High-Calorie Spirituality

How can we live the Word if we can’t or don’t live with the Word? My question comes from a place of “organic theologizing” I learned from a theology professor. She taught me to value the organic expressions of faith and hope—expressions of the Word living with us. In contrast, conventional expressions of faith can be sapped of their ability to inspire us because they, like the conventional apple in the grocery store, may look like what we have come to believe faith (or an apple) is supposed to be, only to discover that we are not nourished and we long for something more authentic.

This perspective on linking scripture, tradition, experience, and reason has led me back to some core values I’ve found embodied, interestingly enough, in a cookbook titled Living More With Less, by Doris Janzen Longacre: “Do justice. Learn from the world community. Cherish the natural order. Nurture people. Nonconform freely.” I have set this expression of Christian faith at the front of my work as a teacher, theologian, and practitioner of Christianity. In this day and age, I find the value of nonconformity to be critical for thinking globally, acting locally, and living to the rhythms of God’s time.

As Christians, may we act justly, learn, cherish, nurture, and nonconform freely this Advent season.
Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a dissertation fellow at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.

Blessed Assurance
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

Cycle C of the Revised Common Lectionary is the year of Luke’s gospel. Full of wonderful pastoral images of Jesus’ nativity, not to mention the reunion of Mary and Elizabeth, Luke is a Christmas favorite.

Yet with this week’s text we are given the opportunity to see Jesus not as the newborn babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. Luke is prophesying the day when the Chosen One will arrive on a cloud, full of power and glory in a time when people are dying of fright because the world—or at least life as they know it—is on the verge of coming to an end (Luke 21:25-36).

The vision in Luke’s gospel is that of the Second Coming, not the first coming we are preparing for as we make lists, check them twice, order gifts online, or brave the vehicular and human traffic at shopping centers. There is a radical invitation in these texts, however, to reorient our thinking, our worship, our buying, and our preparing. Instead of pleasing others, how can we please God?

The psalmist seems to be pondering this same question. Jeremiah tells us that justice and righteousness are pleasing to Adonai. If we think of the pathway from Psalm 25 as a metaphor for the movement from Advent to Christmas, then the first stage of our journey is about getting right with God because the day of judgment is going to close like a trap (Luke 21:34-35), so watch and pray! The sense of urgency in Luke’s and Jeremiah’s rhetoric is palpable, and many of us can relate because the holidays are all about urgency: Get those Christmas letters stuffed, get to the baking, make travel plans, wonder if this year’s Christmas bonus is going to be bigger than last year’s, and on and on.

In this way, Paul, Silas, and Timothy’s letter to the Thessalonians is quite different. They are celebrating the joy we can find when genuine faith and love get us through times of uncertainty and hectic schedules. Great importance is being placed on nurturing people in and as communities of faith that exude integrity. I wonder: Is the Word inviting us to move away from lives full of anxious urgency to blessed assurance?

The Fruit of Repentance
Baruch 5:1-9; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

This is the first of two weeks in which the gospel reading focuses on the life of John the Baptizer. John is a prominent part of the Advent/Christmas journey, which is a bit surprising—we’re accustomed to reading or singing Mary’s song in this season, not Zechariah’s. Yet there is a great deal of hope in his message: John will “prepare the way for the Promised One, giving the people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:76–77). Sure enough, that is what John does, and in a very Jewish context.

The lections that accompany the passages from Luke (in addition to Luke’s reference to Isaiah 40:3) bolster the Christian affirmation that Jesus does indeed fulfill the prophesies of old, a fact we are sometime hesitant to embrace in a post-Sept. 11 world in which we see the violence wrought and perpetuated by co-opting religious difference along with ethnic, cultural, and national rivalries. How can we learn from the world community on the Advent journey? How can we embrace the tenets of our faith without demonizing those who do not share our beliefs? I’m not sure how to live with John’s words of judgment that follow in Luke 3:7 (“You brood of vipers!”), yet I admire his clarity that repentance can produce good fruit. This is part of what it means to be sanctified, to be made holy.

