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Advent 2017

First Week of Advent: Looking Back

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, it’s a challenge to avoid looking back. Nostalgia is rampant. Families observe many long-standing holiday traditions: unpacking treasured decorations, putting up the tree, sharing holiday meals featuring favorite menus and recipes, attending concerts and programs, sharing memories and family stories, and singing familiar Christmas carols. In many families the celebration cannot be considered complete without engaging in all of the customary activities, right down to the last tiny detail.

The Church, too, invites us to look back, but much further back: to the time hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, when prophets foretold the coming of a Savior who would fulfill God’s plan of salvation for his broken world. The Old Testament prophecies pertaining to Messiah, many of which are read during the Advent season, are comforting and hopeful:

 

He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isaiah 40:11)

 

 

 

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. (Isaiah 61:1-4)

 

… 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 any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid; (Micah 4:3-4)

 

 

Who wouldn’t want to live in a wholly just and peaceful world? Leaving behind the pain and chaos of the world as we know it, to live in a world without oppression, pain, and sorrow, should be universally appealing, even to those with hardship-hardened hearts. The promise of eternal life in such a world is encompassed in the promise of Messiah. The Israelites held onto it for many centuries. At the appointed time God’s Anointed One would come to liberate his chosen people. From the powers like the Assyrians and the Babylonians in the time of the prophets, to the Romans of Jesus’ earthly lifetime, to the anti-Semitic forces such as the Nazis in more recent times, wave after wave of oppression was endured because of faith in the promise that Messiah would come to overcome the human sinfulness that resulted in so many forms of human suffering. In God’s good time, all would be well.

It’s not exactly news that greed, lust for power, suspicion and hatred of others and other forms of human sinfulness have yet to be eradicated. The end of the age that Jesus spoke about has not yet come. Christians believe that Messiah came to earth once, and will come again to inaugurate the reign of peace on earth. So this season we join with the Hebrew prophets who still wait for Messiah’s arrival, and take comfort in their message of hope.

Questions for Reflection

1. What type of oppression in the world today is of greatest concern to you? How does it relate to the human inclination to sin? What could you pray for that might help mitigate the consequences of this type of oppression?

2. How have you experienced the presence of Messiah and of his Spirit in your life? How have these experiences impacted your daily life?

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Advent 2017

Advent: Preparation and Perspective

The season of Advent has been observed by the Christian Church for the four weeks before Christmas since the sixth century. It was designated a time of preparation and penitence, and initially observed similarly to the Lenten season that precedes Easter. Advent was to be set aside for prayer, fasting and alms-giving, focused on preparing the hearts of the faithful to receive the Christ Child at the time of the Feast of the Incarnation (Christmas). The thirty or so days of Advent were solemn and subdued, in contrast to the joyous mood of the Twelve Days of Christmas that followed.

Contemporary society seems to have reversed these two seasons. The time before Christmas is now the time when we try frantically to squeeze in everything we feel compelled to do to celebrate the secular season: the shopping, the gifts, the baking, the parties, the performances, and for many, the travel arrangements. The days after Christmas have become the more subdued time. As a result, the pre-Christmas season is now known for producing high levels of stress and anxiety and not much calm or contemplation. Many of us long for even a moment of peace amid the chaos of commercial Christmas.

This set of weekly reflections is intended to help you arrive at a new perspective on the Advent season. I invite you to pause and take a brief “time out,” to create a space of calm and quiet during which you can prepare to receive the Savior. Keep in mind that we prepare for the arrival of a person and not a date on the calendar. Remember, too, that the goal is not to stage the “perfect” Christmas celebration. Rather, the goal of Advent is to be ready to greet God himself with a contrite spirit and a humble heart. May we all have a Blessed Advent season.

 

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Advent 2016

LENT: SEASON OF RE-CREATION

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Christian season of Lent, which spans forty days (not including Sundays) before Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection.  In some Christian traditions ashes are rubbed on the foreheads of the faithful in the form of a cross, with the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  This signifies awareness of our mortality and penance for sin.  (In case you were wondering,  the ashes come from burning the palms that were used at the celebration of Palm Sunday the previous year.)

The emphasis on mortality, or humanness, brings to mind the inescapable fact that we all will die, but it should also raise our consciousness about being human while we are alive.  Some human patterns of thought and behavior are less than admirable, but they are part of our mortality too, as are the positive qualities that can improve our lives and those of generations to come.

