The season of Advent sounds a discordant note in a world abuzz with holiday Musak. While everyone else is humming “have a happy jolly Christmas,” we church folks sing prophetic tunes that sound more like a slave spiritual or a freedom song than a Christmas Carol.
O come, O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel, who mourns in lonely exile here until the son of God appears.
We do not begin our Advent journey with the baby Jesus snuggled in the arms of his parents all aglow in an idyllic postpartum nativity scene. Instead we begin right in the middle of the birth pains that accompany a difficult delivery.
The prophet Isaiah lets out a gut wrenching cry: “O God that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” The world around us is in turmoil, God. We need your presence. Come and occupy our world now!
Remember, the nation of Israel had been overrun by the Babylonians. The people had been deported and held in captivity. Isaiah was among the throng of refugees returning to their homeland only to find that it looked like London after the blitz or Ground Zero after 911. The Temple complex has been reduced to a pile of rubble.
And all I want for Christmas, Isaiah cries, is the earth shaking, fire kindling, water boiling Presence of a God who can set the world aright. I think we can safely say that Isaiah is crying out for the kind of Presence that can’t be put in a box and won’t come neatly wrapped and tied in dazzling ribbons.
In fact the first Christmas Presence defies all expectations. Behold the birth of a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger full of cow dung, in a back alley stable in a dark and forsaken corner of the world.
Advent does not begin with the birth story however. Instead it fast forwards us to the end of Jesus’ life where he is predicting what the world will look like if it does not heed his message to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
The gospel of Mark gives us a litany of woes that sound like today’s news headlines: There will be wars and rumors of wars. Nation will rise against nation and there will be earth quakes in various places and famines. Many will come in the name of Jesus and try to lead people astray. The apocalyptic passages in the gospels are often used by the end-time preachers to predict the end of the world.
But in reality these texts were written in the mid-first century specifically for the early Christian community who were actually experiencing social strife and upheaval and the end of the world as they knew it.
Rome had ordered Jews (including Jewish Christians) to erect statues of the Emperor in the houses of worship. By A.D. 70, the Roman armies laid siege to Jerusalem and the Temple complex was reduced to rubble for a second time.
According to Jesus, this was but the beginning of the birth pangs. Every birthing process includes blood sweat and tears and contractions. It is when the world is at its darkest and when things look the bleakest, that we are most ready to give birth to something new.
Learn a lesson from the fig tree, Jesus says: new life emerges like the tender branch of a fig tree which sends out a green shoot as winter turns to spring.
If we are not paying close attention, if we do not stay awake and attentive we may miss what is in the process of being born. In fact, the whole Christmas story is about people who remained attentive and awake to what the world could be rather than in captivity to the way things were.
There is Mary, the unwed mother who opens the door of her heart and life and prepares herself to give birth to God’s possibilities and to envision a world where “the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up, where the hungry are filled with good things and those who hoard all the wealth are sent away empty.”
There is Joseph who is awakened by God’s dream and then must make a choice between protecting his own interests and reputation or taking care of a mother and child in need of shelter and he makes the choice to do what is right.
There are the day-laboring shepherds out in the field who let go of their fears and attune their ears to “the good news of great joy” that could save the world and bring “peace on earth and good will to all.” Not only do they hear the “good news” but they heed its call and run with haste to a stable in Bethlehem believing that another world is possible
There are the three wise star gazers who are commissioned by a power hungry King Herod to follow a rising star and search for a child rumored to be a new born king. In a dream they discern Herod’s intent to destroy the child and they put their lives on the line to protect the child from the violent forces that are seeking to snuff out his life.
Advent is a time of preparation. In order for Emmanuel – God with us – to enter our world anew, we need to keep the eyes of their heart open to the new life waiting to be born amid the dung and despair of the world as we know it.
Our world is feeling the birth pangs and we do not know yet what is being born. The Occupy Wall Street movement is only in its second month of gestation. It is being called “the heart cry of the world.”
Citizens in over 1500 cities around the world are verbalizing their outrage at the widening gap of income inequality and the gross negligence of the common good as politicians sell their souls to the highest bidder.
Advent is a time to watch and watch and to remember that there is a long way between the first contractions and the delivery room. Every birthing process is messy. Social movements always are.
There is a diversity of voices and opinions as solidarity begins to build. The poor, the working class and the middle class – all of us — are feeling the squeeze and the OWS movement has provided a forum to hear our common call to hold those responsible for our economic mess accountable.
We are at a tipping point and what hangs in the balance is what will occupy the heart and soul of our nation and our world.
Advent is a time to stay awake, to resist hitting the snooze alarm.
Advent is a time to watch for the light emerging in the darkness and the hope arising even in the midst of the birth pains.
Advent is a time to make room in the inn of our lives for what God desires to birth within us. It is a time to make conscious choices about what will occupy our mind, our heart, our time and our energy.
If we are occupied by pessimism and despair, the hope that envisions a new future can’t be born.
If we are occupied by divisiveness and mistrust, the peace that builds bridges will not be born.
If we are occupied by an endless flurry of activity, the joy that springs from a true giving of self to others will not be born.
If we are occupied by maintaining what is or what has always been, rather than dreaming of what can be, the love that demands justice and the common good will not be born.
There is a light shining in our darkness. Let us keep walking toward that light.
Rev. Laura Rose is the senior pastor at First Congregational Church of Alameda/United Church of Christ, a doctoral candidate in Postmodern Leadership at Drew University and a member of the Interfaith Tent community at Occupy/Decolonize Oakland. Her articles have appeared online at Alameda Patch, Patheos and Huffington Post Religion.