Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Losing Advent?

Are we losing Advent? I don't mean the creeping poinsettias, children's Chrismas pageants, and Christmas carols during Advent. I mean something more serious--or, rather, less serious.

I'd heard a rumor that some Episcopal churches were tampering with the lectionary in order to mute the themes of judgment and the end time, but I was hoping it wasn't true. Now, news comes of a way of interpreting the Advent wreath that seems very recently invented. We are to light "the candle of hope," "the candle of peace," "the candle of joy," and "the candle of love" on the four successive Sundays. The non-Anglican pink candle (introduced from the Roman Catholic tradition with little warrant and much confusion) is now being referred to by some Episcopalians, without authority as far as I know, as "Mary's candle."

The four themes of Advent are Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell, in that order (we observed this tradition intermittently in the preaching at Grace Church in New York.) Granted, this version of the Four Last Things dates from the Middle Ages, not the New Testament directly, although the readings for the season certainly warrant it. It is ironic that so much of medieval Christianity is presently revered in the church (including the spurious labyrinth), but not all of it! In particular, the emphasis on judgment that was typical of earlier centuries in the church is now in disfavor. A quick perusal of the texts of older Advent and Christmas hymns show how much the season used to feature the Four Last Things, even if not by that name. We still sing the hymns and carols, for the most part; but we have excised the Four (except for Heaven) from our preaching and teaching.

In a world where multinational corporations are supporting civil war in Africa, where children are sold as sex slaves for "sex tourists," where the American craving for cocaine is fueling the Mexican drug cartels, and on and on, there is a lot of hell and a need for a lot of judgment. And "the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God" (I Peter 4:17).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Battle of the billboards

On Friday, WNYC featured the battle of the billboards. When you wait in line to get into the Lincoln Tunnel you stare at a billboard showing a Nativity scene and the words “You know it’s a myth.” When you come out of the tunnel you see a billboard with a Nativity scene and the words “You know it’s real.” One was put up by the atheists, the other by the ever-vigilant Catholic League. The most interesting part of the broadcast was an interview with an agnostic who’s written a new book called Spiritual Envy. The author wishes he could believe in Christmas and all the rest of it. Even more, he said, he wishes that those who do believe in Christmas would act like it, instead of running around in the commercial rat race like everybody else...

That is the first paragraph of my sermon at Bach Vespers last Sunday. It is posted here under the title A Christmas Sermon: Magnificat.

Advent, the season of "negative capability"

A friend writes:

“I needed something to read during my daughter’s choir rehearsal last week, so I grabbed Help My Unbelief [one of Fleming's books] on my way out the door. I read the Advent sermons, and found them extremely edifying. I am very fond of the clergy at our church, but with all due respect they have no sense whatsoever of 'negative capability'; while they preach on the texts (good), they fail utterly to reach into the dark and unattractive places in people's lives or the world at large (bad). I think this leaves the congregation with precisely the anxiety you mention: 'the priest has so much faith, but as for poor old me....' Anyway, it was an excellent choice of reading material."

I am very grateful for this, not only for the praise, but, more important, for the insight. So many sermons in this season are upbeat and full of Christmas cheer. Advent is the time above all others for "negative capability." This famous phrase was invented by John Keats, who used it in one of his letters. It refers to the capacity for entertaining perplexing, disturbing, unreconciled thoughts in one's mind without premature reaching for answers and solutions. Negative capabililty, reinterpreted for Christians, means that life is lived not according to formula, but trusting in the promises of God even in the midst of uncertainty and doubt. That is the nature of Christian hope.

Help My Unbelief is readily available on Amazon.