December 13, 2009
Commentary by Paul S. Nancarrow
See also: [Year C Archive]
The Third Sunday of Advent is sometimes known as “Gaudete Sunday,” from the introit of the Latin Mass for this day, which called upon the faithful to “Rejoice!” Each of the readings for this day reflects a sense of joy in the anticipation of creative transformation at the coming of the Holy One of God.
The theme of rejoicing is engaged right away in this oracle from Zephaniah, as the prophet calls to the holy city “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” Historical scholarship traces this book to the time before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile in Babylon; the first two chapters are warnings to Jerusalem and Judah of God’s wrath against their religious idolatry, and warnings to all the nations of God’s wrath against their opposition to Judah. In the middle of the third chapter, however, the prophecy changes from warning to consolation, and a promise that out of the destruction God will bring a new gathering of the people and a transformation of their languages into a “pure speech” of praise. It is for that promised transformation that Jerusalem and Zion are called to sing aloud and rejoice. God’s never-failing power to raise up good possibilities even from evil circumstances is revealed to the faithful people as the ground of their rejoicing. This is not a facile or self-centered or proud joy, but the genuine joy that comes from the faithfulness of being co-creators with God in the work of building up justice and peace. It is that kind of rejoicing that is the hallmark of the Advent season, the season of active expectation of the presence of God-with-us.
These verses from Isaiah—sometimes known liturgically as “The First Song of Isaiah”—date from roughly sixty years prior to the Zephaniah passage above, and address much the same situation of idolatry, threat, and promise of restoration. The verses at the end of Chapter 11 set the stage for this song, with an oracle of “a shoot from the stump of Jesse” and a “highway from Assyria” to bring back the remnant of the people. Here again, the confident statement “Surely God is my salvation … my strength and my might” and the call to “Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth” do not spring from self-aggrandizement or complacency, but from the promise of the creative transformation of the people.
The simple, almost throwaway line “The Lord is near” sets the context for this admonition of Paul to the Christian community at Philippi to “Rejoice in the Lord always”: this call to rejoice is extended in the specific light of the return of Christ and the judgment of the world. Prescinding entirely from dire warnings about that judgment (which he does provide elsewhere), Paul here goes directly to the promise of fulfillment in Christ that draws the faithful. It is because the Lord is near that the Philippians need not “worry about anything,” but instead “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving” to let their “requests be made known to God”; growing in faithful relationship to God in Christ through prayer now in this time is what prepares the way for fulfillment and completion of individual life in God at the judgment. Through their exercise of “gentleness” and prayer, the Philippians will come to know “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding”—and here I think particularly of Whitehead’s notion of Peace, not in the sense of anaesthesia, but in the sense of the dynamic harmony of harmonies—and that godly harmonizing of the many influences in life is what will guard and strengthen and grow their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. It is because of the nearness of the Lord, both as ultimate goal and as present inspiration and strength, that the Philippians are to rejoice—so much so that Paul repeats it twice: “Again I will say, Rejoice.”
The reading from Luke continues the story of John the Baptist first introduced last week. Luke seems to have a slightly different take on John the Baptist from Mark and Matthew, who present him pretty straightforwardly as an apocalyptic preacher, and also different from John, for whom the Baptist is primarily a kind of visionary who recognizes Jesus as the Messiah before anyone else does. Luke retains the apocalyptic preaching familiar from Mark and Matthew, recounting that John the Baptist warns “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees” and “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” and “His winnowing fork is in his hand … but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” But into the middle of this apocalyptic material Luke inserts verses that are unique to his account. The crowds respond to John’s call to repent by asking for instructions: “What then should we do?” And John adds specific content to his general call, advising those who have clothing and food to share with those who do not, exhorting tax collectors to collect only the assigned amounts, and ordering soldiers not to extort money from the conquered people they oversee. These hardly seem like the actions of radical repentance, not at all in the same league as separating themselves from society to live pure lives in the desert, preparing for the coming battle between Darkness and Light, as some theorize the Essenes taught John to do. Departing from his source material in Mark, Luke seems to minimize the apocalyptic dimension of the Baptist’s eschatology; and he does this in a way that is consistent with the “de-apocalypticizing” of Jesus’ teaching we saw in the Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent. That is, Luke seems more concerned about the transformation of the world in a new age of history than he does with the destruction of the world, the end of history, and the beginning of a new creation. The ethical teaching Luke ascribes to John the Baptist is not at all an “end-time ethic,” but is instead much more like instruction in how to live more righteously within the structures of the world as it actually is now. From a process-theological point of view, I find this “de-apocalypticizing” of John the Baptist interesting in two particular points.
