Tag Archive | Advent

Advent as Ending: Apocalypse as Good News

Advent as Ending: Apocalypse as Good News
David R. Weiss – December 16, 2018
The Gospel in Transition #3 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

Advent typically begins with an image of ending. Each year of its three-year cycle churches following the Revised Common Lectionary find an apocalyptic Gospel text appointed for the first Sunday of Advent. These texts add an unabashed edge of apocalyptic energy to the too often domesticated pageantry of Christmas.

Climate change has its own apocalyptic energy—as looming world-crashing threat. Yet one of the paradoxes of the Transition Movement is its determination to lean into this impending crisis as opportunity to re-center ourselves on what really matters: living lightly on the earth, locally in community, and deeply in our humanity. It’s a challenging paradox to sustain.

Perhaps it’s helpful to recall that in the Bible apocalyptic literature is actually rooted in radical hope. Such a perspective offers some discomforting but provocative connections.

Although there are a variety of biblical passages (like the Advent gospels readings) where an apocalyptic tone surfaces, there are two great instances of apocalyptic literature in the Bible: Daniel and Revelation. Both feature near-psychedelic imagery in which harrowing portraits of a collapsing world are presented. Reading them from our vantage point—and projecting their message into the future as a prediction of world-ending events—it’s easy to find them unsettling. But, in fact, both books were written for people living in such a harrowing present that they were actually offered (and received!) as good news—gospel—breaking into this world in its most extreme moments.

In both cases the authors were writing for people living under harsh societal oppression and brutal persecution by imperial powers.[1]In this context, apocalyptic cataclysm—overwhelming as the imagery is—was a message of radical hope. The present insufferable world was about to be swept away. As it needed to be if there was to be a path forward.

The less all-out visionary but unmistakably apocalyptic tone of the Advent readings in the lectionary is a stark reminder to us that all three of the synoptic gospels (many scholars question whether these words go all the way back to Jesus himself) place an apocalyptic exclamation point on Jesus’ ministry.[2]One way to read this is that the manner of life presented by Jesus—grounded I would argue in a radical praxis of inclusive compassion—unleashes its own world-transforming energy.

It’s an energy we tend to keep boxed up in all manner of ways ranging from “right doctrine” to “personal piety” to “cute Christmas pageantry.” Almost as though we want to ensure it can’t effect world transformation. Mary’s Magnificat (also appointed for the Advent lectionary) is more open in its longing. Trading apocalyptic imagery for straight forward social and political reversal, Mary’s song suggests that somehow in the promised life of Jesus the proud will be scattered, the mighty cast down, the rich left empty, the lowly exalted, and the hungry fed. Taken seriously, her words intimate a gospel nothing less than apocalyptic in impact.[3]

If it’s hard for usto feel radical hope in the face of cataclysmic change, that may have something to do with where we stand in the world today. Years ago, when teaching the story of the Exodus to college students I suggested “we would be wise to feel a bit of fear as we read these passages, in the uncomfortable honesty that we today stand closer to the Egyptians than the Hebrews. In a world where many live like slaves so that a relative few can live like kings, we are among those who wear purple.”[4]The plagues—themselves a mini apocalyptic narrative—upend the worlds of both the Egyptians and the Hebrews, but that upending is good news for those who had been enslaved (although there is no lacking of murmuring among the Hebrews as they wander the wilderness in the coming years).

So where do we stand in the story of climate change? Well, most of us stand in places where the upending of the world as it is, is not good news. But the truth is that for most of the world’s inhabitants—more viscerally acquainted than we are with the costs of our addiction to petroleum, our exploitation of animals and ecosystems, our racist objectification of our fellow humanity, and our unrelenting consumption of the planet—for most of the world’s inhabitants the continuation of the world as it is, is precisely the threat. And the apocalyptic disruption of the status quo might well count as good news.

Unfortunately, because of how interconnected our world is, the level of disruption coming with climate change will take a steep toll on the entire web of creation. And, in many cases, the greatest toll will be exacted on those least responsible and least able to respond.

Nevertheless—and I’m being intentionally provocative here—the Transition Movement[5]dares to suggest that it’s possible to move into the impending upending of the world that is … as a step toward good news. To choose to radically simplify our lives, to break our addictions to both fossil fuel and needless material stuff, to reclaim skills needed to live lightly on Earth, to dramatically localize our lives, and to deepen bonds of genuine community—all such choices, which we can begin to make now, are ways to embrace apocalypse—even as our lives are upended—as bearing good news.

