An Advent Tune-Up for Faith
Thinking back, I haven’t always been great about getting my car “winterized.” I grew up in fairly temperate Kansas, and mostly parked in a garage at home. There didn’t seem to be too great a chance of the car’s malfunctioning on me, and I was often more interested in where the car was getting me than whether it was in prime shape. I knew the car would never be perfect, but by and large, it seemed functional.
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Then I moved to Chicago, where the winters were colder, the streets harder, and a garage a rare luxury. Suddenly winterizing seemed a bit more critical.
Today I am (by virtue of my baptism and in a way specifically called for by my ordination vows) partly in the business of serving as a prophet. Oh, I don’t rate myself as too great of one, but I do think that God has made me a part of that work. I may not be all of Christ’s Body, but I’m a piece of it. So prophecy and transformation are some of my duties too. And the season of Advent has me thinking a bit about whether I do enough to “winterize” my prophecy.
I was surprised and delighted last spring to pick up a book that seemed like an owner’s manual for faith and prophecy. It was theologian Miroslav Volf’s A Public Faith, and much of the early part of the book laid out various ways that faith can “malfunction.” He speculated that faith goes through two movements: an ascent to a mystical “encounter” with God, and a return to bear “prophetic” witness and testimony to how the God of that encounter would have us transform the world.
And each step has possible malfunctions. You might “ascend” to a falsehood, finding an idol instead of the living God. You might “return” and do nothing, basking in your own encounter without allowing it to become transformation in your life and through your life. Volf argued that we needed to be both — the mystic and the prophet — to live out our faith, and I read it and believed him.
Often, it seems the prophecy we are called to in the world falls into one of these malfunctions. The world is a serious place with serious hurts, and that reality can tempt us to withdraw from it and seek what comfort we can find for ourselves in seeking God, or to roll up our sleeves and do our best to heal it without waiting for faith to direct us toward something
The Advent themes of patience and waiting can make those temptations much more profound: If it is God’s work to save, come into the world as this child turned away from every human inn and born into the humility of a stable, then is it not the height of faith to stand and wait for his coming again to bring it to completion? Is there not a necessary humility in remembering that it is God who saves us, and not we ourselves? Is it not better stewardship of the very character of our souls to linger in the worship of God, rather than stretch out too early with imperfect human hands and minds to do imperfect human works that will require only their own eventual correction by God?
Yet if Volf’s guide is true, if we move entirely into waiting, we risk losing the movement of faith into prophecy.
I believe that Advent is a time to winterize in two ways. The first lies in remembering that it is God who has drawn near to the world, God who we are awaiting in Jesus, God who has done a new thing in becoming Christ for us. Advent is a time to remember that the God we encounter in our deep moments of faith is the God who accepted the form of a baby born into humble circumstances, and grew to humble the world by the truth of his good news.
But the second lies in Volf’s reminder of our need to return to the world, avoiding the malfunction of lingering in our experience of God without allowing it to convert us and become transformation through us. The work may be God’s own, but we have been asked to carry some of it. And while we might never know entirely what parts of our work are God working within us, and what parts are merely human, we are surely called to be Christ to the world as we await his coming again in glory. It may well be that in choosing to make us Christ’s body at work in the world, God has chosen a form even more humble than that baby in a manger, so long awaited.
To do right by our faith in Advent, we need to be open both to encounter with God and to God’s call for us to serve the world. So perhaps we must add “yearning” to our “waiting.” Perhaps we must add “expectation” to our “patience.” Perhaps we must find the invitation to know the God who has drawn near enough to breathe on us, as Christ breathed on his dear friends, and find that breath of God within ourselves, allowing God to convert us to be God’s good news coming into the world perpetually. Perhaps we must add action to our witness.
Faith, like anything else, can probably use that sort of tune-up now and then to avoid falling into malfunction, and if this Advent finds your faith facing more of a Chicago winter than a Kansas one, maybe it’s time to winterize your ascent and your return, to spend some time with how you encounter the God who comes into the world, and how you allow God to come into the world through you. Please know my prayers for a holy Advent time, and all best hopes for finding that malfunctionless faith that is a gift from God.
The Rev. Benedict Varnum is an Episcopal priest serving in the diocese of Kansas.