Paul and Timothy are thankful for the way the good news Jesus proclaimed is taking root in the lives of the Philippians, especially when radical love of neighbor and enemy is such a risky thing for them to live out on a daily basis. If we use the reading from Philippians and refract the other passages back through it, do we perceive something different? Can John’s call give us hope that “the tender mercy of our God … [will] guide our feet into the way of peace”?

Living Abundantly
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

The gospel reading resumes the story of John’s baptizing ministry. The forgiveness of sin is something to rejoice about, which the three other readings invite us to do. But I am not so sure about his promise that one will arrive whose job it is to baptize us with fire. What happened to God’s tender mercy? And Paul and Timothy advise us that being forbearing is preferable to dealing with others harshly.

With this in mind, I can read John more pastorally than I could initially. He is sincere in his hope that repentance will clear people’s hearts and minds so they can turn from selfishness toward the path of peace, the way of justice. “Share! Don’t cheat others! Be happy with what you have because it’s enough! Don’t push weaker people around!” If we can take John’s message to heart and share it with others who embrace the beautiful simplicity of the truth, then I think we would have reason to rejoice.

Liturgically, the third Sunday of Advent is known as “Gaudete Sunday”—this is when the pink candle of the Advent wreath is lit and we realize that repentance, confession, and turning away from living-less-with-more is something to celebrate.

Becoming Mary’s Servants
Micah 5:2-5; Luke 1:46-55;Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)

We actually move backward in time in Luke’s narrative. The two readings tell the story of Mary’s reunion with Elizabeth and culminate in the Magnificat, Mary’s song of wonder, awe, comprehension, and celebration of what God is doing in the world. This collection of texts is far more pastoral—and not just because there are several references to shepherds and sheep.

I find exciting the turn from judgment of the lofty toward lifting up the lowly. It gives me hope that the way things are in the world right now is going to change someday, somehow. At the same time, I’m left to wonder, “What happens to all of us middle-class folks?” Does God have a preferential option for middle-class and upwardly mobile Americans? I don’t think so. I do think God expects us to sing Mary’s song and do some soul-searching to figure out where we fit in the cosmic order of God’s reign. Do we rely on God to fill us with good things? I’m afraid I have my own cynical answer: We rely on ourselves to fill our physical and spiritual bellies with junk food. We perpetuate this bad habit of stuffing ourselves on commercial Christmas crap instead of figuring out how we might sustain celebration by sharing the abundance that can come to us and our neighbors through community living.

Christmas has a long and complicated history, but sometime in the 12th century there was a revival of celebrating the days of Christmas through Epiphany as the Twelve Days of Christmas. Why don’t we take time like that now? Similarly, much of industrialized American society has lost sight of the rhythm of postpartum life. The idea that a woman should get up and get going the day after she gives birth is just plain bad. During the final days of Advent and for the entire Christmas season, perhaps we ought to think of ourselves as Mary’s servants—assisting her as she gives birth and then considers how and why her newborn child is going to change the world. I wonder: What would happen if instead of cramming all our hopes, expectations, and celebrations into one day, we Christians try celebrating with Mary and Joseph for 12 days instead of one?

’Tis the Season
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52

This week, Luke takes us to Jerusalem in Jesus’ 12th year. In the context of the story of young Samuel (1 Samuel 2:18-20), we are invited to ponder what it means to grow in ways that find favor with God and neighbor. That Jesus was an infant we can easily imagine; after all, the image of the infant Jesus is at the center of our Christian observance of Christmas. But I wonder about the space between birth and age 12. What happens in Jesus’ life as Mary and Joseph count from a starry night in Bethlehem to 12?

The Bible is full of this number: Ishmael’s 12 sons who become princes; Jacob’s 12 sons who become the namesakes of tribes; 12-year-old Jesus; the 12 apostles; the hemorrhaging woman who suffered for 12 years; 12 baskets of leftover fish; and the 12 symbols of Revelation, including the woman robed with the sun and adorned with a crown of 12 stars. We live 12-hour days and 12-hour nights over the course of 12 months each year. And, of course, we sing in these weeks of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” As we ponder these references, the central “numerical” question still remains: How many ways, this season and always, can we grow closer to both God and neighbor?

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