Texts without a Baby
by Mary E. Hinkle (November / December 2003 • Volume 19 • Number 6)
In Advent, the season of expectation, nothing is as we expect it to be
"Let's Move Advent!" proposed an article published in this magazine more than a decade ago (see Lutheran Partners, Nov./Dec. 1991). In the article, Susan Wendorf argued that the season as it is currently observed in our congregations is chained to "the ghost of Christmas Pressure," with choir concerts, Sunday School programs, and Christmas parties scheduled on the church calendar throughout the month of December.
The result, according to Wendorf, is that the church neither prepares rightly for the feast of the Nativity nor celebrates it adequately when it arrives ("To wait until after December 25th is just too late"). Her proposal was to move Advent into November and celebrate Christmas in our congregations during December, when pretty much everyone everywhere else is already celebrating it with cards, carols, baking, and gift-giving anyway.
Wendorf's lighthearted presentation of a solution to the problem of Advent was, to judge from the letters published in response to it, enthusiastically received (see the magazine's March/April 1992 issue).1 Even so, most readers of Lutheran Partners are still trying to celebrate Advent during the four Sundays before December 25. Still with us are the twin pressures of commercialism in the wider culture's observance of Christmas and romanticism in many congregations' December rush toward the manger, the baby, and the carols.
Part of the value of Wendorf's article is that it draws our attention to the second of these two pressures. She helps us to stop grumbling about Christmas marketing long enough to notice the extent to which the church has adopted the culture's sense of timing for Christmas.
Eschatology and Urgency
It is certainly true that the challenge of preaching Advent involves timing. Yet I propose that calendar time is not our biggest problem with Advent. We have a problem that cannot be solved by moving the season from December to November.
In a word, the challenge of Advent for preachers is that its texts have far less to do with preparing for a baby than they have to do with preparing for The End. The challenge of Advent is the eschatology of our texts. Advent, moved or not, has a way of moving us to a time when the householder is about to return, when the axe is laid to the root of the tree, when "the promise of new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home" (2 Peter 3:13) is all we have to talk about.
To hear the Advent texts describe it, the problem is not that we can't wait for Christmas. The problem is that God's future is bearing down on us with a velocity that makes our assumption that "we need a little Christmas, right this very minute" rather beside the point.
The historical roots of the season reflect this preoccupation with the Second Coming of Christ rather than a focus on his nativity. Tracing the character of Advent through centuries of liturgical history, Frank Senn finds four themes in the texts appointed by early Roman lectionaries. The Advent texts proclaim (1) signs of the end, (2) the ministry of John the Baptist, (3) the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, and (4) the annunciation.
Senn then notes that "Only this last theme is in any way directly related to the historical nativity of Christ," and he concludes, "The preponderance of these texts express joy not in the nativity which has already taken place but a hope in the parousia yet to come."2
Not quite 50 years ago, the Service Book and Hymnal (SBH) offered an Advent lectionary that had nothing at all to say about the nativity.3 In every text, Jesus is completely grown up. What is more, in every SBH Advent text, either Jesus or John is pointing to a future thoroughly disorienting to those who expect the present to stretch on as far as the eye can see:
Week one: Israel's king appears riding on a donkey and entering the city where he will reign from a cross.
Week two: The dreaded signs of the end are to be greeted not with terror but with upturned faces, "for your redemption is drawing near."
Week three: The one sent to prepare the way sends a question from his prison cell, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?"
Week four: The famous baptizer finds it imperative to say whom he is not, and to say as well, "among you stands one whom you do not know."
In Advent, the season of expectation, nothing is as we expect it to be, least of all the expectation that Christmas is coming.
Changes to our lectionary in the last quarter century have reintroduced the nativity of Jesus into one of the four Advent Sundays, yet the texts are still predominantly about other things. In the Revised Common Lectionary, the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem has dropped out of Advent and is instead appointed for the Sunday of the Passion.4 Still, however, the LBW lectionary and the Revised Common Lectionary include two Sunday texts on the ministry of John the Baptist and one on signs of the end. Only the fourth Sunday in Advent is reserved for a Gospel reading connected to the birth of Christ.
