Monday, November 30, 2015

Hope: A Story Big Enough

A few weeks ago while reading a friend’s blog, I was reintroduced to the wonderful Advent perspective of Tish Harrison Warren. In this particular article,
How the Liturgical Calendar Keeps Me Sane, Warren points us towards the first theme of Advent: Hope.

Growing up I attended a liturgical church where I was weekly reminded of the church year calendar with all its holy seasons and ordinary times. In recent years I’ve chosen to attend a church that embraces a simpler structure. Yet as this time of year rolls around, I find myself crashing into Advent in an attempt to capture the mystery and emotion of whole church year in four short weeks. Warren’s perspective is both grounding and comforting. She says what I wish I could say as I welcome this Advent season. So, if you will forgive me, I will quote her at length:

"[The liturgical calendar] reminds us that there can be no celebration without preparation. It keeps us from cheaply proclaiming hope before we’ve adequately waited, mourned, and sat in the ache of longing. We aren’t ready to celebrate until we acknowledge over time through ritual and worship that we and this world are not yet right and whole.

And here again is why the church calendar keeps me sane. Because people like me who are prone to melancholy and who tend to believe the lie that despair is more real than rejoicing need to be told by the church, ‘Okay, enough mourning and aching for now. It’s time to rejoice. It’s time to celebrate because whether you care to admit it or not, you have a lot that needs celebrating.’ It calls me out of cynicism without degenerating into sentimentality.

I catch myself thinking that whatever I feel at this moment is the truest reality there is. But the liturgical calendar tells me otherwise. It tells a story big enough to sweep me up into it. It calls the shots. It gives me a time to ache, a time to prepare, a time to celebrate, a time of repentance, a time of feasting. It says that something defines time that is truer than my circumstances and my feelings about them. It establishes a regulative tempo for my emotional life beyond what I feel is presently most ‘authentic.’

And mercifully, it reminds me that not only is there mourning and repentance, rejoicing and feasting, but that there are long slogs of the Ordinary. Life has times of deepest grief and groaning and times of profound joy and Hallelujahs. But much of it is neither. Much of it is small and unnoticed and hums along, years spent in work, sleep, maintenance, and everydayness. And this too is honored in the church calendar. In the long ordinary, neither the valley nor the mountaintops but the plain planes of life, God is still with us, working and rooting us when it seems like not much is happening. And this also is part of the story of the gospel. And this also is part of the story the church tells us in its changing seasons.”

Another writer I've begun to follow says it this way:
Advent is about the “now-and-not-yet . . .the in-the-meantime. [It is] the very real, very tangible call to be attentive to my own needs, and to the vulnerability and need of those around me.”

In contemporary society, the word hope conjures up images of mundane waiting and anticipation, yet unlike these, the Hope found in Advent is laced with promise. The book of Isaiah is one of the best places to see this Hope laid out.

In Isaiah 40:3-5, the prophet declares
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

The voice of Isaiah continues to call to us in passages like 61:1-2.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn.”

Here he speaks of visions of a promise yet to be fulfilled and words of comfort and hope that are yet to be fully realized. But it is in the following three passages that the specifics of Christ’s character, actions, lineage, and motives begin to form a tangible hope.

In Isaiah 7:14, the Lord speaks through Isaiah to King Ahaz, saying,
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Isaiah 9:1-7 contains a refrain we all know so well:

“But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder,and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”

And Isaiah 11:1-6 gives us striking imagery of the Messiah’s lineage and character:
“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his loins.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.”