Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Word Became Flesh:
Reflections - and Questions - for a Fruitful Advent


A conversation of the St. Francis House and Pres House communities. December 4, 2013.

This is a lot of fun, to be with you tonight. Wonderful to have friends from Pres House and St. Francis House together like this. Thank you, Amy, for inviting us, and for inviting me to speak with you tonight about Advent.

Just quickly, Mark has been a great friend to me in my time on this campus, and a few of our crew had the recent pleasure of traveling with some of you from the Pres House on the TaizĂ© Pilgrimage of Trust at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, so the friendship between St. Francis House and Pres House is more than on paper, and I’m grateful for that. It’s really good to be with friends tonight.

Okay. Advent. 

Raise your hand if you grew up around Advent - you have memories spanning years that come to mind specific to this season. Now, raise your hand if you discovered Advent more recently. Finally, anybody for whom the word Advent is altogether new?

Describe Advent for me - in a sentence or so. What do you see when you think about Advent? What sounds do you hear when you think about Advent? What comes to mind?

Does anybody have scriptures that come to mind when you think about Advent? What is the best part of Advent?

[At this point, we spent a good amount of time talking informally about Advent's basics - what it means, history, background of the liturgical year, etc.]

Lots of variety in practice across the Church with respect to an Advent season or its equivalent, but all Christian traditions agree that the coming of Christ is something for which to prepare. All Christians agree that Christ’s coming takes time.

One of the things people will tell you about the holiday season - by which they usually mean Christmas, not Advent - is that it has gotten too materialistic. But when you worship a God who was born to a Jewish, teenage mother in a food trough hid in a dusty Middle Eastern town, surrounded by the kinds of animal smells you and I would have to drive to Waunakee to enjoy, you wonder if materialism doesn’t get a bad rap. Jesus born to Mary. Which is why, in part, we have Advent. Because a virtual Savior might have come overnight. Peace on earth could have shipped via Amazon Prime, I suppose, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t quick. It’s wasn’t tidy. It was more embodied than that. The Savior was born to Mary, which means long after Joseph and Mary had settled on a name and painted the nursery, but well before the Christ child was born, there were weeks of difficult nights in which Mary couldn’t ever get comfortable and Joseph either held her or slept on the couch, and the day couldn’t come soon enough. Advent is about waiting exactly because the Word became flesh, material. To borrow an old clichĂ©, whose age proves its truth, matter matters. 

I want to push on this point. Buying stuff on Black Friday doesn’t make you a materialist (1); material gluttony and instant gratification don’t draw you into the present moment and a keener sense of the material world around you. Which is more materially compelling: buying beef wrapped in cellophane at the local grocery store or raising a calf on the farm to market weight? Let’s be clear, I’m not saying that buying too much stuff isn’t a a major challenge to your spiritual life; it’s just a lousy way to become a materialist, because the major challenge to the spiritual lives of many of us is not that consumerism makes us too material, but that, in consuming stuff, we become numb to materials - we become not nearly material enough.

Some examples: an atheist friend of mine is driven batty by the number of Christians who take out their social justice frustrations on Facebook, liking every cause they can click-on, turning potential real-life sacrifices - that might leave marks on their bodies - into cleverly packaged, disembodied trends designed to manipulate emotions and generate hits. Easy to pick on Facebook, I suppose, but the same objection could be made to those of us who over-fixate on partisan politics and different levels of public policy and forget the call to us - the Church, Christians in community - to love the neighbor next to us in word and deed; to model, as Church, a compelling alternative to the structures of the world. Finally, few things are more sad and confusing than the disregard of so-called materialists for the state and well being of the earth. If consumerism has made us materialists, it has made us very bad materialists.

Of course, I’m using materialism and materialistic in ways slightly outside of common usage. Most of the time ‘materialistic’ means an over-concern with possessions and/or money. It’s ironic that materialistic has come to mean overly concerned with money, I think, because few things have come to be less material than money. Hours of very real work, at very specific tasks, for which you study and spend your lives, reduced to slips of paper or - more commonly - debit card balances and online transactions. 

Even consumption - the thing that ostensibly money is for - is not as concrete as we imagine. William Cavanaugh, Professor of Theology at DePaul University, reminds his readers that “…pleasure is not so much in the possession of things as in their pursuit” (Being Consumed, 48). That is, once you have the thing, you lose what you were in fact after. According to Cavanaugh, what you were after is an abstracted attempt to “escape time and death by constantly seeking renewal in created things. Each new movement of desire promises the opportunity to start over” (Ibid.).

The significance of all of this, for Christians, is just to say that the Son of God born to Mary cannot be reduced to an abstracting slip of paper, a sort of dollar bill of the divine representing some other reality. When Christians say ‘God,’ we mean the God who revealed God’s self to the world in Jesus. We mean the Word became flesh - particular, muddy, Jewish flesh - and dwelt among us. This is why Christians need Advent and also why Advent needs Israel. If you like your faith precut and wrapped in cellophane, you won’t have room for Israel. But Advent takes us back, behind the grocery store, to the stall, where the animals are. Advent is about the longing of Israel: 

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel,
shall come to thee o Israel!