One element of the human condition that comes to the fore during this season is the need for re-creation.  We all need periodic makeovers, perhaps physically, but also emotionally and spiritually.  In its focus on baby animals and springtime flowers, the secular celebration of Easter has more in common with a pagan fertility ritual to guarantee a productive growing season than with a contemplative commemoration of Christ’s suffering and death.  It’s easy to see why:  the worldly images are far more appealing than the crown of thorns, the lash, the cross and the grave.  As different in character as these seasonal observances appear, they share one central idea:  newness.  The scriptures we hear during the season refer to God creating new things — a new world order, and new hearts in his faithful people:

“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 48:6)

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things

shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (Isaiah 65:17)

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”(Psalm 51:11)

“And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.'”

(Revelations 21:5)

Human beings love, sometimes even crave, new things.  The psychological term for the preference for novelty and novelty-seeking behavior is neophilia.  Research evidence suggests that neophilia has a genetic basis,  meaning that it survived through our evolutionary development because it was adaptive. The inclination to search for new environments, food sources, and social affiliations would certainly be a valuable trait for a species whose survival depended upon being able to explore and relocate when adverse climatic conditions arose.  As with most other human characteristics, novelty-seeking is also affected by upbringing, culture, age, and health status, but in general it is safe to say that the majority of people like some measure of variety in their lives.  Of course marketers and product designers depend on this being the case: we wouldn’t buy as many new things if we were too satisfied with what we already had.

The season of Lent is a time to focus on the parts of our spiritual lives with which we (and God) are dissatisfied, and open ourselves to his Spirit to re-create those parts:  “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:  everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Spiritual transformation does not occur magically or instantaneously.  The forty-day journey of Lent is designed to lead us to an enhanced awareness of the effects of sin and human failings.  That awareness is the beginning of re-creation. You might think of it a spiritual spring cleaning.  We know that when we clean our homes, offices, garages and other personal spaces,  rearranging the same stuff in a different array creates only the illusion of change.  Real change requires discarding what is no longer useful or worthwhile, and constructing a new order based on what is essential.  Similarly, whatever is holding us back spiritually from growing into the people God calls us to be must be discarded.  Every one of us has something like that in our life.  Lent is the ideal time to identify it and make a new beginning.

 

Questions for reflection:

With what parts of my spiritual self am I dissatisfied?

With what parts of my spiritual self is God dissatisfied?

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Advent 2016

God Rest You Merry!

The familiar English carol, God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen, which was quoted by Charles Dickens in his 1843 novella A Christmas Carol dates back to at least the 16th century.  It was first printed and distributed with two other new carols in a 1760 broadsheet, an inexpensive single sheet of illustrated music, and was said to be a favorite of the lower classes.  The language sounds quaint and stilted to us today, and we commonly mis-punctuate the greeting as “God rest you, merry gentlemen.”  A modernized paraphrase would be something like “God keep you in happiness and prosperity, gentlemen; let nothing disrupt your joy.”  Not nearly as poetic as the original, but more conducive to understanding.  Rediscovering the original meaning of this carol is worthwhile because it conveys some sentiments that are lacking in the social discourse of our day.

If you remember the Dickens tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas Eve excursion through Christmases past, present and future, you’ll recall that not everyone in the England of his day was happy and prosperous.  The ongoing industrial revolution produced a substantial and growing class of working poor as the separation between the haves and the have-nots grew wider.  The lower class, represented in the story by the Bob Cratchit family, could manage to eke out a living by sending their elementary school aged children to work, into poor or dangerous working conditions for long hours – child labor laws and wages and hours regulations were not enacted until the 19th century.  In addition to the struggling working poor there was also a growing pauper class that lived on the streets, in poorhouses or in debtors’ prisons, surviving on begged food and spare change.  In contrast, a new category of well-to-do factory and business owners, like Ebenezer Scrooge, made their fortunes by climbing the ladder of success in the new enterprises made possible by the mechanization of work.  It’s hard to know how many of them like Scrooge and his deceased partner Marley devoted their entire lifetimes to making ever more money, without apparent concern for the plight of those whose toil was the source of their comfort.  But if human nature at present bears any resemblance to human nature three centuries ago, we can assume that there were many kindred spirits of Scrooge then as now.

