Category Archives: Advent

The Sweep of Biblical Theology in One Swoop (or at least one awesome piece of art)

Crayon and pencil by Sr. Grace Remington, OCSO Copyright 2005, Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey
Crayon and pencil by Sr. Grace Remington, OCSO
Copyright 2005, Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey

 

O Eve!

My mother, my daughter, life-giving Eve,

Do not be ashamed, do not grieve.

The former things have passed away,

Our God has brought us to a New Day.

See, I am with Child,

Through whom all will be reconciled.

O Eve! My sister, my friend,

We will rejoice together

Forever

Life without end.
— Sr. Columba Guare copyright© 2005 Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey

I’ve been completely mesmerized by this illustration since I saw it a few days ago. I’m tempted to write much, but the picture and the poem really say it all. Just three things:
1) I first saw this through our friend Wesley Hill. I gain access to so much great content from Wes.
2) I attempted to preach a sermon a few weeks ago that this drawing accomplishes in image form.
3) I feel that St. Irenaeus would have loved this.
Happy/Merry Christmas!

An Advent Thought: A Royal Nobody

(Note: I’m (Joel) contributing to a daily Advent devotional. Each post proceeds from a lectionary reading.)

John 7:40-44

When they heard these words, some of the people said, “This really is the Prophet.” Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” So there was a division among the people over him.

Jesus was a confusing figure. If he really was the “Prophet” (an end-times figure that 1st Century Jews were looking for as a sign that God’s day of final salvation had emerged) or the “Christ” (a king-like anointed leader; again a symbol that final salvation had commenced) THEN WHY WAS HE FROM GALILEE?

Galilee was backwoods. Galileans were a peasant people. Thoughts like this emerge:

“Nothing wrong with Galilee, but the Christ would have to come from somewhere else.”

“If he is from Galilee, he can’t be him.”

Instead, you see, the Christ would be of royal lineage! From the ancient city of David! From David’s line!

John is writing with great irony here, and intentionally so. Jesus had been born in Bethlehem, but he grew up and lived his adult life in Galilee. While John’s reader knows this, the characters in the narrative do not. John loves this dramatic irony.

In this exchange, however, is the great hope of the Advent season. Further, it’s the hope of the gospel, in miniature.

Jesus is indeed royal. He is the king of kings, for crying out loud. The God of all creation, in him all things hold together.

But at his coming, we have a king on the scene that made himself nothing. He’s in human skin. To draw near. To be God with us. To come for and to identify with the nobodies, the insignificant ones, and the ones who don’t have it all together.

More irony? Heck, when this royal son of David went to the royal city of David for the occasion of his birth, forget a birthing suite. His parents can’t even find a cheap hotel room.

It’s that exact combination — his kingliness and his lowliness — that constitutes all our hope.

A Royal Nobody.

All for us.

Though ____________ ; yet I will……

(From today’s Daily Office)

Habakkuk 3:17-18

17 Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

Ours is a broken world. It’s as broken as it is confusing. The strange juxtaposition of “beautiful and terrible things” is almost too much to fathom.

In this passage, the prophet resolves to rejoice in the Lord, in spite of the way things are.

The text is a very appropriate Advent reading.

It is easy for us to think that God is most at work when things are going right. This is not true. He is at work in the way things actually are. No matter how difficult. Martin Luther believed that one look at the cross tells us as much.

This is why God came. A light needed to come into the darkness.

Where do you need him today? During this season?

Fill in the blank for your life: “Though the ___________, yet I will rejoice in the Lord.”

Jesus came, so that he could come into our present tense painful situations.

Believe and hope.

The Sacrilege we call “Incarnation” (and the Divine Love of Drastic Measures)

Facing the western rose window in Durham Cathedral
Facing the western rose window in Durham Cathedral

The Word became flesh and dwelled among us… (from John 1:14)

Last night was the annual Carol Service for St Mary’s College. As Chaplain, the organization of everything but the music was my responsibility (and for the online record, the St Mary’s Chapel Choir may be the best of its kind—anywhere). Intermingled with the ethereal, other-wordly beauty of the choral music were readings textured with earthy grit.