Jesus fulfills the hope of Israel. And the people born of Jesus’ fulfillment of Israel’s hope is called Church. And this makes sense. You can’t talk about Jesus born to Mary for very long without talking about the Body of Christ, in all of its senses. And anyone who thinks this is over-spiritualizing materiality hasn’t tried very long to live in the Body of Christ. As messy and full of asses as that very first manger. As material as goods shared in common, enemies embraced, and real sins forgiven.

Advent is about the Body. About Jesus, born to Mary. About the Eucharist - the bread and wine - and about the Church, the Body of Christ, and her waiting for Christ’s coming again. Advent is about the Body and what the Body is for: a light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people, Israel. To prepare for Christ’s second coming is to live lives that physically point to, expect, and embody the lordship of Jesus; lives that turn old and cluttered storage rooms into actively waiting nursery rooms. Rooms that won’t make sense until the child makes a home there. And the child we receive is for the life of the world. This is where Advent gets dangerous.

One day, Augustine says he hears God talk to him, and God says this to Augustine, “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me” (Ibid., 54-55). Cavanaugh, again, says that “[in] the consumption of the Eucharist, we cease to be merely ‘the other’ to each other. In the Eucharist, Christ is gift, giver, and recipient; we are simultaneously fed and become food for others” (Ibid., 56).

Christians are fed and become food for others. Advent is about the Body. And because Advent is about the Body it cannot dissolve into disembodied contemplation and cannot be lived without friends. To be food for others is to understand that Christian materialists are called to use the materials we’ve been given for both the building up of the Body and the exercise of the Body, both caring for the Body and reaching out beyond the Body, with Christ, pointing Christ, seeking Christ, using our materials in ways that bring us closer to the flesh and blood suffering, joys, and utter materiality of the people around us. Along the way, our things become more valuable, not less, because our lives and all we have carry in them the potential to glorify God and facilitate the flourishing of the whole family of the Kingdom of God.

I realize that ending with instructions like ‘be food for others’ and ‘facilitate the flourishing of the whole family of the Kingdom of God’ risks sounding like a hopelessly poetic abstraction of a message whose point is to be concrete. Part of my reluctance to trot out a concluding “10 ways to be a Christian materialist this Advent” list is that I think you are capable of a greater imagination than what I would give you. But we’ll connect after the small group question time to make sure, and we’ll see that we’ve at least got a start.

Some questions:
  • What is the best part of Advent?
  • What scriptures does Advent call to mind?
  • What concrete disciplines might help us be living food for others?
  • Remembering the particularity of Jesus at his birth sets us up to pay attention to the particularity of his whole life. What do you find most challenging/exciting/disturbing about the life of Jesus
  • What practices help you stay present to the material world around you?
  • How is your faith journey presently and positively engaged with the Body of Christ called the Church?
  • A friend had a practice of setting one goal each week that could not possibly be met without God’s help. What practices help you live expectantly in relation to God?
  • What other question do you wish had been asked? (After answering this question, ask yourself that question.)

Postscript:

Some ideas toward a Christian materialism:

Read the Old Testament. You can’t be a materialist without genealogies.  
Make your own stuff.
Know the people who make your stuff.

A few years ago, I set a modest goal: I would walk home for lunch and, on my walk, I would think only about the walk to and from the office, checking the time when I first noticed that I had become distracted.  The next day, over the course of two eighteen minute walks, I never made it longer than two and a half minutes.  This confirmed my suspicion that I was all but handed over to fantasies: focused on the 'unreal' and not present even to myself.

In order to step back from "the great system of collusive fantasy", I began talking out loud to myself, in order to put a leash on the wandering mind - I think faster than I can speak.  Next, I made an eighteen minute covenant to only speak true things about my immediate and visible reality.  I wasn't very good at this at first.  I started simply: blue car, unkempt lawn, flag pole, etc.  But after a few minutes, I began noticing my reality in greater and greater detail.  The house with no cars and the front porch left on.  The boat left out for cleaning after yesterday's fishing expedition.  The teachers wrangling up  children on the playground.  In all of this, I refrained from ascribing motivation or intention: what is actually happening?  Strangely, if you do this long enough, you ending up sounding a lot like Garrison Keillor.

This practice helped me see and stay present to the material world, what is. It helped me better see the material needs of those around me as well as the material possibilities with which to serve others. To be food for others begins with discerning the Body of you receive and in seeing the others around you, where you are.


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(1) At no point in the above does "materialist" refer to the formal term in the context philosophy; here, we're going for the dictionary's 3rd definition: "a great regard for worldly concerns."

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