Two important messages contained in this old English carol should command our attention because they pertain today.  First, the greeting “God rest you merry” conveys concern about the welfare and well-being of others, and wishes them happiness.  Remember the breadth of the gulf between the daily living and working conditions of the poor and the relative comfort and worry-free existence of the rich in Dickens’ day.  Still, the poor could say to the wealthy, “God grant you peace and prosperity,” just as Bob Cratchit and Scrooge’s nephew Fred wished him happiness on Christmas, even though they knew their good wishes would be countered with a reply of “Humbug!”  It is difficult to harbor sincere well wishes for people whose lives are different from our own, even more so when our fortunes are inversely linked to theirs.

Second, the old greeting acknowledges that it is God who sustains us.  In his divine providence, God gives us gifts that supply our needs, from the most basic essentials of human life, to the fellowship of friends and fulfillment of diligence and accomplishment.  We prideful human beings tend to have a blind spot on this point.  The widely held myth of the self-made person who survives and succeeds on his own without outside help (think John Wayne movie roles), is a natural consequence of the undue value our society places on personal independence.  Under closer scrutiny, however, the myth fails to stand up.  Perhaps Mr. or Ms. Self-Made is exceptionally clever, or always seems to be in the right place at the right time, to capitalize upon fortunate events and favorable opportunities.  But who endowed him with his nimble, creative mind?  Or who gave her the perceptive sense to recognize opportunity, the willingness to take risks, and the wisdom to evaluate the potential benefits and costs?  Answer:  “… [the] one God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”  (Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 846)  We are all creatures of the Creator.  None of us has made himself or herself.

During the twelve days of Christmas we celebrate the greatest gift of all time in the person of Jesus.  He showed us by his own example a radically counter-intuitive way to be truly successful:

  • He was always obedient to God, even when it cost him his life.
  • He insisted that his followers give all their material possessions, other than the clothes on their backs, to the poor, so that worldly goods would not become a burden or distraction.
  • He welcomed all comers into the community, even those who were well known for having committed grievous crimes or sins of immorality.
  • He turned social conventions upside down b y modeling humility rather than confident self-assurance.

Would we consider such a person a successful leader?  Why, or why not?  See what the New Testament letter to the Philippians has to say:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
     he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:5-11)

 

God provides for us and gives us true prosperity, the salvation of his Son.  Out of our good fortune, how can we help improve the lot of those without riches, either material or spiritual?  To whom can we convey heartfelt wishes of the season, along with practical expressions of goodwill?  How can we counter the myth of self-sufficiency and work instead to build interdependence among God’s children and between them and their Creator?

May God rest you merry this Christmastide and always.

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Advent 2016

PEACE

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)

What a precious gift Jesus gave to his disciples with these words.  They were said during a difficult conversation following the meal at which Jesus startled his twelve disciples by washing their feet, something only a slave would do.  Then Jesus told the group that his betrayer was about to turn him over to the authorities, and that Peter would deny that he ever knew Jesus.  The disciples must have been alarmed by this talk, to say the least.  And in the midst of it Jesus said to them, “I give you my peace.  It is not what the world gives.  Don’t be troubled or afraid.”

But they were afraid, and with good reason.  Jesus was seized, flogged, accused of inciting a rebellion against Rome, and convicted in a sham trial.  Within a few hours the death sentence was carried out.  It was the agonizing death of a hardened criminal, a threat to society, raised high on a cross adjacent to the main road where all could see and jeer at the foolish young teacher, or perhaps be reminded by the grisly sight that Rome tolerated no hint of disloyalty among its subjects.  The disciples, of course, were implicated by association with Jesus, and after the crucifixion they went into hiding.  No hint of peace anywhere in the entire episode.

The circumstances that the apostles and other followers encountered after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension were no more peaceful.  According to tradition, ten of the twelve apostles were martyred.  The early church was persecuted by the Roman government, by the Jewish religious authorities, by Greek polytheistic philosophers, by everybody it seemed.  As the gospel was spread by missionaries throughout the Middle East, Africa, Europe and eventually across the globe, the threat of violent opposition also grew.  Whether from savage tribes of indigenous peoples or sophisticated power regimes fearing loss of their dominance, the courageous Christians who answered the call to share the good news of Jesus’ saving love and power knew that death or severe harm may be only a heartbeat away.

