The Emerging Scholars Network is pleased that Bobby Gross has once again agreed to contribute a series of Advent reflections to the ESN blog. This, on the first Sunday of Advent looks at the theme of lamenting the ravages of a war-torn, dark world and our longing for God to come bringing justice and shalom.
The last of the Thanksgiving leftovers have been downed. The colorful lights are going up around the neighborhood. The carols are playing in the stores and the Christmas movies streaming on the Hallmark channel (actually, they stream there year-round). Travel dates and festive gatherings are in our calendars. The holidays are upon us whether we relish it or not.
December 3 marks the first Sunday of Advent (and the fourth Sunday is Christmas Eve, so this year’s is the shortest possible Advent season). Given our wider culture, we instinctively tend to think of Advent as a cheery build-up to the crescendo of Christmas Day, after which we can all let out a big sigh of relief and shift back towards normal.
But the church’s historic practice of this first season of the Christian year, invites us to a different mood and mode of attention. Underneath the holiday spirit and sparkle lies a somber spirituality and an honest inner ache.
The church’s design was no accident explains Fleming Rutledge, Episcopal priest and theologian: “The idea was—and is—to show how the light of the birth of Christ appeared against a backdrop of darkness, depravity, and despair.” “It is a time for making a fearless inventory of the darkness,” she adds.[i]
Indeed, the lectionary readings for Advent foreground the prophets, including John the Baptist, and the prophets are ever taking inventory of the darkness, decrying the injustice and violence and idolatries of the world, including God’s own people. In response, they call us to self-examination, repentance, and lament (which is how we can be better ready for Christ to come). This first Sunday, we read from Isaiah 64 and Psalm 80:
Yes, so much darkness, depravity, and despair in our world right now. So many tears.
I have been utterly dismayed and disheartened over these last eight weeks by the horrific outbreak of war in Palestine, first the unspeakably brutal attack on Israel by Hamas fighters on October 7 and then by the subsequent suffering of the Palestinian population in Gaza as Israel has struck back.
How do we respond to something like this, especially if we are situated at a great distance?
One temptation would be to read the coverage for a week or two, and then let it fade from top-of-mind concerns. After all, one wave of awful news from around the world washes in after another. And the insoluble “Middle East situation” has been erupting into the news at regular intervals since I was old enough to read a headline (over five decades ago). Another temptation might be to apply a simplistic moral logic, perhaps rooted in our political convictions, and vociferously denounce one side or the other along with all who disagree with our righteous zeal. Hence the outbreaks of antisemitic and anti-Palestinian/Arab/Muslim rhetoric and abuse and even violence in the U.S. and elsewhere.
I’ve tried to choose a posture of humility, learning, lament, and prayer. To learn, I have been reading and listening. For example, I’ve been listening to the searingly honest and searching conversations between Ezra Kein and his guests on the Ezra Kein Show podcast of the New York Times.[ii] His open-hearted exchange with Rabbi Sharon Brous about the profound moral challenges of the Hebrew scriptures moved and challenged me.
Two books immersed me in the history and dual narratives of the Palestinian-Israeli quandary: The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism, 1917-2017, by Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American professor of history at Columbia University,[iii] and Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, by Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-born writer who has lived in Jerusalem for 40 years searching for paths of reconciliation.[iv]
My learning has increased my humility in the face of the historical complexities and the dark mysteries of evil; it has fueled an aching lament and moved me to cry out: “How long, O Lord?” Advent invites just this kind of posture and prayer.
Ever has it been so, including the very time and place of Jesus’s coming into the world. “The first advent was about the arrival of God into a world of woe,” writes Kelley Nikondeha, “and every advent since invites us to grapple with what Jesus’s coming means in our fraught landscapes now.”[v]
Combining her training in practical theology, her community development work in Burundi, and her long-time engagement with Israel-Palestine, Nikondeha has undertaken a close reading of the advent narratives in Matthew and Luke with special attention to the social and political context into which Jesus was born. I have just begun reading her book, The First Advent in Palestine, as part of my Advent practice this year, welcoming her perspectives on the Palestine of both AD 4 and AD 2024.
As we begin Advent together, I leave you with hopeful words that end Nikondeha’s first chapter and a helpful prayer that prefaces her book:
“What does it mean to say God is with us? It’s harder—and more hopeful—than strands of twinkling lights. When we engage the darkness before God’s arrival, we come closer not only to the first advent but also to each one since. In Advent, we learn that God is always coming in our troubled times.”
“For those who carry an Advent ache,
You are not alone.
May your discomfort with injustice lead you to lament, payer, and solidarity with the oppressed of this world”
[i] Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2018), p. 238.
[ii] I especially recommend the episodes from November 7, 10, 17, and 21.
[iii] Metropolitan Books, 2020.
[iv] HarperCollins, 2018
[v] Kelley Nikondeha, The First Advent in Palestine: Reversals, Resistance, and the Ongoing Complexity of Hope (Broadleaf Books, 2022), p. 2.
About the author:
Bobby Gross is the author of Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God (InterVarsity Press). Bobby has spent his career in campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He currently serves as Senior Field Director for the Graduate & Faculty Ministries division. For 13 years he served as VP and National Director for Graduate & Faculty Ministries. Originally from Columbus, GA, Bobby and his wife Charlene have lived in Miami (FL), New York City, and now Atlanta. He graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a B.A. in American Studies and English Literature and did additional studies in theology at Regent College in Vancouver. Bobby served on the national board of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) for six years. An admitted bibliophile, Bobby also writes poetry and collects contemporary art on religious themes.