Expecting beyond Imagination: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 28 November 2010

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 28 November 2010 (First Sunday of Advent, Year A)

Isaiah 2:1-5Psalm 122Romans 13:11-14Matthew 24:36-44

I’ve read in a number of places (some of them even in the New Testament) that God uses events that the naked eye would interpret as bad luck as a sort of discipline, a reminder in cases of moral lapse that there are consequences for sin and a reminder in cases without any moral lapse that our true life is, to paraphrase Colossians, hidden in Christ.  I grant the validity of that vision of Providence (it is in the New Testament, after all), but I do think that some folks take that image too far, or perhaps more precisely, they fail to keep that reality in tension with the grand story of redemption that runs through the Christian tradition.  Some places, this imbalance manifests in horrifying meditations upon every detail of physical suffering and torture, forgetting that in the absence of the Resurrection, the suffering of the innocent is not martyrdom but absurdity.  Others, less dramatic and more everyday, inspire such lines as Garrison Keillor’s famous bit about the person in Minnesota who was worried that he was enjoying himself, only to be reminded by a helpful neighbor, “This too shall pass.”  Whether horrific or comic, these worlds of suffering-without-joy not only forget the inherent goodness remaining in creation but also ignore the proclamation of what is to come.

Advent is that season of the year that reminds us of the Christian virtue of hope, that expectation of redemption that renders the daily grind and the genuinely terrible moments intelligible because they’re not the final word in the matter.  This week’s Isaiah reading initiates a long string of hopeful oracles in the book, enlivening the expectations of an Israel who has come to expect, at best, some relative political stability and perhaps even a bit of wealth and comfort.  Isaiah bursts onto the scene to remind them that they have more than mere monarchy going for them: they have Torah, the divine instruction from God which, when the nations awake from their slumbers and repent of their idolatries, will stand as the city on a hill to which they flock for wisdom and instruction.  Against a relativism that threatens to overwhelm every international age (and before the long string of hegemonies ranging from Babylon to Persia to Syria to Rome, the world of the Israelite monarchies was decidedly a parity), Isaiah holds forth a vision in which Torah stands not only as “our” way of live but as a genuinely human way of life.

In the weeks before Christmas, which in America happen to correspond to the weeks after election day, folks like me need a reminder that what we proclaim is not merely a “spiritual” veneer to put over the compromises that make up our daily lives at work and in the State and sometimes (alas) among our congregations; our life in the “already” present Kingdom remains intelligible and allows for change and difference that is genuinely better (rather than being the flat Derridean sort of difference) only because of the eschaton whose vision generations have handed to us and whose coming remains our proclamation and the proclamation of generations after us, so long as God sees fit that the pilgrim people should wander this wilderness.

May the spirit of Advent animate and inspire our imaginations, drawing us towards an adequate vision of what God has promised.

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