Tag Archive: Advent

Why advent…and why maybe not. (maybe part of a series on liturgical seasons of resistance…or also maybe not)

I think it was the day after my father died, so almost exactly a year ago. With a lump in her throat, my mother said, “I might put out a few Christmas things this year, but I can’t put out anything that’s from the Advent box. I just think about your father making sure every year he didn’t get cheated out of an Advent tea if Christmas eve fell on a Sunday.”

Most liturgical traditions weren’t to be trusted in my mother’s Scottish Presbyterian upbringing: anything too liturgical was definitely Catholic, which was NOT Presbyterian. (For a very small country that loves their resistance stories so much, they seem to forget how much of their resistance was wrapped up in resisting the Church of England back when they were mostly Catholic.) 

So it was interesting that when my mother lost many of her family’s traditions upon being cut off by her parents for marrying my (brown) Hindu father, one of the family traditions that the three of us clung to even though it had no part in either of their histories was Advent. Not the historical Advent of fasting and penitence (don’t worry, I’m getting there) but the Advent of lighting candles, listening to Christmas music, and having finger sandwiches thick with margarine and filled with the special treat of tinned salmon, or homemade sausage rolls–greasy hot water pastry filled with tubed sausage meat and sliced into bite sized pieces, and tiny individual mince pies. (My mother grew up in post-war Britain. That’s pretty high end.)

It was a much beloved ritual my mother was stunned I didn’t keep rigorously myself when I moved out. (And when I had a partner, I did. And to this day, I try to host ONE advent tea a year if I can pull it off, to share the tradition as best I can as a childless single person whose family traditions will die with me.)


I’m an everything nerd, so it’s not surprising I turned out to be a liturgy nerd. I’m also a generalist–I’m too lazy to delve deep into any one subject, no matter how interesting. So over the years people who have learned this about me have performed the party trick of sharing little nuggets of history about Advent in particular, which I treat as valuable oral tradition and do not seek to debunk, because they are such good sermon fodder.

Over the years I’ve learned these things about Advent that may or may not be true; don’t take them away from me:

  • Advent was created as a season of penitence and fasting to provide dignity to people without resources. That was a lean season for serfs, and it sanctified–made holy– their struggle and demanded that those with more resources join their struggle if they wanted to see themselves as holy.
  • Advent was a six week season like Lent, offering mirrors of our journey and challenge as we approach the miraculous birth (and the hope of overcoming a tyrannical state) and our journey and challenge as we approach the devastation of death and then the miracle of new life (after the conquering of hell).
  • Gaudete Sunday/Rose Sunday/Joy Sunday (the pink candle, currently the third week of four Sundays, the other three being purple candles of royalty but also of deep reflection) was added because medieval folks would get so into the penitential aspect of Advent that by the Sunday before the Sunday before Christmas, people would be fainting from hunger in worship. (I know my Anglican friends will remind me every Sunday is meant to be a mini-Easter, but y’all know a Scottish Presbyterian by blood, no matter how liturgical, sees that as just cheating on the self-discipline.)

How is that not a SUPER COOL SEASON that we should all be totally digging? (OK, I get swept up in the hardcore bada**ery of folks in the medieval church, I admit.)


So here’s the thing. Every year in the US we get into lots of weird conversations and debates about whether the church is getting sucked into materialist culture by participating in Christmas before December 25. (It is.) We debate whether we should only sing Advent hymns (of which there are really only two that anyone knows–fight me) until Christmas Day, and then sing Christmas hymns until January 6, Epiphany, when everyone is sick to death of Christmas. (We should. And you don’t have to fight me cuz my mum will, every year. You’re good.)

I have friends who grew up in churches that don’t really have advent, who see it as very much a white thing or a mainline church thing or a Catholic thing. (They’re not necessarily wrong.) And yet as I’ve tried to practice Advent as faithfully as I practice Lent (which does end up getting a little too Catholic for my mother, no matter how hard she tries to overcome the sectarianism that damaged her homeland for hundreds of years), my relationship to Jesus and my political identity as a Christ-follower deepen. So I’m still fighting for it. Usually. Until this year.


My friends and I are what you might call “crispy.” We’ve called and mailed and protested and risked arrest and preached and marched and cried and vigiled and pilgrimaged til we have almost nothing left. We live in a nation that is caging babies and murdering sacred land. We live in a nation where hate crimes are on the rise and fascism is maybe creeping or maybe sauntering at this point. We live in a nation where everything tells us Black lives don’t matter but that saying Black lives DO matter makes us a threat to our government. We live in a nation where refugees are turned back to places we made dangerous and immigrants are deported but we continue to try to wipe out indigenous lives at the same time, reminding us that whiteness is the only real god we are meant to worship.

