Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

O Come, Emmanuel
distributed 12/6/19 - ©2019

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Chuck and Mary Lou Berry of Brookings, South Dakota. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

Advent is a season that speaks to my soul, but it doesn't come easily. Personally, I have found it essential to structure attentiveness and spiritual discipline into these weeks leading up to Christmas.

If I don't pay attention to Advent, I'm just a grumpy, bah-humbug contrarian, grousing at anyone who wants me to get into the Christmas spirit. Without this 4-Sunday season to steep myself in preparation and reflection, Yuletide happiness seems shallow and the promise of joy has no grounding. Without a time to reflect on what is missing, there can be no real celebration of what is to come.

My need for Advent isn't just personal. This is also a season that connects with the deep needs of our world. That's always true, but this year, I'm painfully aware of how deep those needs are. The prospect of impeachment in the US has revealed profound and passionate divisions in the nation. The COP25 climate talks now underway in Madrid reveal the enormous challenges in building international action to moderate the climate crisis. This is a really difficult time for all of us.

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, famine, 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 as part of 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. 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 during 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. We need personal and cultural transformation, and the stories of faith offer us the counter-cultural values and visions which can turn us around.

Through hymns of anticipation, we acknowledge our needs, and express hope that those needs can be fulfilled through the grace of God:

Come, O long-expected Jesus, born to set all people free;
From our fears and sins release us, grant us your true liberty.

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 when God breaks into the world.

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, or -- these days -- by claiming an unquestioned identity of a contemporary "tribe" through a political party or a philosophical stance.

Because Advent is hard, we must make a conscious effort to observe it. As we work our way through December, I encourage you to take these weeks before Christmas as a time of spiritual reflection. Resist the inclination and encouragement to jump quickly into celebration and joy. Through spiritual engagement, stave off the danger of falling into anger and despair.

The secular forms of Christmas -- grounded in Santa and decorations and gifts and family gatherings -- don't recognize Advent. The flurry of holiday preparation can't delve into the fullness of this season of examination and anticipation. "Frosty the Snowman" plays alongside "We Three Kings" as background music, making the religious narrative trite. The painful honesty of Advent is a threat to all superficial and materialistic celebrations.

Advent is a discipline which only makes sense within the context of Christian faith and community. Observing this season is one way in which we, in the church, differentiate ourselves from those of other faiths, and no faith. We shouldn't expect the mall to guide us in the ways of Advent. The secular society will not and can not lead us into this spiritual discipline. It is a blessed and essential part of our own tradition. We must look to our churches, and the traditions of the church, for guidance and nurture in this task. Our churches are failing us if they do not help us to "go deep" in Advent.

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 fractured communities and 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 will transform us.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

This week's Notes updates and revises a similar message from 11/30/07.

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