Posts Tagged 'advent'

For Nov. 30, 2014: 1 Advent, Year B

The Reading                                                   Isaiah 64:1-9

We launch the season of Advent, and with it Year B, with a reading from the predominantly hopeful third part of Isaiah that is penitential and a bit apocalyptic. All of us for whom Isaiah speaks are the authors of our own disasters and about as righteous as used toilet paper(verse 6)—but yet all of us are the work of God’s hand.

The Response                                                 Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

Isaiah’s theme is continued in Psalm 80. Prayers notwithstanding, God’s people are suffering: they eat and drink tears by the bowlful and are the scorn of their neighbors. They ask God, “Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand.” Christians often view this as a prophecy of Jesus. But what if it is a call to us?

The Epistle                                                      1 Corinthians 1:3-9

The Christians of Corinth, a bustling Greco-Roman seaport, were well off by Christian standards, but Jewish and Gentile converts were at odds. Paul opens his first letter to them with gratitude for their learning and speaking but striking silence on the topic for which he praises other churches: love for one another.

The Gospel                                                       Mark 13:24-37

Mark 13 is Jesus’ long answer when four disciples ask him privately how they will know when the Messiah is coming. Jesus tells them to look for the signs, as one gauges from the fig tree’s leaves when summer is coming, but he adds that only the Father knows just when that will be.

 

Further thoughts

These “further thoughts” are normally confined to matters of theology. The current unrest in Ferguson, MO and elsewhere over a grand jury’s refusal to recommend that the shooting of Michael Brown come to trial, however, demands comment, the more so in light of the lectionary texts for this first Sunday in Lent, Year B.

As I write, it is the second day after the prosecutor’s announcement. News reports indicate that last night was calmer than the night before; it is good if the ashes in Ferguson and other cities are beginning to cool, both for the sake of the business owners and residents who suffer damage and injury and in the interest of toning down the chorus of gibes to the effect that, well, one really can’t expect any better behavior from… them. But I can’t help fearing that the settling ashes will once again be allowed to obscure and bury a discussion that this nation must have. The issue is that hundreds of thousands of mothers live in fear that theirs will be the boy who doesn’t come home tonight because he’s been shot by a cop. This fear has been given searing voice by a teacher friend of mine; her son is a senior at Army-Navy Academy in Carlsbad and a standout wide receiver in football, which means he’s a little more lightly built than Michael Brown but still a pretty big guy, and he’s black. She is nauseated with fear that he’ll die of reaching too fast for his ID. And she’s not alone.

That this fear exists and is pervasive must be confronted and dealt with, whatever one believes about who was right in Ferguson. If it is not, I fear that in the future of this nation are Psalm 80:5’s “bowls of tears” for all of us to drink. I fear Isaiah 64:7’s chilling prophecy that, far from falling to outside enemies, we are instead bound to be “delivered into the hands of our iniquity.”

What if our listening to the anguish of Ferguson is the sound of the Lord God tearing open heaven to come down and bring righteousness?

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For Dec. 15, 2013: A Service of Advent Lessons and Carols

First Reading            Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-25: God creates man and woman to live in obedience to God in the Garden of Eden.

Second Reading            Genesis 3:1-15: Adam and Eve rebel against God and are cast out of the Garden of Eden.

Third Reading            Isaiah 40:1-11: God comforts God’s people and calls on them to prepare for redemption.

Fourth Reading            Jeremiah 31:31-34: A new covenant is promised which will be written in our hearts

Fifth Reading            Zechariah 9:9-10: The humility of Jerusalem’s King is foretold.

Sixth Reading            Haggai 2:6-9: The Lord will restore the splendor of the house of David.

Seventh Reading            Isaiah 65:17-25: God promises a new heaven and a new earth.

Eighth Reading            Luke 1:26-38: The Angel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she will bear the Son of the Most High.

The Gospel            John 1:1-14: The Word was made flesh and we have seen his glory.

 

About the Service of Advent Lessons and Carols

The format of this Sunday’s service dates back to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols devised by Edward White Benson, then Bishop of Truro in southern England, for Christmas Eve 1880. In 1918, shortly after the fighting in World War I ended, this order of service was adapted for use at King’s College, Cambridge UK, by the Dean of the college chapel, Eric Milner-White. With the revisions that Milner-White made in 1919, this is the service that is broadcast every year by the BBC.

