Before and After
For Sunday November 28, 2010
First Sunday in Advent
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
This Sunday Christians begin a new liturgical year. According to the Revised Common Lectionary, we're beginning the "Year A" cycle of Scripture readings. Such lifeless language obscures an important point. Starting our "new" year in November, before the "old" year has even ended, reminds us that Christians think about the nature and significance of time in our own unique way.
Our new year begins with Advent, a time when we commemorate the adventus of Jesus — his coming, arrival, or birth into our world. Some time around the sixth century the tradition emerged to set aside four weeks before Christmas, beginning with the Sunday closest to Saint Andrew's Day (November 30), as a period to look both backwards in history and forward to the future.
Believers look backwards in celebration of the birth of Jesus. Christians live in normal time just like everyone else, but within our normal chronos of days, weeks, months, and years, we discern moments of God's special intervention called kairos. The birth of Jesus was just such a moment. "When the time came," reads Luke 2:6, Mary gave birth not just to any baby boy, but to the "king of the ages" (Revelation 19:3), the lord of all time and history.
In "the fullness of time," writes Paul, God "sent forth his son" to redeem humanity (Galatians 4:4). After living in total obscurity for about thirty years, Jesus burst onto the public scene and proclaimed that in his own person "God's kairos has come and his kingdom is near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15). In Jesus, creation and the beginning of time met redemption and the fulfillment of time at Bethlehem's midpoint of human history.
The British poet U.A. Fanthorpe (b. 1929) was the first woman nominated as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. I love how her poem BC:AD captures the unremarkable circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus, and of how kairos invades chronos. All time and history, says Fanthorpe, are now marked by the before and after of the baby Jesus.
This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future's
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.
During Advent, Christians celebrate that ordinary night as the most extraordinary juncture in human history, for on that night "God was in Christ, reconciling the cosmos to Himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19). It was a night when eternity invaded time, when the sacred embraced the profane.
At Advent Christians also look forward in expectation of Christ's future coming, to that time when God will culminate what he has now only inaugurated, when he will finish what he has started, and will fulfill what he has promised. For believers, history is going somewhere and not nowhere. Time is proceeding in a distinctly linear fashion, rather than in a cyclical or meaningless manner. The readings this week contain a veritable lexicon about future time. All of the everyday words about the future, though, are used in unique ways and invested with new meaning.
Isaiah's poetry considers "the last days" (2:2). Paul writes to the believers in Rome not just about any "day," but about "the day," not just about any hour, but about "the hour." He writes about daytime and nighttime, darkness and light, in metaphorical ways to make a very literal pastoral point: "understand the present time (kairos) " in order to live your life in light of that future day (13:11–14). And in Matthew Jesus tells us to "keep watch" and "be ready" for "that day or hour" (24:36), by which he means "the end of the age" (24:3), in stark contrast to any old day in which people eat and drink or buy and sell (24:38).
At Advent we connect these two horizons — celebration of Jesus's past birth and expectation of his future coming. We live our present days in light of that future day. At our best, we live with a presence of the future, and even usher in that future day today in ways large and small. Consider Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 7:29–31: "The kairos is short…This world in its present form is passing away." Scholars debate what Paul meant when he said that "the time has been shortened" — perhaps that death was imminent, that he believed Jesus was to return soon, or that he alluded to specific matters at Corinth.
Whatever he meant, there's no ambiguity about the response he urged due to the crisis of the kairos. He cautioned against any postponement, entanglements, or distractions. He eliminated any middle ground and called for an either/or decision. The married, the mourning, the exuberant, the buyers and sellers should all live "as if" the normal canons of chronos did not adhere. The past fulfillment (Jesus) and future foreshortening (Paul) of God's kairos meant that one could no longer live life "business as usual." The kairos of God's future kingdom subverts the chronos of the present time.
The Jesuit priest and peace activist Daniel Berrigan captures the tension between the inauguration of God's kingdom with the birth of Jesus and its culmination in his future coming. Each year at this time I love to confess with him his Advent Credo:
It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;
It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.
It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.
It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.
It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.
It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.
So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.
From Testimony: The Word Made Flesh, by Daniel Berrigan, S.J. Orbis Books, 2004.
Image credits: (1) Dawn Eggenberger; (2) Roger Hutchison; and (3) Rev. C. Kramer.