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Posts Tagged ‘advent’

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.

O King of the nations, and their desire, you are
the cornerstone makes us both one: 
Come, and save the creature which you fashioned from clay.

The reason why God came into the world as a human being, as Jesus, was to make one that which was divided in two. This is the absolute bottom line of theology.

He came to make one the creature and the Creator, separated by their natures, separated further by the creature’s sin.

He came to join together Jew and Gentile, to break down the most basic, the most unshakable division of the culture in which he was born, a division even more fundamental that the division of male and female. The Jews were a peculiar people, a race set apart; the function of many of the commandments in the Torah, of the laws about diet and clothing and what to sow and how to reap, was simply to separate the Jewish people from the nations around them, to make them *different*, and to remind them that what is different, like the wool of an animal and the linen spun from a plant, must always be kept separate.

He came, Paul boldly tells us, to erase the divisions of Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free. I submit that if Paul had had the concepts in his world, the words in his vocabulary, he would have added that Jesus came to erase the division of gay and straight, black and white, cisgender and transgender.

He came to unite heaven and earth, and to cure the most fundamental division of all, the one that lies deep inside each of us, between the clay of the earth from which we were formed and the breath of God’s life that was breathed into us.

It is my belief that no rule, no cult, no practice, no morality which relies on separation, division, and exclusion can be part of the way of Jesus, the Cornerstone, the unifier.

We democratic Americans are apt to think of a king as something we got rid of a long time ago, and good riddance, for all that people read tabloid articles about the British monarchy as fervently as about the Kardashians (and the Windsors, after all, have been famous for a good deal longer). A king is a useless object that sits on top of the heap of hierarchy and claims everything as his own.

My wanderings in the forest of druidry, my attempts to learn something about the ways of my pre-Christian ancestors, have given me a somewhat different model of a king, as the one who is not the top, but the center. In the great mead-hall of Tara, the high king of Ireland sat in state with his attendants about him, and at the four quarters of the hall, the lesser kings of the four provinces and their attendants, and everyone in their ordered ranks, with the fires burning. When chaos threatened, as in the nights of Samhain, the doors would be shut, and the order of the court about the king kept safe the order of the realm.

The Rex Gentium, the King of Nations who is their secret desire, is the king at the center, not at the top. Thus in the book of Revelation, the Lamb is upon the throne, with the four living creatures about him and the twenty-four elders encircling him, and the whole heavenly court with all its myriads of angels enclosed in a golden city which is a perfect cube. Christ is the cornerstone.

Come, and save the creature you fashioned from clay.

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O Wisdom, you came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and reach from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come, and teach us the way of prudence.

To me one of the greatest moments in the whole corpus of Western liturgy is that phrase in this first of the Great O Antiphons: “mightily and sweetly ordering all things”, suaviter fortiterque as the Latin has it. Wisdom doesn’t just organize creation with order and justice and rule and prudence and a place for everything and everything in its place; She orders things *sweetly*, with style, grace, panache, and finesse.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the Apocalypse. That’s what you’re supposed to do during Advent, right? Think about the four last things, death judgment heaven and hell, and about the end of everything. The Daily Office readings for the past two weeks have encouraged this line of thought: from the Old Testament, the fierce denunciations of Amos, promising retribution to a self-indulgent society that exploits the poor for its own pleasures; from the New Testament, the letters to the seven churches that open John’s Revelations; and from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’s predictions of the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem.

The Scriptures are pretty clear and consistent in teaching that God is going to manifest his will for creation in a decisive way that involves cleaning up messes, putting things to rights, permanently dethroning those who have abused power, and getting everything the way he wants it. This decisive action, which may look pretty violent, is going to be the end of the world we know, but also the beginning of something very new. I don’t see how one can be a Christian and not take this teaching seriously.

But the doctrine of the Apocalypse, the unveiling of God’s will for creation, the end of the old broken world and the beginning of a new one, is kind of out of favor right now. On the one hand, there are large segments of the Church, particularly in American Evangelical Christianity, that are obsessed with it, to the exclusion of everything but abortion and homosexuality (which are apparently going to bring about the Apocalypse). On the other hand, I think there are large segments of the Church that are embarrassed by their brethren’s over-emphasis on the doctrine and prefer not to talk about it. Apocalypse? what’s that? That’s just something from a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode; averting the Apocalypse is what Buffy and her friends did on a weekly basis.

