ADVENT MEDITATION: The Penitential Season by William Stringfellow

The Penitential Season by William Stringfellow

We live now, in the United States, in a culture so profoundly pagan that Advent is no longer really noticed, much less observed.  The commercial acceleration of seasons, whereby the promotion of Christmas begins even before there is an opportunity to enjoy Halloween, is superficially, a reason for the vanishment of Advent.  But a more significant cause is that the churches have become so utterly secularized that they no longer remember the topic of Advent.  This situation cannot be blamed merely upon the electronic preachers and talkers, or the other assorted peddlers of religion that so clutter the ethos of this society, any more than it can be said, simplistically, to be mainly the fault of American merchandising and consumerism.

Thus, if I remark about the disappearance of Advent I am not particularly complaining about the vulgarities of the marketplace prior to Christmas and I am certainly not talking about getting “back to God” or “putting Christ back into Christmas” (phrases that betray skepticism toward the Incarnation).  Instead I am concerned with a single, straightforward question in biblical context, What is the subject of Advent?

Tradition has rendered John the Baptist and Advent figure and, if that be an appropriate connection (I reserve some queries about that), then clues to the meaning of the first coming of Christ may be found in the Baptist’s preaching.  Listen to John the Baptist.

“Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” (Matthew 3:2).  In the Gospel according to Mark, the report is, John appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  It should not be overlooked, furthermore, that when John the Baptist is imprisoned, Matthew states, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand,’” (Matthew 4:17).  And later, when Jesus charges his disciples, he tells them to preach the same message.

For all the greeting card and sermonic rhetoric, I do not think that much rejoicing happens around Christmastime, least of all about the coming of the Lord.  There is, I notice, a lot of holiday frolicking, but that is not the same as rejoicing.  In any case, maybe outbursts of either frolicking or rejoicing are premature, if John the Baptist has credibility.  He identifies repentance as the message and the sentiment of Advent.  And, in the texts just cited, that seems to be ratified by Jesus himself.

In context, in the biblical accounts, the repentance that John the Baptist preaches is no private or individualistic effort, but the disposition of a person is related to the reconciliation of the whole of creation.  “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

The eschatological reference is quite concrete.  John the Baptist is warning the rulers of this world and the principalities and powers, as well as common people, of the impending judgment of the world in the Word of God signaled in the coming of Christ.

The depletion of a contemporary recognition of the radically political character of Advent is in large measure occasioned by the illiteracy of church folk about the Second Advent and, in the mainline churches, the persistent quietism of pastors, preachers, and teachers about the Second Coming.  That topic has been allowed to be preempted and usurped by astrologers, sectarian quacks, and multifarious hucksters.  Yet it is impossible to apprehend either Advent except through the relationship of both Advents.  The pioneer Christians, beleaguered as they were because of their insight, knew that the message of both Advents is political.  That message is that in the coming of Jesus Christ, the nations and the principalities and the rulers of the world are judged in the Word of God.  In the lordship of Christ they are rendered accountable to human life and, indeed, to all created life.  Hence, the response of John the Baptists when he is pressed show the meaning of the repentance he preaches is, “Bear fruits that befit repentance.”

In another part of the Bible traditionally invoked during Advent, Luke 1:52-54, the politics of both Advents is emphasized in attributing the recitation of the Magnificat to Mary:

He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted those of low degree;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
In the First Advent, Christ the Lord comes into the world; in the next Advent, Christ the Lord comes as judge of the world and of all the world’s thrones and pretenders, sovereignties and dominions, principalities and authorities, presidencies and regimes, in vindication of his lordship and the reign of the Word of God in history.  This is the truth, which the world hates, which biblical people (repentant people) bear and by which they live as the church in the world in the time between the two Advents.



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