In metaphysical terms, Luke’s sense of apocalypse as “the transformation of the age” more than “the end of the world” is more in keeping with the general Whiteheadian picture of the way the world works. It is often noted that traditional Christian eschatology presents a problem for process theology, because Whiteheadian metaphysics doesn’t really allow for an “end” to this world, or for a single unique “summation-moment” that gathers into itself and brings to a halt the entire universe-process. The sense of a radical break between this world and the next often found in Christian eschatology is not supported in process thought. But process thought does support the notion of the transformation of the world through the emergence of new forms of relationship. At the end of Religion in the Making, Whitehead makes the intriguing speculation that the universe is “passing with a slowness, inconceivable in our measures of time, to new creative conditions, amid which the physical world, as we at present know it, will be represented by a ripple barely to be distinguished from non-entity.” That is, the fundamental relationships that define our current reality—such as the relationships that determine straight lines and the electromagnetic relationships that constitute atoms and molecules and chemistry and biochemistry—will gradually become less and less relevant as new forms of relationship emerge among occasions and come more and more to define new occasions. The world as we know it will be remade “from the inside out,” as it were, as actual entities, responding to God’s initial aims, create new social groupings that add up to new ways of ordering the world. A process eschatology does not require a radical break-and-remake scenario for the world, but the gradual yet decisive creative transformation of the world within its own processes. And this sort of transformation from within history seems to be the kind of eschatology Luke represents in his “de-apocalypticizing” of John the Baptist’s preaching.
The second point I find interesting is the way this metaphysical speculation leads to a practical paranesis. Luke’s portrayal of the Baptist’s ethical teaching does not seem, as I’ve said, radical enough to be an “end-time ethic.” But if it represents an eschatology of transformation, this ethical teaching makes more sense. John’s instructions, especially those to the tax collectors and soldiers, indicate a shift in the basis of people’s relationships away from coercion and exploitation and toward mutuality and cooperation, toward right relationships for mutual well-being, toward justice and peace. Tax collectors and soldiers were more or less expected to shake down the locals for money, so changing those practices signals a fundamental shift in the social arrangements that define their public world. The Baptist can thus be seen as calling people to create new forms of relationship that will, in time, and with the additional impetus of the coming of the Messiah and his winnowing-fork, remake their world “from the inside out” into a new age. John’s ethical teaching can thus be seen as central to a transformation-of-the-age eschatology.
And it is probably on that level that this Gospel passage can speak most powerfully to contemporary preachers and congregations. What society-transforming relationships can be seen emerging in our congregations, in our mission and outreach, in the ways Christians work in the world? In what respects do we continue the tasks to which John the Baptist set his hearers, moving from coercion and exploitation toward mutuality and generosity? What forms of relationship do we explore, that offer an alternative to corporatism and kleptocracy and imperialism and the worship of “bigness”—forms of relationship that may seem insignificant in the “physical world, as we at present know it,” but which yet carry the genesis of new social patterns that can change the way the world works? What aims does God give us—and how do we respond to them—to participate in the eschatology of creative transformation? And how do we then rejoice in the new relationships God inspires to emerge among us?
Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership.He is a co-author of The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in a Relational World, and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.
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