Third Week of Advent: Sobering the Jolly with Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell

Mrs. Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigor; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; 

At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. Mrs. Cratchitt, looking slowly all along the carving knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, 

and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmer of delight rose round all the board, and even Tiny Tim. . . beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly called Hurrah!

Many of us, hopefully it’s not just me, take Charles Dickens as our guide, trying to emulate his depiction of Christmas, windows glowing, a fat bird, roasted and golden, people we love around the table. Advent is when we anticipate such merrymaking.

Our dean at seminary taught us that the traditional Anglican themes of Advent are much more sober. They aren’t peace, joy and goodwill toward men. The traditional themes of advent are ––hold onto your candy canes––Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. Advent is a time to reflect on final things.

Mea culpa, my Christmas tree is already up (did you know we’re supposed to wait?) and since moving to the Northeast, I have developed an obsession with having electric candles in every window. How will people know we are Godly, hospitable people if there aren’t candles burning in the windows??? 

This year, a storybook Christmas is not even possible for most of us. In 2020 we are living in exile from our people and our traditions.

What are we waiting for? In today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, Isaiah 61, the Spirit of the Lord has anointed the prophet to bring good news.

Some background on Isaiah: scholars believe the Book of Isaiah was written by three different prophets. Today’s reading is from the Third Book, written when the Israelites have returned to their homeland after some 70 years in exile.

Life is still difficult as they resettle. Some in their frustration have begun to worship other gods. The prophet is speaking to a people who know suffering, who know what it is to be cast out, to be exiled from what and who they know, as we are exiled in this pandemic from the people and places that give us meaning. And Isaiah is calling them back to the one true God, to judgment, to last things.

This is a year of exile, of isolation, of grief. We are cut off from loved ones, from the activities and places that are markers of our very identities. It is a year that confronts us with last things.

Side note: A few weeks ago, at the hospital where I work, a trauma came in, an elderly man with a serious injury from a fall. I met his wife, about the same age as the man, but she was stylish and vibrant, sort of mismatched, I thought,, and then I realized, no one is stylish and vibrant in a bed in the Emergency Room. LAST THINGS.

The man’s wife told me that the isolation of the pandemic had worn her husband down. “We get life from being around young people,” she said. And as they couldn’t see their children and grandchildren as they used to, she watched her husband decline. And then he fell. 

Unlike the Israelites in Babylon, we can shelter in the comfort of our homes, most of us, but shelter does not minimize our exile. We are navigating disruption and isolation. We are lonely, or depressed, or unable to focus. Like the man in the ER, we are bearing the weight of this pandemic in our bodies. LAST THINGS.

Our isolation is a sacrifice we make for the good of others, a sacrifice modeled by Christ on the Cross, and reiterated by Paul in Romans “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”

Now back to the Prophet Isaiah, who has been sent 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. LAST THINGS.

The year of the Lord’s favor refers to the jubilee year, which occurred every 50 years. The word Jubilee comes from the Hebrew word “yovel,” a trumpet blast of liberty. 

During the jubilee, “fields lay fallow, debts were cancelled and slaves set free. . . [in a gesture indicating that] the structures of social and economic life [on earth] must reflect God’s reign [in heaven.]” (Commentary, 960)

The prophet does not proclaim a manger bathed in moonlight, but a Messiah who will bind up, release, proclaim.

Today’s gospel reading from John is about John the Baptist, himself a prophet announcing the Messiah. The version in Matthew’s Gospel has John the Baptist shouting, REPENT FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS NEAR. LAST THINGS.

I’d like to raise up another gospel passage from Luke. In Luke 4, Jesus has been, traveling through Galilee and preaching when he arrives at Nazareth, his home town. In the synagogue there, he unrolls the scroll containing the same words of the Prophet Isaiah. Jesus reads:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

    because he has anointed me

    to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

    and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus finishes reading and rolls up the scroll. He looks up to see his cousins, his parents friends, neighbors who have watched him grow up and Rabbis who taught him. 

In front everyone from the old neighborhood, Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus claims his identity as the Messiah the Hebrews have been waiting for for 800 years. Jesus came to transform the world, to BIND UP broken hearts, to PROCLAIM liberty, to RELEASE captives.

For us, the trumpet blast of liberty proclaims the person of JESUS CHRIST who liberates us from economic injustice, from bigotry, from racism, from slavery, and from sin. Why do we await this particular transformation? Isaiah 61 Verse 8: “For I the LORD love justice.”

Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol paints a beautiful Christmas scene, but it is also a commentary on greed and social inequality. As Mr. Scrooge is walking home on Christmas Eve, a gentleman on the street asks the wealthy Mr. Scrooge to donate to the poor.

“Are there no prisons?” asks Scrooge. “Are there no workhouses?”

“Many can’t go there,” the gentleman replies. “And many would rather die.” 

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplice population.”

The manger holds the Kingdom of Heaven, our Creator, source of all justice and love. This baby asking a great deal of us. 

In the words of Teresa of Avila, let us pray:

Oh my God, Word of the Father. . . I wish to prepare for your coming with the burning desires of the prophets and the just, who in the Old Testament sighed after you. . .As you have promised, Come and Deliver us! I want to keep Advent in my soul, that is, a continual longing and waiting for this great Mystery, wherein You, O Word become flesh to show me the abyss of your redeeming, sanctifying mercy.

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