In his 2012 book Apocalypse Not, pagan and occultist John Michael Greer makes the case that the Apocalypse meme, as he calls it, derives from the Persian priest Zoroaster, who looked at the myths of cosmic regime change represented by the precession of the equinoxes and decided there would be a final, decisive cosmic change, in which the good god of light would prevail over the evil god of darkness and there would be no change. Greer sees the Apocalypse meme as an inherently punitive one; the believer in Apocalypse looks at the world and anticipates the day when everyone who doesn’t think, believe, feel, act like him will be punished, dramatically. He also points out that if Jesus was, as many scholars think, predicting the end of Jerusalem and the Temple in his apocalyptic prophecies, then he is in the very small group of seers whose predictions have verifiably come true.

My understanding of the Apocalypse, and of the four last things, does not require me to gloat over the torments of people who come out on the wrong side of the final battle. What has helped me lately to sort out my thinking on the end of the world is some works of fiction: The Last Battle, the final Narnia book by C.S. Lewis, and the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane.

The Last Battle is Lewis’s Narnian Apocalypse. In the previous book, The Magician’s Nephew, we saw Narnia created; now we see it destroyed. There is corruption and abuse of power; there is personal and social evil which must be resisted, even opposed with force of arms. But there is also the sense that Narnia’s time has simply run out. It was not meant to last forever. And in a sense, it will last forever as part of Aslan’s Country, the heaven into which the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve enter through their experience of Narnia. Narnia is a region in heaven just as England is, a dimension of God’s love and knowledge of creation.

Duane’s Young Wizards series comes at the issue of beginnings and endings from a partly mythic, partly scientific point of view. In Duane’s universe, the central moral issue is entropy. The universe does not contain enough energy to last forever; every action, every reaction, every transaction causes a loss of energy to the total system. Some things, however, cause a greater loss of energy than others, and thus further entropy. Cruelty, greed, indifference speed up the eventual heat-death of the universe. Kindness, compassion, helping slow it down and put it off.

Duane’s wizards are specialists in slowing down entropy by helping others. Their magic works with the actual physics of the universe and consists, to a great extent, of formal and informal persuasion, often of entities that ordinary people assume are insentient (such as locks on doors, old automobiles, and electronics made in Japan). But their work brings them into direct, often deadly conflict with the being who invented entropy in the first place, the one they call the Lone Power.  The Lone Power (who bears a remarkable resemblance to Benedict Cumberbatch in physical manifestation) is the angelic being who introduced death and entropy into the cosmos, and he continues to peddle his inventions like a sort of travelling salesman, showing up whenever a species achieves the threshold of moral choice.

The universe of the Young Wizards is one very, very like our own, with the same sort of problems, the same sort of moral choices. And it’s a universe that’s slowly running down, like a wind-up toy–and so is ours. While the job of a wizard is to put off that final decay as long as possible, there’s also a glimpse of what will happen when the universe finally dies: The One, and the Powers That Be, and the wizards who have worked with them, will make a new universe without entropy, in which death, pain, suffering, decay, and loss are no longer an integral part of the scheme.

The universe is running out of energy. Our individual lives are running out of time. I won’t live forever, you won’t live forever, and the universe won’t last forever. What happens then? The vacuum of no time, no space, no being, where once was an entropic cosmos? Or the glory which is Heaven, Timeheart, Aslan’s Country? I believe in the Apocalypse because I believe in the latter option. I believe that God will start things over with a new story.

I don’t believe, though, that the end of the world as we know it will necessarily involve God finally strong-arming the human race into believing, submitting, and accepting due punishment. I don’t think the Apocalypse will look like we expect it to any more than the first coming of the Lord looked like it was expected to. And I don’t think the God who entered into a cluster of cells in a girl’s womb, was born in poverty and obscurity, and submitted to public execution is going to turn out to be a merciless bully when the veil is pulled back and his intentions are carried out. It wiil be the end of the world as we don’t know it and never imagined it, what eye hath not seen and ear hath not heard.

