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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Advent -- Longing for Shalom
distributed 12/1/17 - ©2017

A quirk of the calendar has stirred up my theological tensions this year. The same situation will crop up with the 2018 calendar.

Here in the United States, Thanksgiving is observed on the fourth Thursday of November. Around the world, the Christian season of Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. This year and next, that means that there's a period of 10 days between Thanksgiving and the start of the Advent season.

So what? Well, here in the US, Thanksgiving is seen as the start of the secular "Christmas" season. Black Friday and Cyber Monday buying binges follow on the heels of the national holiday. Santa comes to the malls, not according to any religious calendar, but because the retail calendar is tied to Turkey Day.

On my commute home from work in the past week, I've seen many homes and trees decked out in elaborate light displays. Decorated Christmas trees are showing up in living room windows. According to those indicators, the holiday is well underway.

The unusually early start to the cultural and commercial Christmas season, coupled with the exceptionally late start to Advent, feels really jarring this year. (The fact that Denver had a record-setting temperature of 81 on November 27 added to the odd feel of displaced seasons.) I'm in need of a mindful and reflective Advent this year, and the society around me is rushing into celebration.

Advent begins -- finally -- on Sunday. Perhaps the oddities of this year's calendar can help us be more aware of the differences between religious and cultural observances.

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The theologians and liturgy experts who guide us through the church year insist that Advent is not a feel-good time to anticipate the baby Jesus and to do our Christmas shopping. Advent looks forward by much more than a few weeks, and anticipates the coming realm of God. The church year begins by affirming the intention of God for shalom among all creation, and by insisting that this realm of God is actually coming.

In contrast to the forced happiness of the secular holiday, Advent is a season through which we enter into the longing, the pain, the grief that is so much a part of our experience. It is a time to go deep within ourselves, and to feel the emptiness that is never filled by entertainment, things, and superficial relationships. It is a time to look at the world around us, and to let the horrors of war, abuse, exclusion, and injustice move from our heads into our hearts. It is a time to observe the shredding of the web of creation, and to open ourselves to the loss, fear and anger which is appropriate in the midst of such destruction.

Advent is a time to long for God's shalom -- precisely because we realize how far we are from that blessed state. Eco-justice, as an expression of shalom, longs for "the well-being of all humankind on a thriving Earth." Advent is the season when we can, we must, admit that we rarely experience genuine well-being, that it certainly is not spread fairly among all of our sisters and brothers, and that this poor Earth is not thriving.

Advent is a block of time when we are called to honesty about who we are, personally and collectively. From my point of view, if Advent does not engage us with the hurts and brokenness of our lives and our world, then we have not entered fully into this season.

Such honesty about what is so wrong and painful could drag us into despair. Advent is a gift for us because it also is a time of hope and anticipation. We see the world as it is, and also know that it doesn't have to be this way -- despite what we are told by the powers that be. We long for God to break into our world and our lives, both because we know of the great need, and because we believe that God's shalom -- God's grace-filled peace -- represents a far better reality for us and for all creation.

When we enter fully into Advent, then we are able to understand the exceptional, transformational, and challenging gift of Christmas. Then, the birth of Christ among us transcends a purely sentimental moment. When we have been to the depths of Advent, Christmas can bring the real joy of God breaking in to heal and renew the world.

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An essential part of my Advent discipline is the liturgy of a church community, and especially the hymns of this season. My spirit shifts gears when I sing, in a haunting minor key, the words of an ancient antiphon:

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here, until the child of God appear.

The hymn reminds me that Advent is a time to acknowledge our captivity to our own distorted desires and values, to habits and customs, and to powerful economic and political systems. It is a time for us to admit that we are trapped, exiled, and in bondage. We're not where we want to be, and we're not who we want to be. We can't free ourselves, because we have created our own prisons.

The hallmark of Advent is expectation, anticipation, and waiting. An essential part of that expecting is to realize that the reality of our "now" isn't where we want to be. Advent is a time of longing, of wanting a different experience. The waiting is for something new, something better, something that can only come fully when God breaks into the world. And the waiting also calls us to work -- personally, politically, economically and culturally -- to embody God's shalom to the best of our ability.

Advent, when taken seriously, is hard. As with Lent, it is a time to look honestly at our lives, our faith, and our world -- and doing so is often very painful. We'd rather avoid the hard stuff, whether through the busyness of seasonal events and shopping and decorating, or by mantras of happiness and good tidings.

Because Advent is hard, we must make a conscious effort to observe it. This year, we've had ten days of the worldly season, and now we can shift gears. I encourage you to take these four Sundays (and three weeks) before Christmas as a time of spiritual reflection. Resist the inclination and encouragement to jump quickly into celebration and joy.

In these days before Christmas, may we have the faith and the courage to admit our sin and our bondage. May we open ourselves to the pain of the shattered creation. And, in hope, may we be filled with longing for the coming of God into our midst. As we enter faithfully into Advent, may we be so touched by the world's brokenness that we will genuinely celebrate the birth of the One who transforms us.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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