The vast hoards of readers of this blog will know that during Lent earlier this year, we read our way, one day at a time, through Fleming Rutledge’s marvellous The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
I don’t do end of year lists, but I can say that it is easily the best book I read this year – in fact in quite a few years.
So I’ve been looking forward to reading her Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ (2018). Of disappointment there has been none.
The introduction to thinking theologically about Advent is excellent. Most of the rest of the book consists of sermons preached over the last 30 or so years organised loosely into various themes. The next few posts in this series are going to give just a flavour.
So let’s get going.
What other time or season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent?Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics
Rutledge quotes the Swiss pipe-smoker early on because his words encapsulate her overall argument – all Christians live in eschatological times between the ages. The kingdom of God has arrived, but we pray ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’
The world in which we live is riven by innumerable horrors – war, famine, disease, abuse, injustice, environmental destruction, ethnic cleansing, violence against women, industrial levels of abortion …
This is, in Joseph Conrad’s words, the heart of darkness. And Advent looks unflinchingly into that darkness and names it for what it is.
It does not do so nihilistically. Advent awaits a transformed world; it looks forward in hope to a future consummation of the kingdom because of the victory of God in Jesus Christ over Sin, Death and the Powers.
In this sense, the Christian faith has a threefold dynamic that Rutledge puts this way (p.7):
The past: God’s initiative towards the world in Christ (Christmas)
The future: God’s coming victory in Christ (second coming or Parousia, made present in the power of the Spirit at Pentecost)
The Present: a cruciform (cross-shaped) life of love for the world in the present time (Epiphany, Lent and Holy Week)
The surprising twist that she traces is that historically Advent is NOT orientated primarily towards preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. Rather, it is primarily a time of reflection on, and preparation for, the second coming of Christ.
If you’ve followed this series, you can appreciate why focus on the second coming has been neglected in the church. In the modern period it was either dismissed as mistaken, mythological, symbolic or scientifically untenable. Rutledge tells the story of, as a young woman, being told we don’t believe that sort of thing nowadays.
If you are in a church community, how much is the second coming talked about? Is it preached on? If so, how? Or is it quietly ignored – with such silence speaking a thousand words?
Another way of putting this is, how honest is our theology in facing up to the darkness? What has Christianity to say to those suffering, to the sick, to the trafficked, the abused, the poor and those without hope?
What has our theology to say to those who use others for their own ends, who exploit, abuse, hate, kill and bully? To systemic evil? What do we say about final judgement and the reality of hell?
As we have seen in this series, Christianity is eschatology – is future hope. So what Barth means is that Advent describes living within the tension of the now and not yet while patiently awaiting a transformed future.
Rutledge puts it this way
… the Christian disciple finds his or her vocation precisely here: in the collision of the ages where the struggle of the Enemy against God continues, making space for the conquering love of God for the world. (16)
Advent requires the courage to name the darkness of the now and that judgement is something to be hoped for. (She’s good here noting how ‘justice’ is a popular word but ‘judgement’ is equated with ‘judgemental’ which is ‘bad’). Yet God’s judgement is a putting all things right.
Advent faces into death and looks beyond it to the coming judgement of God upon all that deceives, twists, undermines, pollutes, contaminates, and kills his beloved creation. There can be no community of the resurrection without the conquest of death and the consummation of the kingdom of God. In those assurances lies the hope of the world. (22)
Honesty requires that this truth is acknowledged and faced. Christianity is not sentimental or trivial – God in Christ has confronted the darkness of evil and death at the cross.
Faith and hope means trusting in God amidst the confusion, pain and transitoriness of life in the now. Much that happens in this world now is not God’s good intent. In fact he is waging a war against powers and principalities opposed to his good will.
All this has the flavour of apocalyptic theology – we’ll summarise how Rutledge defines this in the next post.