by Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot for The Christian Citizen
We approach this Advent season with souls wearied by 2020’s long season of uncertainty and disruption. The pandemic shutdown began during Lent, and some of us may wonder if we’re stuck still awaiting Easter, trapped in an endless loop as if we are Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day.
Earlier in the year, we thought hopefully COVID-19 worries would be faded away by now, but a pandemic, by nature, casts aside any sort of quick fix. Viruses care little for our plans. Our hopes and yearnings have been humbled, and our nerves (personal and global) are frayed.
And now it’s Advent.
In “ordinary” circumstances, pastors know well the lament of our eldest church members, who recall Christmas Eve as “standing room only.” Pastors also know the hope of our youngest members who look forward to Christmas Eve as a “magical” evening. Now, Christmas Eve is a matter of navigating complexities: nostalgia and grief intersecting with local and state public health guidelines about congregating together.
The Christmas pageants will be on Zoom. Thus, parents already tired of overseeing school age students at home now will have to wrestle these same kids into bathrobes and whatever will pass for a halo around the house and onto webcam for their part. Some grandparents would give anything to see their grandkids with a bent halo and a star whose batteries do not work. Other elderly members will wonder if this Christmas will not only be their last, but their worst.
In my own ponderings, I return to a helpful word from British writer Margaret Hebblethwaite:
I have a friend who says that Advent is his favorite season. Why? I think because Advent is a time of exquisite balance between the sadness of the mess we live in and the bliss of the world we would like to live in.[i]
The “exquisite balance” may feel imbalanced this year, as we know all too well “the sadness of the mess we live in” and feel ambivalent about getting too excited about anything approaching “bliss.” In a year of election drama, the protests on the streets for racial justice and police accountability, and economic spiraling, “the mess we live in” is well documented.
Hebblethwaite offers a further word:
Advent is when we acknowledge that bliss is not the blotting out of pain with port and plum pudding, but a process, a pilgrimage, a pregnancy, and—amidst the chaos of the world’s governing—a cry for the coming of the reign of God.[ii]
Such a message has deep roots in the biblical witness. The Scripture readings assigned to this year’s Advent season likely will resonate differently for pastors and congregants, yet I believe we will have an opportunity to hear more clearly the prophet and the Evangelists Mark and Matthew. The language of John’s Prologue will resound more about “the Word made flesh” with our downbeat experience of tradition giving way to fewer indulgent distractions.
For example, on the first Sunday of Advent, we can hear a word that is quite profound this Advent from Isaiah 64:1-9. The latter chapters of Isaiah (55-66) are written to a people who are still in the mess of Jerusalem, sacked by Babylon and then left to decay into shambles while the people were captive. The people came back to Jerusalem, yet a generation’s loss weighted down the long-term process to rebuild.
Isaiah 64 finds the people of Jerusalem in the middle of those hard questions of reconstruction, looking for what their identity will be after a long season. They are people desperate for balance, even if it must be the “exquisite balance” between mess and bliss.
And the first Sunday of Advent is the prophet’s prayer in the midst of these difficult, mettle-testing times. As part of a longer prayer (Isaiah 63:7-64:12), the prophet lifts up:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
In this prayer, the mess is named. The bliss is sought. For a post-Exilic community and a pandemic-hammered Church, the full range of emotions is found in speaking to God. We hear the prophet’s call for thanksgiving. We are chastened to remember God’s past acts and the fierce love of God.
Do you think we could hear Isaiah 64 more this year than the last? I hope so!
This prayer aims to reshape a people, expanding a community’s capacity to love and trust (a prophet’s high calling). It is time to rebuild a city, a people, and an identity as God’s beloved. Isaiah’s prayer does not sugarcoat the difficulties of being in covenant with God. We are tasked with keeping our end of a relationship less conditional and less prone to discarding habits when more attractive gods or interests appear.
Once you get into the story behind this prayer, you discover a plainspoken prayer aimed at the hearts and minds of the people praying it. The prayer is confessional, truthful, and looking to God alone for the balance to be found once more in the lives of the people.
We have come through 2020, sobered and wounded, blessed and befuddled. And now it is Advent, in all our mess and all God’s bliss.
Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.
Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash
[i] As quoted in Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, eds. Resources for Preaching and Worship, Year B, W/JKP, 2002, p. 1.