Those days, sadly, are not over.  Today Christians live under extreme threat of persecution in North Korea, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran, according to Open Doors, an organization that supports and serves persecuted Christians across the world.   The Open Doors website (www.opendoorsusa.org) cites a finding of the Pew Research Center that 75% of the world’s population lives in places with “severe religious restrictions,” and a statement from the U.S. State Department that Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or neighbors solely because of their Christian faith.  It is all too apparent that this world needs some of the peace that Jesus left with his disciples, and we need it now!

The peace that Jesus gave is the enduring, eternal peace of the New Covenant that he established by dying on the cross to pay the price for the sin of humankind.  The supreme sacrifice under the law has been offered, and sin no longer has power to separate us from God.  Regardless of what happens to us and around us here in our temporary earthly lives, we have the peace of knowing that after this life we’ll be with God forever because he has forgiven our sin.  The trials of our transient life on earth are put into eternal perspective.  Not that the trials are trivial – the pain and suffering are real – but they’re not all there is or ever will be.  That trite phrase that we use so often about minor irritations, “this too shall pass,” becomes a comforting reassurance when it’s placed in the context of God’s promise.

Jesus said the peace that he gave was different from what the world gave.  The key difference is that God’s peace is sure because God’s promise is sure.  We all know a lot about empty promises in our world.  One recent example can be found in the election that we’ve just seen in the U.S.  In the campaign that leads up to every election, promises are made that will not be kept – some are never intended to be kept, some cannot be kept because of the structural checks and balances of power in the legislative system, and some are rendered moot by unforeseen circumstances.  Not so with God’s promises.  He can keep them because he is all-powerful and all-knowing, and he will keep them because he cares for us and all of his creation.

The peace of the Lord, unlike the peace of the world, can be shared and spread – actually, it must be spread, because this is how we spread the good news as our Lord commanded.  When we share the story of God’s love for us, we also share the peace of Christ.  It’s all wrapped up in one package.  We share the peace of the Lord with one another at our regular Eucharistic celebrations, and we also share it in our daily interactions with the world.  It is our duty as followers of the Prince of Peace.

How might this world be different if every faithful person deliberately and intentionally spread the peace of the Lord in only one encounter each day?  I suspect the impact would be far greater than we could possibly imagine.  Let us take up that challenge, today and every day.  Even if it has no other notable effect, see if sharing peace with another helps your spirit feel more at peace too.  That would surely be worth a lot.

The peace of the Lord be always with you.

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Advent 2016

Joy

What are the first five (plus or minus two) words that pop into your mind when you hear the word “joy?”  Are any of the following synonyms on your list?

gladness   mirth   delight   elation   felicity   rapture   bliss   jubilation   exhilaration   exultation   glee euphoria

Just reading the words makes you smile, doesn’t it?  And you can probably add to the list.  A suggestion for an awkward pause in conversation at a holiday party, perhaps?

All of these words embody the idea of happiness, and more:  extreme happiness, beyond the ordinary and expected.  Wrapped up in the notion of joy is surprise at the unanticipated depth of the emotion:  You didn’t know you would be so happy, or perhaps that you even could.

The Third Sunday of Advent is known in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Christian traditions as Rose Sunday or Gaudete (“rejoice”) Sunday.  Gaudete is the first word in the traditional Latin entrance hymn at the mass of that day, coming from the fourth chapter of the letter to the Philippians:  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” (v. 4)  Rose refers to the hue of the altar hangings and vestments – a departure from the more placid deep blue or solemn purple of the rest of the Advent season.  It’s like an unexpected glimpse of the sun in the ever-darkening season approaching the winter solstice.  A burst of joy on this Sunday about halfway through Advent is both fitting and welcome.

400px_gaudete_incipit

During Advent we anticipate the joy that comes with the arrival of a baby, almost always a joyful  time for a family, but especially so for this birth.   This very special baby is by nature both divine and human.  His birth story is anything but typical:  He was born during a census in the ancestral town, Bethlehem, rather than the hometown of his parents, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Micah:  “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” (5:2)  His mother learned of the baby she would bring into the world from God’s special angel messenger, Gabriel, who announced to her that she would give birth despite being a virgin.  The baby’s first visitors in the stable where he was born were shepherds who were similarly visited by angels.  When you think about it, there isn’t very much about this event that could be called “expected!”

