Archive for November 29, 2015

The Blessings of Advent

For many people, the Christmas season has already begun. Black Friday means stores kick off their official Christmas sales and hordes of shoppers flock to malls, and shopping centres festooned with Yuletide decorations. Television Christmas specials, school Christmas concerts, work-related Christmas parties and more Christmas events fill calendars for the next several weeks.

Yet in the midst of the rush, Advent beckons us to remember the blessings of this often overlooked season. While the blessings of Advent are numerous, especially: patience, perspective, hope, service and opportunity.

Advent is a season of waiting. We gradually light the candles of the Advent wreath, adding a new candle each week until all four candles are lit. If your family has an Advent calendar, you mark the slow, daily progress of the season. All this symbolic waiting has roots in the theological significance of Advent.

In Advent, we remember Jesus’ first coming as a baby born in Bethlehem. Old Testament prophets who proclaimed that God would fulfill the promise: the coming of the Prince of Peace, the righteous branch of David’s line, the Messiah. Later, an angelic visitor will tell Mary and Joseph of Jesus’ coming.

At this time, we also remember that Jesus promised to come again in the future. We live in this time of waiting, when we’re between the inauguration of the kingdom of God and its culmination, between the “already” of Jesus’ first coming and the “not yet” of his return. During Advent, we also remember we don’t know exactly how long the wait will be. We’ve been waiting for the Kingdom to come in its fullness for nearly 2,000 years; the wait may be over soon — or it may be thousands of years from now.

The blessing of Advent patience teaches us to let go of anxiety. We can’t make Jesus’ return come any sooner. What we can do is live by the values of the Kingdom in the here and now.

We can easily get caught up in the jolly frenzy of the world around us. We can be seduced into believing we have to make this the best Christmas ever for ourselves and our loved ones. We may get caught up in the quest to buy the perfect gift or in the desire to receive the thing we most crave. We may become outraged over people who say “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

Advent is a reminder of what’s really important. We are to live by the values of the Kingdom. The prophet Isaiah uses the image of the mountain of the Lord’s house becoming the highest of the mountains. In that time, we’ll pray to learn God’s ways, to walk in God’s paths. We’ll beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, turning implements of war into tools for caring for the earth and nurturing life. Nations will no longer wage war. While we wait for that promised future to come in fullness, we’ll walk in the light of the Lord (Isaiah 2:1-5). Advent reminds us of the Christian perspective that walking that path, loving God and loving our neighbour, is where our focus should be.

We’re entering into the darkest time of the year, with the sun gradually setting earlier and rising later each day until the winter equinox next month. All the world’s focus on spending time with family and friends during this season can be depressing for those who are alone. The news is often filled with bad news around the world and closer to home. All these factors and more can lead us to believe that things are hopeless.

Yet during Advent, we remember the hope we have in God. We remember the prophets who lived in much more challenging times than ours, times when their nations were on the brink of extinction, when many wondered if God still loved them. Yet Jeremiah, Isaiah, Malachi, Zephaniah, Micah, and others remind us that nothing is impossible with God. The light of God continues to shine, even in the deepest darkness. And as a people of hope, our mission is to reflect that light so others can hope.

This time of year provides numerous opportunities to proclaim the love of Jesus Christ with our actions. Many nonprofit organizations have seasonal service projects that individuals and church groups can join. Or you or your group can plan a short-term project: go carolling at a hospital or a retirement community. Host a party for family, friends, or neighbours, and ask each guest to bring a nonperishable food item for the local food pantry. Check with an agency that works with people who are homeless to learn about how you can help during this season. You may find your service becomes the start of an ongoing commitment.

The end of the year provides opportunity to share God’s love with others. While the Christmas frenzy surrounding us can be overwhelming, it can also open doors. Even a person who rarely thinks about attending worship, engaging in Bible study, or praying understands that this season is at heart a celebration of God’s love. The weeks of Advent can provide the perfect opportunity for you to extend the blessings of the season to other people.

You may find that your friends, co-workers, neighbours, and family members who aren’t part of a church family may be open to an invitation to join you for worship, either on a Sunday morning during Advent or on Christmas Eve.

Advent offers many blessings. When we worship during this season, sing Advent hymns, read the lectionary texts, light the candles of the Advent wreath, slowly reveal the days of the Advent calendar, serve others, and take the opportunity to share God’s good news, we receive the blessings of Advent and offer those blessings to others.

Take Up Your Cross

When Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” his first followers probably did not hear it metaphorically. Crucifixion was reserved for enemies of the state, so Jesus’ summons would have been heard as a call to insurrection. They knew that would-be messiahs and revolutionaries who proclaimed a new, imminent kingdom of God had said, “Take up your sword and follow me.” Some of these rebellions led to huge mass executions by crucifixion.

So, when Jesus says, “Take up your cross,” he’s skipping steps. He calls his followers to do the kinds of swordless, nonviolent things that would lead to martyrdom. Stephen, James and Paul all answered that call and died . “Take up your cross and follow me” is a call to nonviolent yet revolutionary action, the kind that would invite persecution.

Early followers of Jesus generalized his revolutionary call to other kinds of suffering. When the disciples were publicly flogged, they rejoiced that they could share in Jesus’ suffering (Acts 5:11). Paul connected personal and private suffering (his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12:7) with his persecution for the sake of the gospel: “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10).”