Other-worldly beauty plus earthy grit—these lie at the heart of Christmas. And the line above from John 1:14 lies at the heart of the Christian tradition.

Below is a slightly edited version of what I preached last night in Durham Cathedral…


The Word—God himself in the Person of Jesus—became flesh.

So GOD…with toenails. GOD…with pores, cuticles, and hair follicles. GOD vulnerable to bug bites, infections; even prone to body odor. GOD with a belly button. I

know this Cathedral is almost 1,000 years old, but I doubt “belly button” has been said from this holy pulpit with much frequency.

And maybe it is okay to laugh a bit. If my children have not yet giggled over the idea of God with bug bites and a belly button, then I will be shocked. To speak in such theological absurdities, to speak of God in this way, can evoke 1) laughter, because the idea of God with crumbs in his beard and wine on his breath seems almost comical.

But to speak with such earthy grit about God can also evoke offense. It assaults our sensibilities about the divine. God encased within a warm, membranous sack of amniotic fluid that spilled on the dirt clotting up dust in a Judean stable—it sounds sacrilegious, unworthy of the pleasing aesthetics of our choral music, too jarring for the lovely sentimentality of our favourite John Lewis commercial.

But this “sacrilege” we call “Incarnation”: the Word became flesh.

At the heart of Christian faith is the apparent “sacrilege” of God with a body, of God becoming materially visible, touchable. It also made him, of course, killable, as the Cross reminds us.

Some mysteries are not meant to be unraveled. But a reason is provided for this Incarnation. Why did “the Word become flesh and dwell among us?” From John chapter 3—because “God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son.

Why did Divinity end up with an umbilical cord and eyelashes? Because of a love so energetic that compelled God to take drastic measures.

When I was at university, I was quite the cynic toward love and romance. But in my final year I suddenly found myself ensnared, arrested, overpowered… and she had no idea. After much inner turmoil, eventually we began a dating relationship that, was fairy-tale wonderful. Six months later we had scheduled what now would now be called a “gap year.” She was leaving to spend a year in South America, and I was boarding a plane for a trip around the world. There at the airport gate I hugged her one last time, trying not to cry and make a scene. Then I told her, “the next time I see you, I’m going to ask you to marry me.” I turned away and boarded that plane.

Several months later I was on another plane. With no training in Spanish, I landed in the sweltering coastal heat of Guayaquil and traveled by night into the interior of Ecuador. The next day I somehow I managed to get onto this rickety old bus full of locals, chickens, maybe a pig or two, and there I was, a nervous gringo with a very conspicuous bouquet of flowers. We wound through remote villages in the Andes Mountains, and at around 3,000 metres above sea level, I hopped off the bus. Then, after some searching and waiting, I found the girl. She said yes, and she is sitting here tonight.

My point is this: When someone loves you fiercely, they will come after you. When someone fiercely loves you, they will bridge the distance, propel through the blockades; they will take drastic measures.

And that is why “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” For God so loved. No matter how many ferries or buses or planes or mules I would have had to take, I would have found that girl in those mountains. But God has made a cosmic leap, from the ethereal beauty of heaven into our earthy grit. Come hell or high water, no distance daunted him, and he came into our mess to find us.

That is why God had pores and eyelashes and dust between his toes: For God so loved.

It is the sort of love that makes angels sing aloud in the dark.

The Spiritual Life and Divine Assault (When God Hurts Us)

“God sometimes hurts us.”

I said this as I sank with a sigh, exhausted and burdened, into a chair in our living room. Wisely, my wife posed the most appropriate question: “Well, does this happen in Scripture?”

The answer, we agreed, is YES.

God hurts us.

And Christians need a spirituality capacious enough for divine assault. Devotional literature that cannot accommodate a God who at times afflicts his people is inadequate for the biblical vision of the spiritual life.