The writings of the Old Testament contain expressions of joy from God’s people in association with God’s mighty acts in their history – delivering his people from bondage in Egypt, returning them to their homeland after exile in Babylon, helping faithful and just kings defeat their enemies in battle.  Joy also describes the people’s response to human events such as ones that people still experience every day:  the birth of a child; finding a treasured object after searching for it everywhere; welcoming home an adult child who had lost his way in life but somehow found it again.  No wonder people often say at such times, “I didn’t know I could be so happy!”

So we wait for the miraculous birth with Mary and Joseph, and Elizabeth and Zechariah, and the town of Bethlehem and the country of Judea, and all of God’s people throughout many generations.  We anticipate the holy joy of Christmas and pray that it will cheer and enlighten this world, where many still walk in darkness and suffer in the misery that sin creates.  May the birth of the Holy Child fill us all with joy, at this season and always!

Image courtesy of Tuomas_Lehtinen at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Tuomas_Lehtinen at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Advent 2016

Love

timothy-thomas-sept14
Research assistants Timothy and Thomas waiting for results of their word search.

If you search for the word “love” in the Bible you’ll find that it appears more than 700 times in both Old and New Testaments. As is the case in modern English usage, in the Scriptures the word “love” can refer to a broad range of emotions: parental love, obedient love, romantic love, hospitable love, even love of a special food! But there is one type of love that appears as a continuous thread throughout the Scriptures, and is the foundation for how we should understand and live in love. That type is God’s love for all of his creation.

Because God existed before all creation, and because God’s nature is love, love was present in creation from the beginning. You could say that love was designed into creation. We are told in the creation account in Genesis 1 that humankind was made “in God’s image,” and therefore has the capacity to love because God’s very essence is love (1 John 4:7-21).

Our response to God’s love for us and for all of creation must be to love God and all of creation in return. Love begets love. We learn to love in receiving love, from human beings and from God, and that love inspires and motivates us to share love with others.

Looking ahead to the celebration of the birth of God’s Son, we see many examples of the depth and richness of love in the characters of the familiar story:

• Elderly Zechariah, a priest of Israel, and his wife Elizabeth loved God so much that they trusted in his promise to give them a son after many years of infertility. That son turned out to be John the Baptist, the forerunner of Messiah.
• Joseph loved Mary, his fiancee, so much that he risked ridicule from family and friends for her pregnancy before marriage. In Matthew’s gospel Joseph also demonstrated love by taking the family to Egypt to escape the infanticide perpetrated by jealous king Herod.
• The shepherds on the Judean hillside loved God so much that they risked leaving the sheep in their charge to be the first witnesses to the birth of the infant Son of God.
• Mary loved God greatly and trusted in his love for her completely. She agreed readily to the assignment communicated to her by the angel Gabriel, giving thanks and praise to God in what had to have been one of the most frightening moments of her young life. She loved and supported her son Jesus throughout his childhood and into adulthood, in his ministry and ultimately at his shameful death. Throughout the centuries Mary has been revered by Christians as a model of obedience and purity of heart, expressions of her deep love of and for God.

All of these people were committed and steadfast; all put their love for God ahead of human commitments, taking risks as a result; and all believed what God’s messengers told them even when it sounded wildly preposterous. They all illustrate another fundamental quality of God’s love that we must be sure not to overlook: selflessness.

Zechariah selflessly devoted himself to caring for his wife and bringing up his son to be the new prophet of the Messiah. Joseph selflessly thought about Mary’s possible disgrace more than his reputation as he considered what course of action to take after learning of the pregnancy, then put aside returning home in order to preserve the life of the infant Jesus. The shepherds selflessly ran to Bethlehem at receiving the angels’ news of God come to earth. And Mary selflessly offered her whole life to the unfolding of God’s plan.

The ultimate model of selfless love is Jesus himself. The hymn that I think best captures the selfless sacrifice and profound gift of Christ is In the Bleak Midwinter. The words by English poet Christina Rossetti were set to a simple and somewhat melancholy tune, Cranham, by Gustav Holst in 1906. You can view a performance by the King’s College Choir on YouTube below:

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone:
Snow had fallen, snow on snow
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter,
Long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty
Jesus Christ.

