Tag Archives: Advent

Advent 4: Doubt and Trust

Gospel: Luke 1:26-38.

I have mixed feelings about this little anecdote. On the one hand, I enjoy the importance of Mary, a young and unmarried woman, who is visited by an angel and called to do something very important for God; on the other hand, I cannot accept that things ‘actually happened’ this way or the kind of literal interpretation which is sometimes proffered, and so I have parted company before we begin with the list of things which an RE textbook says that ‘Christians believe’. (I am, I’m pleased to note, in the company of many good Christians on this point, so it doesn’t worry me too much – but I know that there many people who would be worried about it.)

Even the claim that ‘nothing is impossible with God’ brings up some sceptical questions. Perhaps it’s true… and yet in practice, we find that things advance according to the regularities of nature. Many philosophers have written about miracles – I suppose Hume is the most famous of them (for those who haven’t read Hume, the gist of it is that he didn’t think you should believe in them without really, really excellent evidence, evidence above and beyond what we usually find) – but in my experience, the things which get called miracles are events which we happen to have wanted, and the things we don’t want get blamed on… something other than God, bad luck or ourselves or some other person. There may be things to be said in favour of this, in terms of the psychological effects of our attitudes towards the world, but I can also think of ways in which this can be seen to be a problem. Sometimes bad things happen for no reason, and if you have a belief in God, anger at God is a normal reaction. Trying to hide that by blaming something else isn’t always useful. Scientifically, this sort of ad hoc reasoning based on value judgements of events is also likely to lead us into fallacies.

Actually, this questioning attitude isn’t absent from the story. Mary asks, as we do, “How can this be?” The answer given is not really an explanation, as far as I can see; rather, it refocuses on the narrative purpose of this story within the Gospel, which is to set Jesus up with a special background, to emphasise that he is different from other people. (Compare the story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s gospel, or the baptism where it appears first, which all create this air of ‘specialness’ with minimal agreement on the details.) Mary has doubts – she’s puzzled by the greeting and questions whether the prediction can come true – and at the end of this passage she accepts God’s will, although she might still not understand it fully. Even without supernatural happenings, can we accept that God’s will can be made known – through people whom we might as well call angels, messengers – and that accepting the weird things which happen to us and moving forward is the right way to be?

Advent 3: Prophecy

Canticle: Luke 1:46-55.

This is the Song of Mary, also known as the Magnificat, one of those passages which gets used and used, especially because it is a hymn and has a significant place in a number of liturgies. It’s been set to music by just about everyone who’s anyone in church music. The first line is the basis of a Taize chant.

Lesson 2: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24.

My first thought on reading this is: gosh, this is a very Quakerly sounding passage from Paul, whose letters are often the proof-texts for some of the parts of Christianity I like least. This isn’t really a surprise – Fox must have been familiar with all these letters, and chose to, as Paul instructs that we should, “hold fast what is good [and] abstain from every form of evil”. The instruction to “test everything” is a sound Quaker approach to prophecy, and over the years we’ve built it up into pretty much a method. We might sometimes forget to apply it, or choose not to use the formal methods (this blog, for example, has turned into a significant amount of writing and has attracted some attention, but it was never tested by a Quaker group; there’s me, and I ask God, and sometimes God tells me, and sometimes the answer I get is “your blog, your rules”) but we do have a method; for other things, I have used a full Meeting for Clearness process or a family version of it where discussion and discernment are interlocked. At the centre of the method is the idea that by tuning in several pairs of ears, and by listening over a period of time, we can become clearer about the constancy and coherency of the call we hear from God.

Paul (who was probably the actual author of this letter or most of it, although a few scholars have suggested otherwise) also tells the church in Thessalonica: “do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying” – which suggests that some people were trying to do just those things, but also reaffirms their importance to the kind of Christian life Paul wants to encourage. We need to test what we receive, because some of it might be created by our own egos or desires, but just as much we need to remain open to the possibility that real guidance will be given to us.

Most of us will not be called to a service as famous as Mary’s – who says in her Song that “henceforth all generations will call me blessed” – but that doesn’t mean that God, “regard[ing] the low estate of God’s handmaiden”, won’t also do “great things” for us and offer us great opportunities for service. I’m really relating to this at the moment, and to the call to “rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks in all circumstances” because I have just been offered a significant piece of support for a ministry I’ve been considering for a while. Less cryptic blog post about this to follow soon!