This is not to make light of the damning losses that we have bartered for these past few decades (primarily by way of corporate agendas and political inaction, but also by personal indifference and unexamined habits of greed). The losses, already underway but to be fully revealed in the decades ahead, will be apocalyptic: world-rending. But it is to say that, if this present world—insufferable for so much of creation—is about to be swept away, as it needs to be if there is to be a path forward for the whole of humanity and for the health of creation, then there is in that apocalypse a very severe sort of good news.

And our capacity to make the changes needed in our lives may well hinge on our ability to imagine, within the tumult of apocalypse, a whisper of goods news. Not to domesticate its terror, but to taste the very real joy that can yet be had if we choose—in this Advent moment—to turn away (repent) from lives that trade almost entirely in death to prop up a façade of success that is coming quickly to its end.

PS: I’ll be launching a Patreon site soon to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Watch for details soon.

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!). Thanks for reading and see you next week!

 

[1]The Book of Daniel, while fictionally set in sixth century BCE (“Before the Common Era”), was authored in the second century BCE under the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Hellenistic Greek ruler who viciously attacked both Jewish faith and culture. The Book of Revelation was written near the end of the first century CE (“in the Common Era”) under the reign of Emperor Domitian who demanded imperial idolatry from Christians under pain of death. In both contexts the community of the faithful found their faith pushed to the extreme, as though nothing less than the rending of one world and the appearance of another would open a way forward.

[2]The texts (for Years A, B, C) are: Matthew 24: 36-44; Mark 13:24-37; Luke 21:25-36. While Jesus himself was active in a context of significant multifaceted social-political-religious oppression, by the time the synoptic gospels themselves were authored (usually dated 40-60 years later), the stakes seemed even higher. The Jewish Revolt, the Fall of Jerusalem and the early years of Roman persecution of Christians all made the idea of Jesus’ return a powerful source of radical hope.

[3]Luke 1:46-55. It’s noteworthy that Mary’s song of praise is sparkedby the words her cousin Elizabeth uses to greet her by, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” These are fighting words. Really. For Elizabeth and Mary, who surely knew their Jewish heroines, these words were dangerouslyevocative. In oral cultures, phrases matter. Only twice in the Hebrew Scripture were women told, “Blessed are you among women.” You couldn’t hear the words and not have the memory of Jael and Judith come rushing at you. Jael earned them (Judges 5:24) for driving a tent peg through the head of a general who was oppressing the early Israelites. Later Judith received them (Judith 13:18) after beheading a general whose troops had besieged an Israelite town. This phrase heralded women whose cunning and courage proved crucial in toppling oppressive power. As a song in response to that greeting, the Magnificat is no mere wistful verse. It is poetry promising to upend the world.

[4]The imagery in these words came to me in 1996 the first time I taught this story to first-year students at Notre Dame; I’ve used the phrase “the ones who wear purple” to frame our entry into to the Exodus tale ever since.

[5]http://transitionus.org/home

Advertisements

Advent, Anticipation … and Climate Change

Advent, Anticipation … and Climate Change
David R. Weiss – December 11, 2018
The Gospel in Transition #2 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

As a child Advent taught me the meaning of anticipation.

Yes, presents were part of that—though far from the whole of it. I remember the excitement that my siblings and I shared when the Sears and Penney’s Christmas catalogs arrived. But more than this, Advent meant evening family devotions: with each child taking a turn reading the message, lighting the candles on our family Advent wreath, or extinguishing them afterwards. It meant Saturday practice for the Sunday school Christmas Eve pageant. Each year we went out to a local tree farm to find, then tag, our chosen Christmas tree, and—during Advent—we went back to cut it down, bring it home, and trim it with favorite ornaments, decorating the rest of the house as well.

I particularly recall Pastor Knappe explaining that, because several of the prayers of the day during Advent begin with the phrase “Stir up, O God …”, these prayers always reminded him that Advent was time to stir up the batter for Christmas cookies. And, sure enough, my Advent didmean not just stirring the batter with my Mom but also smelling the Christmas cookies as they baked.