I am not bitter as I write this—a bit broken, perhaps… but not really bitter. There have certainly been moments over the past several months, though, when I have hammered an ironclad sky with “why, O God?” or “how long, O Lord?”

With such prayers I find myself in good biblical company—spluttering laments are a central part of Scripture’s vision of spirituality. I have written about this sort of spirituality in Faith Without Illusions, especially in what I think is my favorite chapter, “The Way of the Tragic Poet: Worshipful Lament over Cynical Complaint.” But I have had to wade into the waters of lament thicker than I had known when writing the book. As my friend Chuck Hooten said, “you should have seen this coming!”

So where in the Bible do we learn of a God who hurts us?

It is hard to avoid, actually:

“I form light and create darkness,
I make well-being and create calamity,
I am the LORD, who does all these things.”
(Isa 45:7; see also Lam 3:38; Job 2:10; Isa 54:16; Exod 4:11)

For a specific example, let’s take Jacob. He was a child of divine promise. Jacob was a son of the Abrahamic covenant. Central to his identity in Scripture is a night of combat with God himself (or at least with his angelic representative). Fisticuffs with God: this is what being chosen as a progenitor of the covenant people got Jacob. He did not escape without pain. God gave him a limp. Jacob, the beloved child of the covenant, was disabled by the God who chose him.

Jacob was renamed “Israel,” a name meaning “strives with God.” Struggle and conflict with the divine Lord is intrinsic to being God’s beloved. From Israel the person came Israel the nation. So even the namesake of God’s people implies divine conflict.

Qualifications to what I am writing are immediately required, of course. The struggle between national Israel and God is most often due in Scripture to Israel’s recalcitrance or refusal to obey.

I have also written with verve, I think (both in TheoMedia, at The Ooze, and here at the blog) to qualify that we cannot haplessly attribute atrocities and natural disasters to the divine hand. By no means is God the source of every calamity.

But with fear and trembling over the vast theological unknowns, I still think God hurts us. At least sometimes. At least it certainly feels that way.

I know, I know—this is impious God-talk. But try the latest devotional logic on the poet who cried out, “For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me” (Ps 38:2). Reading Lamentations 3 will split open a gentle piety that defends God’s every action.

Then again, after ascribing directly to God the worst atrocities an ancient city could suffer, the tragic poet writes,

For the Lord will not cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.(3:31–33)

In a stroke of explicit contradiction to everything penned in the previous verses, the poet ends up suggesting that God really does not hurt us, at least not “willingly.”

Such is the spirituality of those who suffer. It makes theology very confusing.

Of course, Jacob would likely disagree with “he does not willingly afflict” us. And while squirming in spiritual pain deep in the night, some of us might disagree as well.

(Now, a transition: Most laments in the Bible transition at some point from grief to hopefulness. This brief lament is no different…. )

Even so, what we hold to when blood gushes from the divine arrow wounds in our soul is that whatever our take on the source of our suffering, the divine Lord plunged himself into it headfirst and drank the razor sharp cup. The worst cup of all. And not long after the cup was emptied, so also was emptied a tomb, that cup’s inevitable consequence.

I admit that most of this blog post does not resonate very well with holiday cheer. But I think it does echo (to some degree) the dark chords of Advent angst. At the heart of this season in the church calendar is a minor key chorus of moans, those of a forlorn nation looking for a Savior who seems hurtfully absent. The cry in the night of a baby, though, has signaled a key change. And those of us limping and pierced with the blows and arrows of the Lord must check out of the cynics’ ward and peer over the edge of that manger. Even if the Child’s coming is like “a sword” that will pierce even the soul of his own mother (Luke 2:35), it is a piercing we need.

An Advent Devotional

(Throughout the season of Advent, I’ll occasionally post a brief devotional thought. This will be cross-posted from an Advent devotional in the college ministry where I serve. For some general thoughts on Advent, read here.)