In 1934, Milner-White devised a similar service for Advent: its purpose, he said, was “not to celebrate Christmas”—as the Christmas Eve service does—“but to expect it.” It is in that spirit that we offer today’s lessons and carols.

The nine short lessons or readings are chosen to show the story of salvation unfolding. God’s creation of humanity in the first reading from Genesis is followed by the fall into disobedience in the second. The remaining readings, except for the last two, come from Israel’s dark time during and after the destruction of the Temple and the deportation to Babylon. Isaiah foresees comfort and return from exile for God’s people, in words that inspired much of the first part of Georg Friedrich Handel’s masterful Messiah; Jeremiah announces the new covenant, not between God and the whole people but between God and each human soul; Zechariah foresees a King who combines the power to end war with the humility to ride a donkey; Haggai foresees the restoration of the house of David and of the temple to which all people will come in worship; Isaiah returns to prophesy a world order of unimaginable peace and harmony under God. The eighth lesson is Luke’s account of the  invitation to Mary to become the mother of God and of her astonished but ultimately obedient response. The ninth lesson, from the beginning of the gospel of John, tells of Jesus as Word, God, Light—and, wonder of wonders, flesh like us.

“For the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.” Thanks be to God!

For Dec. 8, 2013: 2 Advent, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 11:1-10

For the second Sunday of Advent, Isaiah the prophet poetically continues the theme of promise: from the remains of the house of David will come a ruler who will bring righteousness and peace beyond our dreams—and perhaps, as we contemplate the mess that we humans have made of God’s world, beyond even our fears.

The Response            Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Psalm 72 may have been composed as a coronation hymn for Solomon, the son of David. The psalm asks God to grant righteousness and justice to the king’s son—that is, the rightful heir—so that even the mountains will be sources of wellbeing. The king’s rule will be long and will bring blessing as does rain in the dry season.

The Epistle            Romans 15:4-13

In the early church at Rome were both Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity who did not always agree. The epistle calls all the Romans to live together in harmony and with hope: as Jesus came to the Jews to fulfill God’s promise, he now comes to the Gentiles or non-Jews so that everyone might see and believe.

The Gospel            Matthew 3:1-12

The Old Testament lesson and the psalm sing the praises of the king that God has anointed; the psalm, for one, has in mind a king of the standard sort, if a really good one. In the gospel, John the Baptizer is a most unusual herald announcing a much less familiar kingdom, in which repentance and readiness count more than rank.

Ponderables

The readings for the second Sunday in Advent trace royal descent in more senses than one. The psalm, dating back to the second and third of Israel’s kings, expresses a people’s high but not entirely unthinkable hopes for and of their new monarchy. We know that things went downhill rapidly—each generation of flawed and even wicked king had prophets reading him his metaphorical pedigree—but Isaiah points to a literal lineage in foreseeing a new kind of ruler whose judgment cannot be corrupted by lust for power, whose mere breath smites the wicked, and whose rule will be righteous enough to bring back Eden. This is the king whose coming John heralds in the gospel, the king who brings the fire of judgment on those who take pride in their ancestry and their spirituality. But neither psalmist nor prophet, nor even proclaimer, had actually met him.

It falls to the book of Romans to tell of the dream come true: real man, real God, real servant. We wonder at the indelible image from Christ the King Sunday two weeks ago, of Jesus, even in humiliation and agony, extending mercy and welcome to the sinful. What kind of king is this? And what kind of people would we Christians be if we poured ourselves out to welcome all God’s children as Jesus has welcomed us?

For Dec. 1, 2013: 1 Advent, Year A

With the turning of the liturgical year, here’s a change for St Alban’s Lections: adding prefaces on the response and the gospel, accompanied by a shift to a shorter contemplation under the name of “Ponderables”.

The Reading            Isaiah 2:1-5

The season of Advent is a path of repentance and promise, and these themes resound in the prophecies of Isaiah that we will read each week. For this first Sunday, Isaiah foretells the path and the promise for Judah and Jerusalem—and, if we too will turn from the ways of war and destruction to the ways of the Lord, for us.

The Response            Psalm 122

“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” When Jerusalem truly functions as the Place of Wholeness that its name suggests, then the vision that Isaiah has depicted comes to life.