Years later in seminary—courtesy a talk by Jürgen Moltmann—I came to understand the full power intended in the word Advent: that Christmas comes to us. Although the calendar suggests wemarch toward Christmas, the theological truth of incarnation is that what happens in Christmas is not the sum of ouractions but the sum of God’s.

Thus, Advent is less “preparation” (as though our deeds “make” Christmas happen) than holy waiting, reverent anticipation of what comes to us from beyond our reach.

It’s disorienting, counterintuitive, and uncomfortably insightful to consider climate change from the vantage of Advent. The climate change we’re currently experiencing unquestionably has been made by our deeds. Beginning around 1850 and accelerating dramatically since 1950, we’ve been loading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gasses, largely through the use of fossil fuels. Unlike Christmas, then, the approach of climate change IS the direct result of human activity.

But, while the cause-effect link between human industrial activity, greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change is supremely clear at the scientific level, it’s much less clear on the experiential level. Sure, we occasionally see factories belching smoke, but the exhaust coming out of my car is barely visible and yet adds to the 28% of emissions that come from transportation. The CD player filling my home with Christmas music, the LED Christmas lights on my tree, the street lights lining my street, and the brightly lit malls and skyscrapers give off no green houses gases at all … except that generating the electricity needed to power them all accounts for another 28% of emissions. Unlike cookie-baking, present-wrapping, or tree-decorating, there is no obvious and immediate link between our daily choices and our warming planet.

Moreover, the time lag between what we put in the atmosphere by way of emissions and when we experience those emissions aschanging climate is large enough that it escapes our logic. How can gasses given off when I was a child be impacting the weather events I experience today? Perhaps most unsettling of all, we can barely imagine the cascading consequences as changing climate impacts multiply each other, creating feedback loops that drive both the speed and the extent of climate change. Admittedly, the models here are uncertain—testament to the complexity of these relationships, but not to the consensus that feedbacks loop will escalate the stakes considerably.

This is where we are today. An atmosphere recklessly and relentlessly loaded with carbon for more than a century. Wound up like a tightly coiled spring. The extreme weather eventswe notice today—storms, heat waves, droughts, floods, wildfires—are noteworthy not because we have them, but because we’re having them so frequently and so fiercely. But this is hardly “Christmas” yet as far as climate change goes. The full force of the carbon already loaded … hasn’t even begun to be felt.

And this is where climate change becomes too muchlike Christmas. Because even if we stopped adding more emissions tomorrow—both a technological and political impossibility—there is very little we can do to unwind the spring. (Yes, there are nascent—not yet practical—technologies for pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, but to imagine they’ll come on line in a cost effective way in time to significantly lessen the tension in a spring more tightly coiled each and every day, well, hopeful as that sounds, it’ll be about as effective as Scrooge’s “Bah Humbug” was in delaying the coming of Christmas.)

We are in Advent for climate change. There is indeed plentywe can do to “brace” ourselves, to increase our resilience: break habits, learn skills, link arms and weave the communal networks that can support us as climate change unravels many of the networks we’ve come to take for granted. Still, just like Christmas, there is nothing we can do to actually prevent its arrival.

I don’t “celebrate” that. Not by a long shot. Nonetheless, it’s time to embrace a long season of Advent for climate change. For there is a manner of anticipation that can seed hope in this unfamiliar season. Advent is a season that reminds us: we know (or we used to know—and can remember if we set ourselves to the task) what it is like to prepare-by-waiting for the arrival of something that comes unbidden to our world. And that posture—if we can reclaim it—may be a life-saving posture for ourselves and for our children.

The images coexist uneasily. Climate change as a type of Christmas? Advent as holy longing; now Advent as near-holy dread? On this one point they coalesce: central (for Christians) to both Christmas and climate change is the whispered presence of Emmanuel—God with us.

*          *          *

 

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!). Thanks for reading and see you next week!.

PS: I’ll be launching a Patreon site soon to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Watch for details soon.

 

Climate Change—Claiming this Crisis as Ours

Climate Change—Claiming this Crisis as Ours
David R. Weiss
Advent 2015

I’m a theologian. It’s “in my blood,” I like to say. The same heart that pushes and pulls this life-force through my body seems, and with equal regularity, to push and pull an awareness of God through my life.

I’m also—and no less—son, husband, father, grandfather. Add to that planetary citizen and child of God, both since my conception, the latter being publically confirmed by water a few weeks after my own arrival in the wee hours of a Christmas morning some five decades ago.