Isaiah 2:1-5

1 The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

2 It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;

3 and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”

For out of Zion shall go the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

5 O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord.

The ancient people of Israel hung their hopes, their identity, their souls on this prophetic vision of the future.

One day, yes, one day, their God would break in and make everything right.

God’s rule and his reign would be permanently established and recognized fully and finally. All nations would participate. Pagan peoples would no longer be feared because they would recognize the God of Israel as highest and best.

Then God himself would rule in personal proximity to his people and this would bring about a true and everlasting peace. Weapons of war would turn to weapons of farming.

The only task left after this final epic act would be for the people to walk in it, and enjoy.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the full realization of this dream lies in the future still. Just as Israel had to wait, so do we. Last time I checked, false worship, sin and brokenness, violence and strife, are very much present in our world…..and in my heart.

Advent is a time for us to long and wait for the realization of this prophetic dream. To anticipate a day of fresh and final salvation. To enter into Israel’s story and to hope for God to enter into ours.

He will make things right cosmically, and personally. Just you wait.

Just you wait.

Advent with the Gathering Church

Inspired by my fellow contributors’ Advent posts, I’d love to share a few items from my community’s Advent observation.

1) Each of the last several years, I’ve had some part in writing and/or curating a church devotional.  Even though these reflections usually take place while there are still leaves on the trees and it’s not yet sweater weather, this rhythm of pre-Advent preparation has been a pastoral boon for me.  Unlike some things, even some sermons, I’ve found this exercise to be preparatory rather than exhausting.  By the time we’re lighting candles on Sunday morning (in an elementary school gym), I’m more prepared and excited rather than bored or tired.  Here is this year’s devotional (available for free download).  Clicking here will get you to some of the previous material, also freely given.

2) It has been really special as a pastor immersed in a community (both church and wider) chock-full of creative types to attempt to foster that creativity.  To pastor people who consider (and some who don’t) themselves artists has been one of the most joyful, challenging, and favorite parts of my duties and the Lord’s provision.  This season, I especially enjoyed the give-and-take that went along with commissioning this piece for our church’s Advent.  I got the opportunity to work conceptually with the artist, Nathan Hood, on a work that would adorn our bulletins and the advent devotional.

© 2012 Nathan Hood
© 2012 Nathan Hood

Here are some of Nate’s words on his process:

When putting things together for this Advent imagery there were a few themes in my mind upfront, including the power of God in the helplessness of a human baby and the mystery of God made known in Christ. Reflecting on it now, two things come to mind most readily.

First is the awesomeness, the wonder, the amazing happening of the Uncreated becoming a created being, becoming human. The question always arising from that thought for me is, “If God himself were to walk among us, what would God do, what would God be like if we could see, touch, hear, taste, and smell him?”  “What would he be up to?”

Secondly, comes the thought that Christ is at once God and man, our King and our Servant, the Lion and the Lamb. There are many realities alive in Him at the same moment. There are many alive in us, and so many if we have received the love and the sonship he holds out to us.

What do you see? What are your thoughts during this time?

Ultimately in our expression of these truths words fail us, as does imagery. Forgive me for attempting both, and thank you for letting me be a part of this. May our capacity to receive the love of our Father grow, increase, abound. Peace to you church.

3) Finally, our music ministry at church decided to give some of our Advent music away.  In 2010, this short record came together as a companion to our Advent devotion.  At the time, we were (and still are) trying to figure out what it means to observe this season of waiting and how Advent tempers our unabated early embrace of Christmas (or at least the sentimental christmas-iness around us).  The result is a “night-themed” collection of alternately chilly and warm devotionally-sprung, but missionally-minded tunes.

I’d love to invite you to take advantage of this here:

Hope, peace, joy, and love during this season.  May God enable you through his Spirit to be an attentive and expectant wait-er.  May we anticipate our Lord’s second coming with the “thrill of hope” that we experience and celebrate his first.

-Chris Breslin