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Last Sunday the celebration of the First Sunday of Advent at my church coincided, and dare I say clashed, with a decades-old tradition of celebrating Scottish heritage on the Sunday nearest the feast of St. Andrew on 30 November. There was a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in singing “Sleepers, Wake” and then later hearing the bagpipes play “Scotland the Brave”.

This morning I went to the 8:30 Communion in search of a quieter, more centered experience. A young couple arrived slightly late, with their little boy. I am terrible at guessing ages, but I would say he was no older than two, big enough to be dressed in a shirt and pants and little slippers, small enough to be kept in arms. He made a lot of noise during the service–a joyful noise, as it says in the psalms, burbling, babbling, and exuberant shouts, accompanied by cheerful smiles across the aisle at me and Kermit-like waving of the arms. Yet he did nothing to disturb the quietness I was seeking. All his noises were happy noises, sounds that celebrated life. He was not crying for attention, seeking relief for pain, crying and being ignored. I don’t think anyone wanted to complain of his presence.

Advent is a lot like that, generally. It is full of contradictions. You want quiet and you get a shouting baby, but there is quietness at the heart of his joy. You look for the Kingdom, and it is not here yet, but it is coming; it is near at hand; it might even be within you. We cannot bring in the Kingdom ourselves; we cannot put everything to rights, we cannot restore the good order of creation which we have helped to muddle and befoul. Yet we can and must prepare the way, levelling mountains, raising valleys, and making a highway for the One who can restore, recreate, and not merely repair this broken world.

I had the inspiration this evening to look online for a Deesis icon. I have been saving icons and holy images to my hard drive and pulling up a different one each day to contemplate while saying the Office. The Deesis is a very old style of icon, from the Byzantine era; it shows Christ as Ruler, holding a book, his hand raised in blessing, flanked by his Mother on one side and John the Baptist on the other, their hands raised in supplication.

DeesisBig

The Baptist and the Virgin Mother are the two great figures or characters of Advent, and they are very nearly opposites. The Baptist calls on us to repent; he points to the end of all things, the coming of the Lord in judgment, the need to renounce all that holds us back from God. The Virgin Mother is, in herself, a contradiction, a paradox, the untouched bearer of a mysterious new life, the carrier of a coming which will be in silence and humility rather than wrath and judgment. Like any pregnant woman, her very being is an affirmation that life goes forward and there is hope.

Today we had snow, unusual in December in these parts. With the icy rain that followed, the city may be closed down tomorrow, and I’ll be home. But the tulip magnolia outside my windows, growing in the walled garden across the alley, has already budded, as tulip magnolias do. All the snow of December, January, February, will not keep it from blooming in April; its buds are prepared to wait through the vicissitudes of winter. I will wait, too, and put on my boots if I have to walk to work.

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This year’s Advent message from Katherine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

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  • I will not complain about Christmas decorations in public places.
  • I will not put up my decorations until I’m ready.
  • I will not complain about Christmas decorations in public places.
  • I will not listen to Christmas music at home until I’m ready.
  • I will not complain about Christmas decorations in public places.
  • I’m not even tempted to criticize people for how they phrase their good wishes for the season.
  • I will not complain about Christmas decorations in public places.
  • I reserve the right to scream if I hear the Theresa Brewer covers of any Christmas tunes, especially “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree”.
  • I will not complain about Christmas decorations in public places.

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The First Sunday of Advent was yesterday, a Christian feast that never passes without my attention. It was the feast of title of my childhood church, celebrated with as much pomp and festivity as our little parish could muster. It was also usually the season of the bishop’s visitation; I was confirmed during Advent at the tender age of nine.

I don’t think mainstream Christians are saying much lately about the Second Coming, maybe because it’s all the Evangelicals can talk about. Strangely enough, while the Gospels depict Jesus talking about the kingdom or reign of God, they don’t record his primary message as, “I’m going away, but I’ll be back and then you’ll be sorry.” I should no longer be surprised that a lot of Christian teaching, especially though not exclusively of the Evangelical variety, has nothing whatsoever to do with the plain sense of the Gospels, and yet I am.