Born into a thick web of relationships both more complex in their promise and more complicated in their “baggage” than I have ever been able to fully grasp, I dwell at the ecological intersection of faith, creation, and chaos. The blood that gives me life was seeded in the stars. The water that christened me was distilled on a planet billions of years in the making.

And I worry.

About the world my kids, and especially my grandkids (and yours) are going to inherit. The world they’re going have to weather, if you will.

Mostly my worry sits in the background of an overly busy life. In our society that busy-ness too quickly gets counted as virtue, as though personal industry automatically confers worthy purpose on every activity that fills our schedule. I’m not so sure. Wisdom is rarely the fruit of frenzied action. More often, even the important ways we busy ourselves keep us from pausing long enough to take full stock of the situation and consider what is truly required of us in this moment.

This year, as we enter Advent, I’m bringing my worry to the foreground. Not because I want to spoil Christmas by donning some eco-Scrooge outfit and shouting “Bah Humbug!” behind a cluster of charts about a warmer, stormier, scarier planet. Rather, as an act of faith, in the conviction that Christmas—and the story that unfolds from it—both compels and empowers us to respond to the coming climate crisis.

There are, of course, real reasons why we have been so slow to address climate change. Though “real” is not the same as “good”—and claiming uncertainty about its factual basis counts as neither a real nor a good reason. The enormity of the threat, the inertia of lifestyles now thoroughly embedded in systems beyond any individual control, the impulse to preserve what is familiar, the short term addictive rush of stuff, and the sheer power of those who profit from plundering the planet—these are among the real reasons. Though none of them come close to being good reasons.

So when I imagine my grandchildren fifty years out, and they face the world we’ve bequeathed to them, none of those real reasons offer much comfort. I want to do better than merely excuse my failure to act. As a result, my Christmas list is short and sweet this year: I want the tools necessary to fashion a legacy of unconditional (and sometimes costly) care for the planet and resolute (and sometimes risky) resistance to the forces that threaten Earth’s otherwise eager desire to host life. Pretty sure that tool set is not available at Wal-Mart or on Amazon. But it’s what I want. It’s what we need.

The brewing tempest of the climate crisis threatens to overwhelm us, driving us deeper into denial or paralyzing us with fear. Do we—specifically as the church—have words and deeds to offer one another (and maybe the wider world) about how we faithfully face such an uncertain future? Both Testaments we hold sacred bear witness to a God who accompanies us into storms and can ultimately still the winds.

And I suspect—I’ll say it, I believe there is a repository of untapped wisdom woven into the rhythm of our liturgical year, and that it can anchor us—offer tether lines if you will—to hold us fast in the buffeting winds as we seek to address the climate that is so relentlessly addressing us these days.

What can the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, and the long green Season of the Church offer us as insight into how we meet the challenge of the unsettled seasons on our planet?

I have some ideas, but I need to be clear: I’m on a steep learning curve. This is a larger project than I’ve ever undertaken (and I’ve taken on some large projects). But it calls out to me as the project asking for my energy today. I’m confident as a theologian-poet that what I see/sense in the outer periphery of my vision holds promise. I just need to sit still long enough so that the images come into focus. And I’m committed as that son-husband-father-grandfather, planetary citizen, and child of God to do this work.

There is one other thing on my Christmas list, alongside that tool set: company. No matter our individual aspirations, this challenge is so all-encompassing that even our best principled actions will be ineffective (though not thereby worthless)—unless we learn to act in concert.

So I’m looking for a community willing to say out loud with me, from our star-seeded blood to our water-crossed brows, this is our crisis to face, our moment to be church, our season to journey together in holy conversation with one another.

Advent is the season of holy expectation and longing. We like to imagine we know what we’re longing for: the birth of a babe in a manger two thousand years ago. But there are other ways for Christmas to come. And in the face of climate change we’ll encounter Emmanuel—the Presence of God-with-us—in the honest company we keep with one another. Uncertain. Vulnerable. Present. Merry Christmas, indeed.

 

                                                     

David R. Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist committed to doing “public theology” around issues of ecology, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008) and When God Was a Little Girl (2013), a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book. He lives in St. Paul with his wife, Margaret. They have a blended family of five (mostly grown children) and seven grandchildren. Read more at www.ToTheTune.com where David blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”