zechariah writes about God’s messages in terms of a man with a measuring line who plans to measure Jerusalem (Zechariah 2:1-2), a plumb line (Zechariah 4:10), a flying scroll thirty feet long and fifteen feet wide (Zechariah 5:1-2), and a measuring basket (Zechariah 5:5-11).

So the prophets seem to be saying that God is just as fond of metrics as we are, but for spiritual matters rather than worldly matters. God uses spiritual metrics that we cannot grasp as easily as a fistful of dollars.

These spiritual metrics have a goal: to fulfill God’s vision of how life on earth should be. The prophets really shine in describing compelling visions of what God is up to in the world, then and now. The “A+” for vision goes to Isaiah, Jesus’ favorite prophet, for the compelling way he describes the peaceful creation that God is creating:

“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)

“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

“They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”  (Isaiah 11:9)

In the reading for December 21, Habakkuk 2:1-3 has some great how-to advice on what we can do in our lives and communities to advance God’s vision:

Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.

Advent calls us to reflect on whether our spiritual account with God is flush or overdrawn. This is a difficult task, which is why Advent lasts for weeks. If you’re concerned about how you measure up spiritually, don’t worry − God’s plumb line is made out of love. We have nothing to fear from coming clean with God, thanks to Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate on December 25.

As the new year looms large, consider making a resolution to go deeper into the desert experiences of Lent and Advent in 2012.

− Phyllis Strupp is the author of Church Publishing’s Faith and Nature curriculum and the author of The Richest of Fare: Seeking Spiritual Security in the Sonoran Desert. She enjoys having her desert experiences in the desert!