Today, “bearing your cross” is a Christian metaphor that can carry many different meanings. It’s often used to indicate the trials and temptations that we experience in life, covering everything from addiction to cancer, lust to poverty or financial hardship.

“Take up your cross” has lost some of the power of its original meaning. It’s gone from changing the world and threatening the established order to struggling against our cravings for chocolate during Lent or tolerating people we don’t like.

This change in meaning has also led to a perverse Christian glorification of human suffering: If bearing a cross makes us holy, then encouraging others to bear crosses, or actively nailing them to their crosses, must also be holy. In this way we invert the cross and the gospel of Christ, and make ourselves agents of the Empire rather than martyrs for the gospel.

For example, we invert the call to take up our cross with poverty, treating the suffering that comes with poverty as a noble thing. Sure, Jesus said “blessed are the poor,” and encouraged Christians to sell what they had and give the proceeds to the poor. Saint Francis and other Christian saints have embraced voluntary poverty, and found that they could have joy in the midst of their suffering.

Too many Christians see poverty as benign instead of something to be alleviated, challenged and fought against. I often hear middle-class Christians who have gone on mission trips or served the poor say things like, “I was amazed at how happy they were. It just goes to show that you don’t need money to be happy.” This is not what “blessed are the poor” means. When Jesus said to sell all you have and give the money to the poor, the goal was not to increase the total number of people living in poverty – it was to decrease it. Being poor does not mean being joyless, but that’s hardly the point. The reason that God has a special concern for the financially poor is that poverty is cruel.

The romanticization of poverty ignores the neurological damage done to children who grow up in chronic poverty as well as the stress that generates an ongoing public health crisis and poor health outcomes for people in poverty. It ignores the systemic injustices that perpetuate poverty. When people talk about poverty as a cross to bear, or quote Jesus saying, “You will always have the poor with you” as an excuse for public policy inaction, they abandon the witness of the gospel in favour of the status quo.
We also invert the call to take up our cross with sexuality and gender identity. In our ethical and theological debates about sexual orientation and gender identity, many straight Christians have said that celibacy for gay and lesbian persons, or assimilation for trans, intersex, or gender queer persons is just “the cross one has to bear.” This cross is not voluntarily taken up, nor does it threaten the Established Order of Things. It is assigned by a majority straight and cisgender culture, and those who reject this cross have often been nailed to it against their will.

Peter, by contrast, calls this kind of imposed obligation a “yoke,” not a cross. When he stands to address the church over the circumcision controversy, Peter (who was circumcised) asks the leaders, “why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). Some of the Christians in Acts 15 probably thought mandatory circumcision was a cross that everyone – every male, anyway – should be willing to bear. But Peter’s speech challenges this assumption: The cross of Christ is something we take up voluntarily; a yoke is what we place upon another.

We invert the call to take up our cross with euthanasia. “Suffering is a grace-filled opportunity to participate in the passion of Jesus Christ. Euthanasia selfishly steals that opportunity.”

Certainly, it is possible to approach suffering and death with an openness to know God as a co-sufferer with us. We may be able to experience transcendent grace in the midst of pain, and to come to a deeper appreciation of what it meant for God to be incarnate in Christ. But if suffering is such a grace-filled opportunity, why would we work to alleviate any suffering at all? Why establish hospitals? Why work to end poverty? Why take aspirin for a headache? Only the one who is suffering can decide if their suffering ennobles them and draws them closer to Christ, or if it leads them to bitterness and alienation. Even Jesus prayed to be delivered from suffering.

These are some ways we rhetorically invert the call to take up a cross and follow Jesus: with poverty, with sexual orientation and gender identity and with euthanasia. There are certainly more ways that the improper use of this metaphor turns the Good News into bad news: Pastors have told people to stay in bad or abusive relationships and to silently endure racial oppression as a way of “bearing a cross.” We should be suspicious of any rhetoric which places the cross on the shoulders of another. We are called to take up crosses — not nail others to them.

There’s one more important aspect to remember about suffering and Christ’s call to take up a cross: When Christ carried the cross, Simon of Cyrene bore it with him. There is a sense in which whatever metaphorical cross we take up, there should be others, a community of support, to carry it with us in solidarity. The natural response to anyone who tells you to bear a cross should be, “Then will you carry it with me?”

This is why we need to pay attention to the revolutionary meaning of “take up your cross.” Revolutions only happen when followers do the kinds of things that might get them crucified as a community. Brave individuals can do heroic things and suffer heroic martyrdom without leading to any significant change. But a community of people who do not fear the cross is an unstoppable force.

Bravery and a willingness to suffer itself is not the measure of what makes a cross. When Christians claim they are being persecuted, we need to ask critical questions about who is placing a burden on whom, and who is asking whom to endure suffering and for what end.

The cross of Christ, and the call to take up our own (instead of taking up arms), should not be stripped of its scandal and offensiveness to the world and the Empire. It is a call to change the order of things with our vulnerability instead of the power of the sword, with love rather than coercion. We take up a cross instead of a sword because the world is heavily invested in inequality, in patriarchy, in the coercive use of force and in the fear of suffering and death. Those who live by the sword die by the sword, but those who die by their cross live for God.

By all means, take up your cross and follow Jesus … but don’t nail someone else to one.