Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Power of Advent

I have a number of Advent CDs in my collection, including one from the incomparable choir of Kings College, Cambridge, but the performance that I find most revelatory is one that I picked up two years ago when I was teaching in Toronto. Recorded live at the Anglican Cathedral of St. James in downtown Toronto, it presents the Advent season in the most powerful way that I have yet heard. The choir doesn’t have the seraphic quality of Kings (what choir does?) but it is very good, and the overall design of the service, the selection of hymns, and the superior audibility of the readings and hymn texts makes it my favorite. (Many have asked how to get this CD. Not easy! It was published by St. James Cathedral and is available only from them. Try emailing or calling Wendy Pappas the receptionist in the Cathedral office 416-364-7865 extension 221, Monday-Friday 9:00 to 5:00. They are not prepared for a big wave of publicity about this!)

Never before in any setting have I heard the lesson from Isaiah 6 read publicly as in this Canadian Advent liturgy. Ordinarily—at ordinations, for example—the reading ends with “Here am I; send me.” When I first listened to this CD I was electrified to realize that the reader was not going to stop, but was continuing with the next verses:

…and [the seraph] said, “Go, and say to this people: “Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed… (Isaiah 6:9-10).

I held my breath. How would the reading end? What will the congregation make of this strange, and seemingly hopeless, oracle? Does it tell us that God has willed people not to be healed and restored through faith?

The reader continued with the response of Isaiah, “Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’” and stopped.

This is exactly where we are in Advent. Here we are stuck with North Korea, “the land of lousy options.” Here are the poor Haitians, their whole country sick unto death and half the foreign aid piled up in warehouses for lack of a distribution system. Here is Iraq, with the residents who returned to the country two years ago now leaving again in desperation. Here is our own country mired in the most uncivil, negative, and adversarial public mood that anyone can remember. Here are the shrimpers of our Gulf Coast, almost completely forgotten since the BP spill was plugged up, yet—according to an NPR interview today—suffering in a heartbreaking fashion.

“How long, O Lord?” Is it ever going to get any better? Advent tells us the bleak truth: there is no human capacity able to rescue this planet from itself. If we read on in Isaiah 6, the situation gets even worse; and yet the prophecy ends “the holy seed is its stump” (Isaiah 6:13). This mysterious utterance has been picked up in the liturgy and hymnody of the church as a reference to Christ, “the stump [or rod] of Jesse” from which will come the “righteous branch”—the Messiah. The words of familiar Advent hymns pick up this imagery:

O come thou rod of Jesse’s stem…(from “O come, O come Emmanuel”)

O righteous branch, O Jesse’s rod,
Thou Son of Man and Son of God! (from “How bright appears the morning star”)

Imagery from nature often fails us when reading the Bible, however; anyone who lives near woods is familiar with the green shoots that appear out of dead stumps. It’s a “natural” phenomenon occurring regularly. The meaning of such images in Scripture is different. Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones is the classic example: the dead community is “clean cut off” from any hope of life until the Spirit of God breathes upon them. The commission of the prophet in Isaiah 6 is a specific illustration of the prophecy in Isaiah 40:8—“The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever.” The commission gives Isaiah his message of divine intervention at the moment of most hopelessness, the moment where human, “natural” capacity fails and has nothing more to offer.

In the Canadian cathedral service, after the reading of Isaiah 6, the hymns, anthems, and readings unfold the plan and purpose of God to raise the dead, create faith where there is no faith, bring the exiles home, and save us from ourselves in spite of ourselves. None of this would be half so commanding and revelatory if it were not for that “How long, O Lord?” It is precisely at the moment of God’s apparently unending absence that the announcement comes—Emmanu-el, God is with us.

It is typical of Advent liturgies to weave together biblical and liturgical references to the first and second comings of Christ so that it is almost impossible and—more important—unnecessary to tell where one begins and the other ends. They blend into one another just as the angel Gabriel’s gentle yet apocalyptic salute to the Virgin Mary blends into and complements the thunderous announcement of John the Baptist. All of this is interleaved in the Advent service at the Toronto cathedral in the most thoroughgoing way that I have heard. There is almost no tip of the hat to the crowd-pleasing themes of the Nativity. It is all about the adult Christ, the One who comes.

A choral responsory by Palestrina has in recent years become a standard for Advent services. This has been a great blessing both musically and theologically:

I look from afar, and lo, I see the power of God coming, and a cloud covering the whole earth….

Advent is only secondarily about the baby Jesus. It is primarily about the rending of the heavens (Isaiah again) and the coming of the Lord in power and glory to take the creation back for himself. Until he comes, then, we are the people who put on the armor of light “now in this present time” and by our works point to the One who is to come.

So even if we can't go to Haiti, we can support those who do; and we can help to civilize our public discourse; and we can offer our gifts and encouragement to (for instance) the Diocese of Louisiana as it struggles not only with the aftermath of Katrina but now also with the BP disaster. This is the way that Advent people show that God has not forgotten those who suffer.


And by the way, that quotation from Isaiah's commission that's almost always omitted is used in the New Testament more than any other passage from the Old Testament. Meaning? Even in times when faith fails and people have turned against God, the divine purpose is at work. Our God is the one who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist (Romans 4:17).