And so this year, I’ve been letting Christmas trickle in anywhere it needs to in communities that are impacted physically or psychically by this evil. I’ve been letting the already part of the Christmas miracle (God is always, already and not yet) show up as strongly as the not yet among my activist and organizer and care taker friends. I’ve started seeing this season as one long and well deserved Gaudete Sunday of joy after so many purple Sundays of hope, peace and love in the face of hopelessness, violence and hate.

I used to serve in a church where most of us didn’t have much, and I preached the importance of a season of Advent anticipation and even spiritual discipline and temperance in the face of American capitalist exploitation of our holiday for the sake of making a buck. I’m not sorry for that, and I’d also give anyone struggling a pass to let a little Christmas leak into Advent.

So maybe it doesn’t need to be a line in the sand, a bright line, a line of purple and pink candles against a line of green and red ones.

 

But here’s the thing, though.

How do we assess if we’re self-medicating, erasing, avoiding the realities of the biblical moment leading up to Christmas by skipping the critical part of the story?

What if the part about Mary exclaiming that her Son would tear down injustice and literally withhold food from those who had grown fat while others starved…what if that part is in the bible for the people who are comfortable to be awakened to their role in addressing their fellow human’s suffering, not just as an act of charity but as an act of systemic restructuring?

What if the season of Advent is about people with stuff having to do without, to literally feel what longing and absence and need are, to cultivate empathy, the way our Muslim siblings are supposed to feel deeper empathy for the poor during their fasting season of Ramadan?

What if Advent’s point right now is to wake us up and shake us loose from the illusion that democracy actually addresses the needs of the poorest, the darkest skinned, the longest on this land when it was designed for the wealthiest, the lightest skinned and the newest arrivals of a certain type?


I have some deeply liturgical friends who get mad at the Good Friday sermon that says “It may be Friday, but Sunday’s coming.” I remember getting mad at my congregation for not catching fire about the miracle of Moses and the liberation of Israel, and when I complained to a pastor who worshiped at the church when he wasn’t at his own, he said, “that’s because we know God liberated US right here just two hundred years ago so we don’t need to get excited about that,” and I got mad at HIM.

As I get older I am better at recognizing that for my siblings who are in an eternal advent, in the occupied Jerusalem before that liberator baby had been born, a little sneak peak of Christmas isn’t a sin.

I just don’t want Christmas to be an anesthetic to the fact that we are all living in occupied Jerusalem before that liberator baby has been born, and some of us who are wounded spiritually by the occupation (and ALL of us are wounded spiritually by it) still have some work to do to show up alongside the folks who are being wounded physically and psychically by that same occupation.

It’s why my friends created the now notorious “F*** this S***” advent devotional several years ago at the height of the Movement for Black Lives, to remind us that the prophets waiting for a better day used REALLY strong language to convey the urgency of the moment, the desperate need for a savior, the desperate need for us to do the WORK of preparation, to put aside politeness and civility and “decency” when those things are perpetuating violence.

So I guess, to use my long-forgotten theological ethics terminology, I’m trying to make the argument that the right to Christmas before December 25 feels to me to be situational.

I get that I’m fighting a losing battle. I’m not 100% sure it’s a battle that matters anywhere near as much as the work I get to do with congregations and nonprofits seeking to institutionalize anti-oppression practices into the lives of their organizations. That said, as a deeper and deeper proponent of nonviolence, I also find myself moving more and more towards spiritual discipline as the way to remain grounded in my work, my accountability and my relationship to the divine in hard times.


I haven’t asked but I think my mother’s putting out the advent wreath this year. I’m not sure she’ll make sausage rolls for one, but she’ll watch all of the Christmas choral concerts on PBS. It might still be too sad one year later for either of us to do the joy-filled advent rituals that made my father act delightfully like a child even in the years when he was working so hard and often ran a little short tempered.

And when she’s with me on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we’ll go to church and then to the Dickens Christmas Faire at the Cow Palace because I’m not an absolute purist either.

A friend made a beautiful argument for why we as progressive Christians should embrace Christmas the way it’s being practiced in the secular world. If we don’t reclaim Christmas as a season of all the beautiful values we believe Christmas to be, my friend argued, we’ve ceded ground and are letting the corporations and capitalist interests define it.

That’s cool. I’m just going to wait to reclaim it til December 25th. And in the mean time I’m pushing Advent HARD, just like Sysyphus with the boulder, December after December, a rock made out of hope and peace and joy and love and two other substances I don’t know because we’ve reduced it by two weeks.