The Epistle            Romans 13:11-14

Isaiah, in our first reading, foretold the path and the promise of Advent. The apostle Paul writes to Christians in Rome—a city like London, Paris, and Las Vegas all rolled into one—to tell them what it takes to be ready for the coming of Christ. He reminds them, and us, that the time to wake and walk with God is always right now.

The Gospel            Matthew 24:36-44

In Luke 21:5-19, which we read two weeks ago, the disciples asked Jesus when the end times will be, and he gave an indefinite answer. He replies again in today’s reading from Matthew, and with a much more definite indefinite: no one knows except the Father, and therefore it is up to us as followers to be ready.

 

Ponderables

The readings for the first Sunday in Advent fall indisputably into the category of apocalypse. The word literally means ‘uncovering’ or ‘revelation’, but over time it has come to mean ‘the end of times’. We associate it with bad news partly because of the horrors predicted in the Book of Revelation but mostly, I suspect, because, being human, we associate the end of everyday life—the “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” of Matthew 24:38—with bad news. The gospel provides some warrant for this in comparing Jesus’ return with the flood of Noah, which was indeed bad news for anyone not on the ark: one will be taken, Jesus tells us, and one left, though it’s not clear from the passage which of those is the one who is saved at that point, nor is it even clear what will happen to the other. One assumes that Jesus’ vagueness is intentional.

Isaiah and the writer of Romans, characteristically, are much less vague. Isaiah tells us how things will be when the Lord rules, or to be precise when all of us accede to the Lord’s rule: weapons of war and wounding will become tools of tillage and tending. The verses that precede the epistle reading famously sum up our mutual duty as loving one another—looking out for each other—before admonishing us to hop to it. But behold: what Isaiah holds out as the outcome of God’s reign is pretty much what the epistle counsels as the means to it.

What if this is precisely the point of Advent? The one taken away in the gospel might be headed for Paradise—but what if the one is left to keep being God’s hands and feet and love in the world?

For Dec. 9, 2012: 2 Advent, Year C

The Reading            Malachi 3:1-4

The book of Malachi has news for Jews in Jerusalem after the exile in the fifth century BC: the Lord’s malaki or messenger is coming—and bringing judgment that will burn or scour away impurity to make the priests (the descendants of Levi) righteous. The promise of righteousness is restated in Canticle 16, the prophecy of Zechariah about his son John the Baptist that is taken from Luke 1:68-92.

The Response            Canticle 16 (Luke 1:68-79)

The Epistle            Philippians 1:3-11

The first church in Europe was the church that Paul himself founded at Philippi, in northeastern Greece. The beginning of the letter to this church glows with Paul’s pride and joy in the Philippians and with their mutual love. Paul also looks forward to the Philippians’ overflowing love yielding a harvest of righteousness.

The Gospel            Luke 3:1-6

 

Further thoughts

Advent calls us to expect the unexpected, and to do something serious about it.

Because we worship the God of Abraham and of David, we look back to the covenants and the prophecies of the Old Testament. The covenants were to bind our forebears in the faith to God and to each other as God’s own people. Because things did not work out that way, the prophets called God’s people to repentance (and called, and called), foretelling shame and disaster for Israel but also promising salvation through a mighty and righteous king. The book of Malachi does this, though with a twist: the Lord is coming, and sending a messenger first, but neither the messenger nor the king may be exactly who or what was expected—and those to whom the messenger comes are on notice that they may not entirely enjoy the result, for the people who are supposedly holiest (that is, the priests) are in serious need of profound purification.

The prophecy plays out in the New Testament at least as unexpectedly. The speaker in Canticle 16 is Zechariah, priest of Israel; the child about whom he prophesies is the unlooked-for son of his old age, whom we know as John the Baptist. This son of priests grows up not to live comfortably overseeing the offerings of grain and incense and animals in the Temple and making nice with the powerful people of the day that Luke’s gospel lists. Instead, he lives rough in the wilderness until God calls him to preach repentance to all. How much more unexpected could that have been?

Whatever we are doing now to prepare our houses and workplaces for relatives’ visits, cookie exchanges, and holiday parties, the message of Advent is clear: the most important cleaning and preparation that we undertake is in our hearts, no matter the season.

For Dec. 2, 2012: 1 Advent, Year C

The Reading            Jeremiah 33:14-16

In the sixth century before Christ, Jeremiah the prophet predicted very bad times that came to pass: the last king of the house of David lost his throne and many Jews were forced into exile. Yet today’s reading gives us words of hope that look forward to justice from the offspring of David.