Advent 2: Comings

Gospel: Mark 1:1-8

I’m beginning at the end of the readings this week in order to clarify the links between them. In this passage, the author of the Gospel of Mark (whom I’ll call Mark, accepting that the person in question might not be that Mark) refers back to the book of Isaiah, and the command there to “prepare the way of the Sovereign One”. Obviously enough, this is included in Lesson 1 for this week (Isaiah 40:1-11). This passage from Isaiah taken as a whole has something of the same mix of comfort and fear I found last week: God says “comfort my people” but also wants them to be reminded that “the people is grass” which will “wither”.

Lesson 2: 2 Peter 3:8-15

Is the prophecy of end times found in this passage a good thing or a bad one? Generally, I am not inclined to think well of theologies which put all the emphasis on the coming of the “day of the Sovereign” and assert that “the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up”. Taking this wholly on board can produce an attitude towards the here and now which seems problematic, which focusses all energy on that which is to come and assumes that it doesn’t matter if we, for example, destroy the ozone layer, because it’s all going to be destroyed anyway, and the sooner the better because who doesn’t want God to return and rule the world directly?

Fortunately, this doesn’t seem to be quite what the author of the letter is saying. Although ‘Peter’ does talk about “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God”, we are also told to “be zealous to be fund by the Sovereign without spot or blemish, and at peace”. This pulls our attention back to the present place and time, and even if it does not encourage very long term thinking, it seems clear that we aren’t meant to hasten God’s coming by, for example, starting wars. As a Quaker, I find that a reassuring way to read this passage!

I still find it confusing, though, because I don’t know how to understand this coming for which we are waiting; is it the second coming of Christ, which many Quaker theologies would say had already happened, or a third coming, a new era, or something else? I’m okay with changes; in archaeological terms, I think we have entered a new era in my lifetime, but I’m not inclined to equate the internet with Jesus, and the ‘new age’ which is (or was) much discussed among Pagans has always remained somewhat vague to me. Perhaps it doesn’t matter; all of these things should be read in the context of the cycles of mythological time and will always look like a square peg in a round hole if you try and fit them into the neat patterns of clock time. We’re waiting for God who is about to arrive and who is here and has been all along.

The Mark passage closes with John the Baptist’s description of the Child of God who is coming: who will be “mightier” than John and will baptise not with water but “with the Holy Spirit”. This is another kind of coming, one which can also be understood as repeated and continuing – the coming of the Spirit.

Advent 1: Time

Lesson 1: Isaiah 63:16-64:8

The phrase that stands out for me here is ‘the mountains might quake at your presence’. The author, whom I shall call Isaiah for convenience although several authors were probably involved in the production of the text, is talking about the momentous coming down of God to earth – it’s here, presumably, because Christian readers interpret this as related to the coming of Jesus – and is clear that this will come with the force of a natural disaster. In the following verses, the coming is compared to fire and boiling water, and it’s going to make the nations tremble. What I sense here is fear, even as Isaiah reproaches those who have left the way of God (and, interestingly, God – for making us err from God’s ways) and offers himself up to be clay in the hands of a divine potter.

Gospel: Mark 13:32-37

This extract also speaks of God’s coming – but, like waiting for a parcel, “you do not know when that time will come”. Nevertheless, the emphasis here is on being prepared. We are like the servants who have been left to mind the house. I especially like the image here of the doorkeeper on watch, although when we ask a doorkeeper to keep watch during a Quaker Meeting for Worship we are expecting late Friends as much as God! Overall, I think this passage relates closely to what I said in a previous blog post about Waiting. My NIV Study Bible draws attention to that fact that the first verse of this passage includes Jesus among those who are ignorant about the time which is to come – emphasising, in effect, that we’re all in the same boat and must live in expectant faith.

Overall, these two passages talk about waiting and the time to come, but they also suggest the complex, non-linear nature of liturgical time. One was written before the birth of Jesus, indeed before the rebuilding of the Temple (see 63:18), and talks about future events; the other includes the words of Jesus, focussed on future events towards the end of his ministry (Mark 14, the next chapter, includes his arrest), but they are offered together as readings in this waiting period before the birth (but also in another sense after the death and resurrection) of Jesus. I have two reactions to that: firstly, that it recalls the complex interweaving of events in some tellings of the Pagan year (the Goddess and her son and her lover, or are they the same person, or is one Holly and one Oak or are the two Kings somehow one?), and secondly, that it makes the Quaker decision to reject ‘times and seasons’ and seek to remember the whole story all year round seem much closer to the practice of other Christians.