By Gary Ashbeck
To introduce this whole Advent series: Around October, some members of the Collins Street community gathered and decided that with the turmoil in both government and churches, we should start meeting in prayer. I felt strongly that special consideration of Advent should be made because of its importance, and so I started doing some reading. The synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh hit home pretty hard. Not only does our family belong to a synagogue, but Noah’s school is located at that same synagogue, and both boys attended preschool there. They sent out notifications of their safety plan since they were a possible target for the increasing insanity. Condemnation of the act was weak from the executive branch of government, and the remarks showed an absolute lack of morality, as seems to be a recurring problem these days. I felt that the strongest statement I could make was to celebrate my faith as strongly as I could. That Friday we made a point to celebrate Shabbat and I turned my sights with renewed energy towards Advent.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. It is the first day of the church year, a time for us to prepare for the coming of Jesus the messiah and the new world he is to usher in. He is the catalyst to bring forth justice and peace.
Coincidentally, tonight also happens to be the first night of Hanukkah. The celebration of Hanukkah commemorates a miracle that happened after the outcome of a struggle for religious freedom. Judea had come under Syrian control and after a succession of kings the Jewish religion was outlawed and Jews were forced to worship Greek gods. Many Jews had long since turned to the Hellenistic culture because of the lure of the supposed “modern realities” that it possessed. It wasn’t enough for the Syrians to outlaw the faith—they subverted the temples and forced the Jews to violate their customs and practices. The Second Temple was seized and desecrated through the erection of an altar to Zeus. People were forced to eat pork under the threat of torture and death. The final insult was the sacrifice of swine in this temple.
A successful rebellion that took years freed Jerusalem and a new altar was built in the temple. The menorah was to be lit to rededicate the temple and allow the Jews to be able to celebrate their faith again. This is when the miracle of Hanukkah happened: They only had enough oil to light the menorah for one night, but somehow the menorah stayed lit for eight nights, in time for more oil to be made. (This is really a very abbreviated description; a look at the two books of the Maccabees and Michael Lerner’s book “Jewish Renewal” would tell you more.)
Like the rededication of the temple and purification of the Jewish faith, Advent is also a rededication of ourselves on a yearly basis. It should also be a purification of the faith. It is a time for us to prepare for the birth of Jesus on Christmas. At the end of the month we will also celebrate the coming of a new year, with all our new plans and resolutions to better ourselves.
Advent is a time for us to reflect upon ourselves and our world. We are to prepare ourselves by reflecting on the teachings we have received from Scripture and the rededication of our lives to make those words “flesh,” or real, in our present day. We are to rededicate our lives to make those words flesh in our present day.
We are promised that Jesus the Messiah will help. The Messiah is supposed to usher in a new world. Isaiah tells what the fruits of the Messiah will be: Nations will destroy their implements of war and destruction and rework them into farm implements, tools of life- growing food. Jeremiah says the Messiah would do what is right and just in the land, and Judah will be safe and the Judeans would be safe and secure. In contrast, today one Christian leader publicly stated that he would not condemn the murder of a journalist because it would cause a loss in arms sales revenue. That statement did not elicit much outrage.
There was some argument about who the Messiah would actually be when they arrived. One theory was that the Messiah would come as a powerful military leader like Judah Maccabee. Other theories were that the Messiah would be a sage or high priest. Last was the theory that he would come as a prophet like Moses. Either way, they would come and be a savior to Israel and bring forth an era of peace.
Who was Jesus as the Messiah? We get an idea from his forerunner John the Baptist. John lived simply and humbly. He was part of the Essenes community that lived together, dedicated themselves to voluntary poverty, and lived ascetically, denying themselves pleasures to pursue spiritual goals. John confronted immoral behavior in the people of power. It ultimately caused his execution. His teachings had impact and people came to him in crowds to cleanse themselves through baptism. He was a breath of fresh air. He had a moral weight to him. When people who came to him as many come to churches today—with piety on their lips and the devil in their heart—he confronted them.
The theme for the first week of Advent is hope. We are in hope of the new era that the Messiah is to bring in. What better time to have that hope? What better time to act on that hope? How much of modern-day Christianity is based on a messianic age that is maybe not what we had expected? How much has been co-opted by people in power? Who even recalls in Scripture what the characteristics were of the first Christian communities? Was the era to be a magical moment or was it a catalyst of a continued struggle long after Jesus left the earth? Are people so worried that the story of creation is not going to be taught in schools that they don’t realize there are actually two stories of creation in the Bible?
One thing we do know: Jesus was our example. He lived a life of compassion, and was always the champion of those underfoot, below the people in power. He held people accountable to the faith. I am a fan of how Professor Obery Hendricks describes Jesus’ basic teaching: “The needs of the people are holy.” Jesus was in constant struggle with those in positions of power in the commonly held faith, and called them out on abandoning the faith and the people because they chose power instead.
What clearer message can be given today? We live in a world where Scripture is being used to separate families. We live in a world where the pot of hate is stirred to keep us arguing and separate, allowing us to be fleeced by people constantly with the words “Jesus” and ”freedom” on their lips. We live in a period where God’s creation is hoped to be destroyed for the second coming, and rape culture not confronted because of political desires.
The Syrians had outlawed the Jewish faith. Jesus struggled against a faith that had been co-opted by power and was no longer authentic. That was the state of his messianic promise. He didn’t wage wars. He walked around talking to people, and offering compassion. He confronted those “whitewashed tombs” of people who were the reason he needed to give compassion to others. He fought religious means of excluding people who were unclean. He had compassion like the prophets for the poor, sick, and lame. His life started as a refugee and the trajectory of his mission was towards confronting the powers in Jerusalem. In his triumphant arrival into Jerusalem, he still arrived humbly on a donkey.
Today we still have the hope that Jesus’ world will come. Now it is our turn. This is a struggle for religious freedom. We know Jesus would not teargas refugees. He would rail against situations that created those refugees. We know Jesus would accept all people and treat all people’s needs as holy. And that is how we need to celebrate Advent. That is how we need to celebrate this first week of hope. The times now show that we need to celebrate this harder than we ever have before.
Let’s celebrate Advent, let’s celebrate hope. What does hope look like for you?