‘Step Into the Mystery of Life,’

Posted: November 25, 2022 in Uncategorized

‘Step Into the Mystery of Life,’

Marcus Borg back in 2013 wrote that, “Seeing Advent as a penitential season strikes me as unfortunate. It is the product of a seriously distorted and yet widespread understanding of Christianity: namely, that the central issue in our lives with God is our sinfulness (commonly understood as disobedience and/or failing to measure up to what God requires from us) and thus our need for repentance and forgiveness. “Within this framework, that’s the reason Jesus was born. As the divinely-conceived Son of God, he was sent by God to be the perfect sacrifice, the payment for our sins, so that we can be forgiven. Provided, of course, that we believe in him. “That is a serious impoverishment of Christianity and Advent”

The Pohutukawa blooms into our New Zealand lives. The rich red flower creeps its way into our vision sometimes in burst and others like a slow and sure event. It signals a New Zealand Advent!

Here it is once again; the first Sunday in Advent. The season of waiting. The season of anticipation. The season for recognising the incarnate nature of the sacred in nature and in the one called Jesus of Nazareth – the human face of the one we name as God. But unlike most of the northern hemisphere of our world, where the church liturgical calendar was first shaped, today for us is the recognition of the arrival of Summer. And Summer in New Zealand Australia is a natural time for celebration. It is the time of balancing the place work and industry has in our lives with the freedom and joy of holidaying and letting go and of doing all the things that speak of joy and freedom. It is the time when we reflect on the value of being human and sacred and connected. It is a time when we wallow in the idea and phenomenon of new life and new growth to be seen, ripeness and richness, as plant and bush and tree display their many colours against the green of this collection of Islands perched on the edge of earth crust plates. It is a time when we recognize that nature is a gift in early Summer in New Zealand and we anticipate its arrival eagerly.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent.  And immediately we confront readings set down in the Lectionary for today that little to do with our perceptions of either Advent or the coming season called Christmas. For instance, if we approach Matthew as a narrative, today’s reading comes about 9/10th of the way through the book… Closer to the end of the complete story than to the beginning. So, it comes to us totally out of context. Second, all the readings offered paint diverse pictures of a world quite different from ours today. And not only that, these stories or readings are not directed to a time thousands of years later – into our time, as seems to be assumed by those who shaped the Lectionary.

With Rex Hunt and other Progressives, I think a far better place to start would be the beginning of Matthew, where we find the genealogy of Jesus. It seems a better place in that there is a place where the best can come out of the worst. And the worst can come out of the best!

Process theologian John Cobb’s suggestions might help here? He says that those who have selected these passages “understand Advent to be the season of anticipation, of expectancy, and hope generally… [And] in all the texts the hope is grounded in faith in God.” (Cobb. P&F Web site, 2004)

So continuing to listen to process theologian John Cobb for a few more moments, we can acknowledge that we human beings are not good at predicting the future. We can appreciate that the actual course of history is far more ambiguous than are the visions that lure us forward.
We can realise that even the one we name God does not control the future or know just what will happen. Our God is within the big picture not outside it making it run. Our God is within it with us participating in the running. And we can hear also that the hope which keeps us going is far deeper and more fundamental to our faith than we realise. “Hope has survived repeated disappointments in the past.  It will survive many more in the future.  It will do so as long as we believe in the biblical God.” (Cobb, P&F Web site, 2004)

Of course, such a statement still needs clarification. Because such a statement presupposes that God’s working in history does not displace the working of human beings. And that is immediately a bit of a shock to those who believe God is all-powerful! Either justified by stepping back and watching the created run like a machine and could ‘do something’ in various situations but chooses not to in some. John Cobb explains his comment a bit more. The quote is a bit detailed so I invite you to listen/read carefully. “God works in hope for peace and justice, but the world turns to violence and oppression.  Still God’s work is not futile.  Here and
there it succeeds, encouraging the hope for wider and more inclusive success.  That success depends on our response to God’s invitation to share in the achievement of God’s purposes.  And our hope depends on the assurance that God does not give up on us” (Cobb, P&F Web site, 2004). This still tends to assume a supernatural God over and above all but it does recognize to a degree humanities part in the care of the planet which sadly has been shown to be inadequate.

What one gleans is however that despite frustration and disappointment, we are still called to be a people of hope. For hope is what is handed down from mother to daughter to son,
not merely as a package passed from one generation to another. But as hope which is alive in mother and daughter and which now lives in the child of the third generation. Hope is always tentative yet never just wishful thinking. It is always a certainty yes never an assumption. Today is the first Sunday in Advent. A time of waiting… a time of change… a time of hope, and the story of Jesus is the understanding of the incarnate nature of the human relationship with the sacred. Gods chosen partner in the care of creation, for it , and with it.

Indeed, during the season of Advent, the stories “of babies or shepherds or stars or lullabies are saying the world, as we know it, is about to change, it is evolving.  Their message is ‘wake up, pay attention, get ready… Strange words they might be, but maybe we need something jarring to lift us out of our complacency and wake up to something new”.

One story of the manifestation of this hope might be the story from Dresden, the German city that was devastated by the fire-bombing at the end of the World War 2. They found in the ruins a musical score that had survived the fire and devastation. It was the score to Albinoni’s ‘Adagio for Strings and Orchestra in B Minor’. In the midst of this devastation of war – the very worst that we do to each other – there survived something of the most beautiful
that we create for each other. So the Albinoni piece became a sign of hope.
And it has been used that way.

Another story is the one in the time of the siege of Sarajevo during the Balkans War, the city was shelled month after month, every single night. On one of those nights a group of people
standing in line in front of a bakery were waiting to buy bread. A mortar shell fell right in the middle of them. Twenty-two people were killed. Innocent people. Hungry people.  Wanting to buy bread. A few days later, at the same spot, in front of the burned out bakery, a man named Vedian Smailovic placed a chair, and began to play his cello. For 22 days he played his cello, one day in memory for each one of the people who had been killed at that spot.

The gesture itself was wonderful, playing music. But what gave it deeper significance is 
the music he played each day was ‘Adagio for Strings and Orchestra in B Minor’.

Hope is not being afraid of doubt, not wallowing in the negative, not getting bogged down in the realities of human existence but rather seeing them in their rightful place as signs that bring an awareness of the positive, the hope-filled moment, the deep huge picture of a certain hope. We have it. Without it, we cannot live. A Pohutukawa advent hope calls to us, lures us, to breathe, to pause, and to shake off the doldrums – and most importantly fear.

For this Advent hope, first announced by angels to shepherds, “means that despite appearances men and women of violence are no longer in control of history… that those who would seek to determine history’s outcome through violence will never succeed… When the angels announced the coming of the Christ to the shepherds their first words are ‘fear not'” (Northcott 2010:17).

Advent then is Fear not, and step into the mystery of life, the whole of life. Note I said fear not, ‘and’ and not ‘but’.

Muir, J. J. Heretics’ Faith. Vocabulary for Religious liberals. Annapolis: F. J. Muir, 2001.
Northcott, M. S. Cuttlefish, Clones and Cluster Bombs. Preaching, Politics and Ecology. London: DL&T, 2010.          


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