Unbelievably big dreams
So here is the challenge: During the four Sundays leading up to our celebration of Christmas, when the culture within and beyond the sanctuary is focused on holiday preparations and celebrations, the texts assigned are insistently directing the eye forward, not toward a late December reenactment of the nativity, but way forward, toward a new heaven and a new earth.
The greatest challenge of preaching Advent is that Advent proclaims the redemption of all things, and it announces this word to people like us, who know the church and the world well enough to have long since stopped dreaming such big dreams.
The limitations of our imaginations notwithstanding, the dream is in nearly every text we hear in Advent. The Lord God rules with a mighty arm that is also the arm of a shepherd, gathering and carrying lambs (Isaiah 40, Advent 2). The Son of Man will come with power and great glory, gathering the elect from the four winds (Mark 13, Advent 1). The God of peace will sanctify you entirely (1 Thessalonians 5, Advent 3). The mighty have been cast down from their thrones (Luke 1, Advent 4). These and other unimaginable scenarios greet us weekly.
The verbs in these statements are a curious mix of past, present, and future. Divisions of time are as blurred as those of space when the God of heaven and earth makes his presence known in both places. The one for whom we wait has been among his own all along. "Among you stands one whom you do not know," says John the Baptist.
The Advent texts articulate the promise that this unknown one is and will be revealed, in signs as different from one another as the falling of stars from the heavens and the pregnancy of a girl in Nazareth. "Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down," the people cry out to God in Isaiah 64.
The news of Advent is that God really will tear open the heavens and come down. God will pull the future, with its very big dream, into the present time of sadly scaled-back expectations. Indeed, God has done so and will do so again.
God's Faithful One
How can we make sense of this news? The texts help us here, not only in what they say but also in how they say it. Stephen Farris points out that promises of God's transforming reign are easier to grasp because of the signs that accompany them in the Gospels. So we look for small things that point to the fulfillment of God's great promises.
For example, reflecting on The Magnificat, Farris writes, "There is wisdom in Luke's ordering which moves from the simplicity of the context to the spectacle of the hymn. I can believe the mighty are pulled down from their throne because I've seen the women."5 The women give us a living testimony to God's past faithfulness.
Seeing them, we can listen to news about God's future faithfulness and recognize that the news, as out of proportion as it is to our realistic expectations, is nonetheless trustworthy. "The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it," Paul testifies on the third Sunday in Advent (1 Thess. 5:24).
Finally, Advent wakes us to a future in which the biggest of dreams becomes a reality: "The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them" (Rev. 21:3). Pointing to that Day, Jesus says, "Keep awake." Awake is the state not just of the anxious but also of the hopeful. Awake is the posture of the future, the posture of Resurrection. That is, awake is how we will be on that great gettin'-up morning.
For now, no matter what hymns we are singing in December, or where the baby Jesus figurine from the crèche spends its time before December 24, Advent texts like Mark 13 and 1 Thessalonians 5 proclaim the sure faithfulness of God and deliver to us an invitation to rest — and wake — in that faithfulness ahead of time, that is, ahead of the End time, right now.
In so doing, we bear witness, along with Mary, and John, and all the witnesses of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, that One is coming who is greater than all of us and whose hope for us is greater than all we can imagine.
Mary E. Hinkle is an associate professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.
1. For the opposing viewpoint, see Maxwell E. Johnson, "Let's Keep Advent Right Where It Is," Lutheran Forum 28 (1994): 45-47.
2. Frank C. Senn, "The Meaning of Advent: Implications for Preaching," Concordia Theological Monthly 42 (1971) 657-58.
3. Service Book and Hymnal (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1958), 75-76. Gospel texts for Advent are (1) Matthew 21:1-9 or Luke 3:1-6 (Jesus' entry into Jerusalem or John the Baptist's sermon), (2) Luke 21:25-33 (signs of the end), (3) Matthew 11:2-10 (on John the Baptist and his ministry), and John 1:19-28 (John's witness to the one who is coming after him).
4. The Lutheran Book of Worship lectionary offers the triumphal entry as an option for the First Sunday of Advent each year, to be read in place of material on the signs of the end.
5. Stephen Farris, "Preaching Advent Hope at the Beginning of the New Millennium," Journal for Preachers 23 (1999): 6.