If it’s any consolation, my mother’s rolling her eyes right along with you, as she hangs up her Christmas decorations, and as I do, too.

Shut the f*** up

NOTE: I was asked to submit a piece to a powerful advent devotional called #F***ThisS*** and was assigned this title and passage from Matthew. The clergy who launched it feel a sense of urgency in this moment that I also feel, and they have incorporated strong language to convey that urgency much as the prophets in the Hebrew Bible did in the parlance of their own time. The situation in which we find ourselves, with Black and Brown and poor people’s lives and labor treated as disposable or exploitable or turned into commodities to be bought and sold, is far more dire than the language in this piece. That said, for a PG version of this online devotional, seek the hashtag #RendTheHeavens instead. With deep gratitude to the Rev. Tuhina Rasche for inviting me to be part of this.

“SHUT THE F*** UP.”

And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. –Matthew 24:31, NRSV

At Thanksgiving, the Sherwood Forest ring tone kept sounding, as if the horns were calling us to a fox hunt.

It was one person’s text message ringtone, another’s voicemail ringtone, and a third person’s work phone ring tone.

I sat across from a man who voted for Trump because he was tired of corruption, and who wanted to be protected from people who look like my father.

I heard those quiet, awkward comments knowing that a good family friend, a well-educated Hindu woman, voted for Trump for the same reasons, seemingly not concerned that the people threatening the lives of Muslims can’t tell the difference between Sikh, Hindu, Muslim or Christian; they just see Brown.

It seemed like a good reason to sound the alarm.

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; (1 Kings 9:11-12a, NRSV)

There is so much noise right now.

There is noise about the theater and illegal votes and illegal people and terrorist skittles and protecting people through stop and frisk. Noise about Dick Cheney, Darth Vader and Satan as role models for power. Noise about “economic nationalism” as opposed to “white nationalism.”

Noise that drowns out the murder of William Sims by white supremacists. Noise that drowns out the death threats sent cowardly and anonymously to mosques across the country. Noise that drowns out the barricades being built by police to stop emergency vehicles from entering Sioux territory.

and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings 9:12b-13a)

We need to shut the fuck up.

The trumpets are sounding and we don’t hear them.

God is calling us with trumpets, bugles, and fox hunting horns.

God is calling us with prayerful people standing on sacred ground.

God is calling us through a boycott of injustice.

God is calling us with faithful Muslims inviting into conversation the same people who threaten them and people committing to protect the mosque from attack.

God is calling us with White Supremacists waking up to the harm they are causing and repudiating that harm.

But we can’t hear it or respond to it unless we stop listening to the wind and the earthquake and the fire, the tale told by an idiot signifying nothing.

We can’t hear it as long as we generate more noise.

We may be the elect from the four winds, or we may not. But we have a role to play in these coming days as God ushers in the birth of a baby born under the eyes of a brutal ruler controlled by a foreign empire. And we need to shut out the din around us and shut down the din inside us to hear the trumpets call.

For the sake of God, we need to shut the fuck up.

The Ballad of Harry Moore

Preached at First Congregational Church of Oakland, December 14, 2014.I’ve had the story of one of our forebears on my heart recently on this Black Lives Matter Sunday. So while I was supposed to preach “People Get Ready,” my sermon this morning is actually “The Ballad of Harry Moore,” as written by Langston Hughes and set to music by Sweet Honey in the Rock.

It seems I hear Harry Moore; from the earth his voice still cries:
No bomb can kill the dreams I hold, for freedom never dies.
Freedom never dies, I say. Freedom never dies.
No bomb can kill the dreams I hold for freedom never dies.

Some people call Harry Moore the first martyr of the civil rights movement – he was killed by the Ku Klux Klan on Christmas night, 1951.

A teacher himself, Harry Moore fought for fair pay for Black teachers in Florida, and for the right to vote for Black people throughout the 1940s. He investigated lynchings and worked in the most rural parts of the state, where the risk was highest and the gains particularly hard-fought. During his time as a field organizer, Florida had the highest voter registration level of African Americans of any state in the south: 33%, despite it being some of the toughest terrain in which to organize. In fact, Harry Moore’s determination to work at the most hopeless edges of the movement had just earned him a demotion within the movement, and his opposition to an increase in membership dues actually got him fired from his position with the NAACP. But that Christmas was the Moores’ 25th wedding anniversary, and they celebrated that whatever their status in the organization, they continued to be part of the movement. (more…)