Christmas Presence

A few years ago, as I and the rest of the audience waited patiently for a passion play to begin, a homeless man burst into the church and began running up the aisle, screaming. He was unkempt and appeared to be psychologically disturbed. The actors also seemed alarmed, and we waited anxiously for someone to call the police. That is, until we heard what the man was screaming: “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight! Repent! Repent!”

For the majority of the world’s Christians, in the Congo or China, El Salvador or Haiti, where each day is a struggle just to stay alive, God’s promise of salvation is tangible, real, and long-awaited. But for too much of the wealthy Western world, Ad­vent is only a comforting backdrop to the season of gluttonous overconsumption. And we who are cushioned by wealth in all its forms desperately need the Baptist to shock us into preparing for the only gift that matters: the gift of God’s presence in Emmanuel, “God-with-us.”

This month’s readings will lead us through an Advent exercise that, like God’s gift of Jesus, emphasizes relationship and solidarity over things; we will seek ways to give presence rather than presents. Sojourners will build and support your Advent gifts with presence as well: We invite you to share your ideas, actions, and responses with your fellow pilgrims on our blog at www.gods

Michaela Bruzzese, a Sojourners contributing writer, lives in Brooklyn, New York.

December 7

Into the Wild

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15; Mark 1:1-8

Last week’s introduction to Advent and the gospel of Mark was all about preparation, with an apocalyptical twist. Although Peter continues that theme, Mark, unlike other gospel authors, introduces John the Baptist without apocalypse or seeming urgency. Mark’s Baptist “appears” in the wilderness preaching repentance; for Mark, John’s only role is to point the way to Jesus, “who is more powerful than I” and who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Meanwhile, Isaiah begins and ends with words of reassurance to a people weary from 70 years of exile in Babylon: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. … God will gather the lambs in his arms … and gently lead the mother sheep.” The psalmist, too, promises that God has heard our cries for mercy and will restore the signs of the covenant: “Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.”

While each author assures us that our Redeemer comes, it is John the Baptist’s physical and spiritual location that most clearly tells us what this new reign is all about. Mark’s description of the Baptist is meant to invoke images of the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8) but his emphasis on John’s location (“wilderness” and “countryside” are mentioned three times) makes clear that the new reign, and its Messiah, do not come from the religious and social center, but the margins—the unknown, the unsanctified, the uncomfortable.

Taking John’s example, we who await the Messiah can also “Prepare the way of the Lord” by seeking out our own “wilderness”—that which is beyond our comfort zone. Since everyone is welcome to this new reign, we can prepare Jesus’ way by reaching outside our comfort zones to connect with someone different (you choose the difference: economic, racial, religious, political party, age, etc.). What is important is that it is not a natural connection but one that will take time, energy, and understanding to cultivate. Paul knows from experience that such a task is no easy matter but promises that God will be present and “patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

December 14

The Gift of Grace

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

In Thessalonians, Paul offers almost insultingly obvious recommendations for community living—but, having done our homework last week and started to build community with those outside our comfort zones, we can appreciate his insight like never before. Just prior to this passage, Paul encourages the early community to “Be at peace among yourselves. … [A]dmonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them” (1 Thessalonians 5:13-14). We know now that this reign is different, and since it is composed of all kinds of people, we need to work on building and maintaining relationships. Isaiah reminds us that in this kingdom, we are anointed as bearers of the grace we wish to receive, for God “has sent me 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.”

Which brings us to John’s gospel. Although most historians agree that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and was likely part of his early community, the gospel author is careful to establish Jesus’ superiority to the Baptist, who declares that “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” Theologian Jon Sobrino observes in Jesus the Liberator that even Jesus’ starting point differs from that of the Baptist, for “Unlike the Baptist, what is imminent is not God’s judgment—though this will come—but God’s grace.” Moses, the prophets, the religious structures of the time, and even the Baptist are concerned with the law and judgment under it, but Jesus’ first priority is grace.

This third week of Advent allows each of us the opportunity to put Paul’s advice and Jesus’ example of grace over judgment into action. Now that we have started building relationships with people outside our comfort zone, we need to practice problem-solving skills, kingdom style. How many ways can each of us extend grace over judgment this week? Each time we do so, we move one step closer to Emmanuel, God-with-us.

December 21

A Summons and Sending

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

In the history of God’s interactions with humanity in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Mary’s role is unique. Whereas the greatest pro­ph­ets, including Jeremiah, Moses, and Isaiah, responded to God’s call to partnership with trepidation and fear, Mary’s response more closely resembles that of Abraham, the one through whom God formed a covenant with humanity. Like Abraham, Mary trusts completely in God’s word, without knowing the consequences of her decision. Like Abraham, her great faith results in the birth of a new covenant and a new people. Her unqualified yes, given without prior analysis, best- and worst-case scenarios, or any of the other decision-making tools the rest of us employ, seems to be given from a place of profound integrity; she relates to God as a whole person. Mary’s conversation with God, through Gabriel, can be described as an “I-Thou” encounter, which Martin Buber insists in I and Thou “can be spoken only with the whole being.”

Mary’s centeredness is evident in her agency. Although Gabriel does not leave much room for dissent, Mary simply assumes she has a choice, and she makes her choice clear: “Let it be with me according to your word.” Finally, Mary perfectly grasps that God’s revelation through her and in Jesus is, in the words of Buber, at once “a summons and a sending.” After her encounter with Gabriel, she goes into the world as the bearer of a new covenant.

In these final days before Christ­mas, and using this “I-Thou” approach to relationship with God and others as our model, we also prepare for God’s revelation in Jesus. Accord­ing to Buber, revelation is never limited to our private relationship with God, but is a profound commitment to the world—God summons us through Jesus, then sends us forth to bear the covenant and build God’s reign. How will the gift of God’s presence make us more present in the world?

December 28

‘A Light for Revelation’

Isaiah 61:10 - 62:3; Psalm 148; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

On the first Sunday after Christmas, the readings are a testament to joy. The psalmist commands the heavens, earth, and all of its creatures to praise God “for God’s name alone is exalted; God’s glory is above earth and heaven.” Isaiah celebrates God’s faithfulness, for God “has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” And Paul reminds us that Jesus has come for us all: Jews, Gentiles, slaves, and free (Galatians 4:5-7).

The praise and joy of the first readings are both affirmed and sobered by Luke’s account of Jesus’ presentation at the temple. Joseph and Mary’s offering—“a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons”—was for those who could not afford a lamb and, writes Howard Thurman in Jesus and the Disinherited, shows that “Jesus was a poor Jew,” which “placed him initially with the great mass of [people] on the earth.”

The assertion of Jesus’ marginalization is supported by Luke’s description of the two people who recognize Jesus as the Messiah in the temple. Simeon and Anna are not temple elders or high priests. They come (literally) from outside: Simeon was “guided by the Spirit” and “came into the temple.” Anna, though a prophet, is “of great age,” a widow, and restricted to the women’s section in the outer periphery of the temple. Jesus is neither recognized nor celebrated by religious leaders; it is left to those on the margins to welcome him.

And though Simeon and Anna rejoice in finding Jesus, Simeon is careful to note that Jesus’ life and mission will not be without opposition, for “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel.” And so Jesus enters the community, unnoticed by the powerful, but bearing the hope of God’s new reign. He will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

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