In any case, in Advent the Church traditionally looks back to the birth of Jesus as the coming of the long-expected Messiah, looks forward to his return as the King of Glory, and looks inward to preparing for and welcoming his presence in the heart. Jesus will return as King to fix things that are broken, to put things to rights, to make sure that the world works the way God intended it to, that is, on principles of peace, justice, fairness, sharing, compassion, forgiveness. And then we shall all live happily ever after–except for those who don’t want to play fair and share their toys.

The myth of the Return of the King is deeply embedded in Western consciousness, whether as a Christian trope or not. When Tolkien’s publisher split The Lord of the Rings into three volumes, he titled the third one in a way that gave away the plot (Tolkien complained) but tapped into the archetype. It is vitally important that the rightful King be restored to the throne, so that the Free Peoples of Middle Earth can take their places around him, just as the lesser kings of Ireland took their places around the High King in the mead-hall of Tara. It is against the backdrop of that enthronement that Frodo suffers his slow decline and Sam his gradual flourishing; because King Elessar is on the throne, Sam can draw his family close and say, “I’m home”.

The Return of the King is what we are hoping for every time somebody publishes a new novel about King Arthur. There is no end of Arthurian literature, some of it focused on the history, some on the romance, some on the magic and mysticism. The BBC is currently airing its fourth series of the show Merlin, which pairs a youthful Merlin of peasant birth with a youthful Arthur who has been raised as a prince in a Camelot where magic is forbidden; he gets hid on the head a lot so that he won’t notice Merlin has just saved his life by magic, again. I am inordinately fond of this show and its extremely handsome young actors, Colin Morgan and Bradley James. There are moments when, despite being a prat much of the time, young Arthur Pendragon as played by Bradley James really does manifest the archetype of the True King, the one whose place at the center of things ensures peace, justice, and prosperity for all. The show is already hinting that the strength of Arthur’s kingship won’t be in winning battles, but in listening to people regardless of their station and bringing them together.

I love the archetype, but I don’t live in a monarchy and I don’t wish to. (Even if a monarchy looks better, some days, than the plutocratic oligarchy we actually seem to be living under in the U.S.) Nor do I think that Jesus will come back and reward a few right-thinking people and condemn everyone else to eternal punishment for short-term mistakes. In his recent book Apocalypse Not, John Michael Greer traces the myth of apocalypse back to the ancient cycle of the precession of the equinoxes, which was first observed very early in human history, and to the first man who interpreted a recurring cosmic cycle as a one-time historical even: Zoroaster, or Zarathustra. Zarathustra, a priest of the Iranian fire-religion that was very similar to the religion of the Vedas, successfully reformed that religion into a linear monotheism that looked forward to an end time, a shift in the cosmic principles that would be permanent and unceasing. Then his people, the Persians, handed on those concepts to the Jews who lived in diaspora in the Persian Empire… and the book of Daniel emerged, and the apocalypse meme propagated in Western civilization.

What’s the antidote to the apocalypse meme? How do we know that the world will *not* end at the Winter Solstice 2012, just as it did not end in May or October 2011 as predicted by Harold Camping? (Read Greer’s book: He explains why we think it might, and why it won’t.) The antidote to the apocalypse meme, I guess, is to look at cycles rather than lines. Night is always followed by day, winter by spring, sleep by waking. On this basis we speculate that as birth is followed eventually by death, death is followed somehow by rebirth. The point of sunrise slips backward against the constellations; at present it’s still creeping through the sign of Pisces, and won’t cross into Aquarius until around 2600 C.E. After Aquarius comes Capricorn, then Sagittarius, and so on, and when we work our way back to Aries, we’ll just start all over with Pisces, if any people are still here on earth to look at the sky and take notice.

In my own life I’ve started to think of spirals. IF there’s any progress in life, it’s in spirals, in circles that are not closed but a little bit open, in coming back to the same places with new experiences. I come up against the same issues over and over,  until I want to beat my head against the nearest wall, but I’m beginning to remember that neither I, nor the issues, are exactly the same each time; going around the cycle has changed me and the issues and in that knowledge there’s a chance to change further, consciously.

And now I shall leave you with this video from Penelopepiscopal of my favorite Advent hymn:

 

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