The Response            Psalm 25:1-9

The Epistle            1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

The first letter to the church at Thessalonike may be the oldest book of the New Testament. In this lesson Paul, despite the perturbations in his own life, writes almost effervescently of his joy in the Christians of the church at Thessalonike and of his hopes for their continued growth in love and holiness.

The Gospel            Luke 21:25-36

 

Further thoughts

Advent, the beginning season of the Church year, is a season of anticipation. Many of us look forward to the family gatherings, to the seasonal food and drink and decorations, to unpacking the Santa sweaters and furry boots in which we’ll cheerfully swelter on a typical Southern California “winter” day, to performances of the Nutcracker ballet and Handel’s venerable Messiah (which, like so many things in life, is both easier and harder than it sounds), and of course to celebrating the arrival of the vulnerable, approachable baby in the manger, God as one of us. Paul the Apostle Paul looks forward in this way, as he practically wriggles with glee in hopes of revisiting his Thessalonian godchildren.

Not everyone looks forward eagerly. In the sixth century BC, Jeremiah opening his mouth usually meant that bad news was coming: for good reason is a bitter, hyperbolic denunciation of a people and its practices called a “jeremiad”. Chapter 33 stands in marked contrast to most of Jeremiah’s prophecies, for here he foresees the return of Israel and Judah in safety to the land of promise and the restoration of the Davidic dynasty. Even here, however, the prophecy is edged: if the Branch of David is to bring perfect righteousness, what will become of those—or those of us—who are merely human?

Jesus’ prophecy is even more edged, for he foresees the end of everything as we know it, and the signs that he names to foreshadow the end—natural disasters including massive flooding and terrifying phenomena in the skies—give a deeper and more terrifying sense to the word “ominous”. All of this is far indeed from baby Jesus meek and mild.

Yet Jesus offers a remarkable analogy for these signs: not a harbinger of hard times such as bad weather, but rather the fig tree putting forth its tender lives, which is a sign of the coming of summer. The natural tendency, when things are bad, is to hunker down in one’s own foxhole with one’s own resources and wait it out, but Jesus instead calls us to stand up and raise our heads. Beyond the terror, our redemption waits. That is cause for hope—and perhaps we are also meant to stand for hope and for each other to a terrified world.

For December 11, 2011: 3 Advent, Year B

The Reading            Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Today’s reading from Isaiah addresses the dashed hopes of people who have returned to a shattered Jerusalem, to build their hope. On this Rose Sunday in Advent, we read this passage as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus—but if we took the opening verses also as our commission to be Jesus’ hands and feet, how might that change the world?

 

The Epistle            1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

The first letter that Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonike may be the oldest book of the New Testament. In today’s reading, from the end of the letter, Paul gives terse but well-thought advice on how to be the church in the world.

 

Further thoughts

An urban-farming friend of mine, who lives in the hills overlooking El Cajon, reported with some shock this week that there has been frost on her lettuces. Winter nights now keep getting darker and longer—and colder, even in this Mediterranean climate. But we look forward to the turn of the year, and as we celebrate Rose Sunday this week we look with eagerness to the light of Christmas.

Our readings this Sunday glow with this growing light and hope.

Last week’s reading from Isaiah, chapter 40, lyrically promised comfort and good news to God’s people in exile. Isaiah builds on that dawning of good news with a more specific set of promises as to what God and God’s unnamed messenger will do and for whom. He calls us to work in God’s name for justice in this world—“the year of the Lord’s favor” in Israel meant a jubilee year, in which slaves were to be set free, debts were to be forgiven, and property that had been sold by desperate families was to be restored to them. Imagine that! Imagine the joy of those released from bondage and want, and imagine the joy of helping God bring it about!

Indeed, imagine the lowly, the hungry, the needy, and the meek getting the good things—and you imagine the world that Mary proclaims in Canticle 15 as she accepts the astonishing commission to be the mother of God.

How do we get to this world? Paul offers us advice, at the end of his letter to the Thessalonians, that reads like the terse, hurried, loving advice one gives one’s offspring at the very last moment before parting: Rejoice; pray; be thankful; listen to prophets but don’t be taken in by fakes; be (and do) good. We all need these reminders from time to time. Moreover, as John the Baptizer reminds us, one does not need to be the Messiah in order to act as one sent by God. That’s a promise and a calling for all of us.