Enough for him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk,
And a mangerful of hay:
Enough for him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air –
But only his mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give him –
Give my heart.

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Advent 2016

Hope

Thanksgiving is over.  The leftovers are disposed of, the football scores in the record books, the Black Friday/Saturday sales over.  The commercial hype of Christmas is in full swing.  Technically it is not Christmas yet, at least not in the Christian church.  The season that marks the beginning of a new liturgical year, and that began on Sunday, is Advent.

The observance of a season of penitence and waiting before Christmas dates back to the sixth century.  The name Advent is from Latin, adventus, meaning “coming” and referring to the second coming of Christ.  So the season both commemorates the historical birth of Christ and anticipates his return to earth to establish God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness.

Some readers may be familiar with the custom of lighting four candles on an Advent wreath, an additional one each Sunday of the season, until all four and sometimes a central Christ candle are lit on Christmas Eve.  Each candle signifies one of the weeks of Advent, and in some traditions, each is also assigned a spiritual gift or virtue to be contemplated during that week.  The first candle stands for hope; the second is for love; the third for joy; and the fourth, peace.

Advent Wreath

In keeping with the traditional theme of the first week of Advent, I’d like to share some thoughts about hope for your consideration this week.  The dictionary defines hope as the feeling that what is wanted can be had, or that events will turn out for the best.  Psychologists who have theorized about where hope comes from and how it works include Erik Erikson, a developmental theorist of the 1950s.  According to Erikson, hope comes from a child’s experience of establishing a trusting relationship with a caregiver during the first year of life.  If no such trusting relationship is established, the result is despair.  Cognitive psychologists in the 1970s and 1980s offered techniques for reframing or re-interpreting events and conditions as a means of converting anxiety into hope.  And most recently the field of positive psychology, founded by Martin Seligman in the 1990s, has suggested that people can achieve an outlook of optimism and hope for the future through thinking constructively about their past and cultivating their personal moral strengths.  For me, each of these approaches falls a little short in capturing the essence of hope.  They all seem to imply that hope is a proficiency that can be acquired and improved with practice.  I believe that hope is a spiritual quality and a gift rather than a skill.

Christianity teaches that its hope is for God’s plan for his creation to be completed – that is, it is hope for the world as well as hope for individuals.  Christian hope is founded in faith – a belief, both collective and individual, that Jesus came to earth to fulfill the ages-old promises of a just and righteous Savior-King (Messiah) in the line of King David (see Jeremiah 23:5-6; Isaiah 29:18-21; 35:5-10).  Christian hope leads to a fullness and newness in the present life, and motivates sharing that hope with others, especially those without hope.  And there are many among us, even in this land of plenty, whose hopes have dimmed or been extinguished altogether.

No doubt you know such people.  Perhaps their hope for economic stability for their families has been dashed by prolonged un- or under-employment.  Or they may have hoped for a bright future for their kids – a natural dream for most parents – only to be confronted with the heart-breaking realities of mental illness or addiction or both.  Some may have created retirement plans for travel and leisure activities to be enjoyed with loved ones, only to have their emotional and physical energy as well as financial resources consumed by a debilitating illness.  Most of us will have little difficulty thinking of people we know who experience these and other hope-crushing situations.

In the daily Morning Prayer service of the Episcopal-Anglican tradition we ask, “Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten; nor the hope of the poor be taken away.”  Of course “needy” and “poor” can refer to many difficult circumstances, not only financial.  Just as God sustained the hope of ancient Israel for a just and righteous ruler through his messengers the prophets, so God today delivers the message of his continuing care, concern and compassion to a world without hope through his faithful followers.  Each of us is called to restore hope, in our families and communities, at every level of engagement with our fellow citizens of the earth.  In what ways can you offer hope in the interactions you will have with others this week?

 

Here are some additional Biblical references on hope: Job 11:13-20; Psalm 9; Psalm 33; Psalm 62:5-12; Psalm 65; Psalm 71; Psalm 130; Psalm 146; Psalm 147; Jeremiah 29:11-14; Lamentations 3:21-26; Matthew 12:15-21; Romans 5:1-8; 1 Peter 1:3-5

 

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Advent 2016

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