Photons of En-lighten-ment

Reredos Center Panel Cropped color corrected 064Have you a favorite painting of the nativity? For painters of the Italian school of Renaissance painting, the nativity was a favorite subject. On the front of the Christmas bulletin, we see a reproduction of the central panel of St Martin’s altar reredos. The celebrated muralist of the Art Deco period, Hildreth Meiere has depicted the nativity in the style of an earlier artistic period. In nativity paintings, our attention is deliberately drawn to the action in the foreground.

Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus seem suspended in time against an imaginative depiction of a manger in a state of near disrepair. Surrounded by representatives of the animal kingdom, here we find shepherds, wise men, and in some instances the patrons of the particular artist who have had themselves inserted into the nativity scene among those who have come to pay homage to the infant Christ child.

Have you ever noticed the backdrop? Because our attention is always is drawn towards the figures in the foreground we fail to notice how the nativity event is set against the backdrop of ruins. The ruins of a pre-Christian antiquity; a symbolic expression of former things now superseded by the nativity event.

I particularly like those paintings where the backdrop is divided between two contrasting scenes. On one side we see depicted organized rural life, neatly tended vineyards, winding roads leading to a walled town in the far distance. The other side shows darker more turbulent skies beneath which we see the tumbledown ruins of antiquity, overrun by nature. As a backdrop to the birth of the Christ-child, human manicured countryside is contrasted with the collapse of civilization and wild revenge of nature’s reclamation.


Art depicts in a highly stylized form the figures of the Holy Family who seem unnaturally illuminated. Most of us are more than comfortable with this stylized depiction of enchantment. Our comfort lies in the way that the paintings speak to a part of us that longs for the return of a sense of long-lost enchantment; a hankering for a return of innocence.

The painters of the Renaissance period still lived within an enchanted mindset and worldview. I borrow the term enchantment from Charles Taylor’s tracing of the rise of our present secular age. What characterizes an enchanted perspective is the interpenetration of the divine within the material structures of our world. Here, the spiritual dimension is part of the material fabric experienced in places, through objects, and in persons. Yet, there was also a terror within the enchanted worldview for if the divine inhabited material existence so did it’s opposite, evil. The painters give voice to these fears in the almost hidden details of the backdrop scenery.

In contrast, we live in what Taylor calls as the age of disenchantment. Our disenchantment can be roughly traced back to the age of Enlightenment at the end of the 17thC. Enlightenment is an ironic term for a long social movement, which on the one hand freed us from the darkness of superstition and fear, yet ushered in a new kind of darkness, a darkness of despair. A despair born of the realization that human emancipation from enchantment has left us occupying center stage with God now banished to wings. As we celebrate our emancipation it also begins to dawn on us that we are now alone in a universe now largely of our own making and breaking. Today we find ourselves flat-lining in a world of profound disenchantment and increasing disillusionment.


In the infant Christ, God enters into a world that is turbulent and chaotic. In the conventions of Renaissance painting, this is the world of the ruinous backdrop where we wander around among the ruins, stumbling over the fallen stones of the forgotten and half- remembered.

Some will find this last statement shocking. Not because they deny its truth but because they abhor my timing. Christmas Eve, of all times, is a night for joy and celebration. Yet, I stand by my statement not because I have submitted to the darkness of despair but because our journey towards the illumination of the nativity event depicted in the foreground can only begin once we take an accurate compass bearing from our location among the fallen stones of the forgotten and half remembered. Our journey to the Christ-child progresses from among the ruins of our lives and the brokenness of our world on into the light.

God’s coming into the world is not a coming of strength into a world of light reflected from glossy surfaces. Jesus’ incarnation is not like the incarnation myth of Augustus Caesar – a divine prince of light coming gloriously and dazzlingly into a world made perfect by his arrival. God’s coming in the fragile form of a human infant, in insignificance and the hidden obscurity of the wrong part of the world is an entry of the divine into a world of instability and uncertainty.

Christians understand the nativity of Jesus as God’s final act of creation. Having created the world, bestowing stewardship responsibilities on humanity, God has watched over creation sometimes in anger, but mostly in sorrow. God has time and again called his chosen back to share the original vision for the creation. Now in the act of Incarnation, creation is made complete through God’s self-emptying entry into the experience of the created order from the inside out, as it were. Our God, Emmanuel God is with us – comes not to visit, but to stay.


We cannot go back to an enchanted mindset. The Enlightenment has irrevocably reshaped our modern minds. Rather our contemporary task is to abandon the solitary hubris that is the root of our despair and encounter the transformative experience of the transcendent within the here and now remembering that for which we hope is already not far from us because of our daring to have hope.

As we journey from our wandering among the ruins of the backdrop towards the illumination of the scene in the foreground we become, as Bishop Nicholas Knisely puts it, charged with the light photons of the nativity scene. We begin to glow more brightly with every step of the way as we journey out of the backdrop and into the foreground where our transformation takes place.

What is the nature of this transformation, this glowing more brightly?

  1. We celebrate the ordinary and everyday nature of our lives in which vulnerability and risk are foremost.
  2. We become more relational for relationship is the medium the God of the universe chooses to be known through, ensuring that our relationships and communities become the places where grace is encountered.
  3. We witness to the nativity, taking heart that it is our ordinariness, our unworthiness, our invisibility that makes us the objects of God’s love, and being so loved, we go and do likewise.

Luke in writing his account of the nativity of the Christ child is writing theology, not history, and certainly not science. In a recent article in the New York Times, Peter Wehner quotes the writer Garry Wills who describes Jesus as: undiscriminating and inclusive, not gradated and exclusive ... a man who honors women and considers sinners his friends. Here is the heart of Luke’s theology, a theology that we are called to make real in lives well lived.

On Christmas Day, our gospel reflection will move on into the Prologue of John’s Gospel. Here, John speaks of the coming of Christ, not in the language of nativity. He declares Jesus to be the Word present at the moment of creation. The Word of God– in Greek Logos is the communicative element in God. The Word is God irradiating outwards from God’s self as en-lighten-ment.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ….. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. 

As we approach 2017, for many of us it seems the world has taken a turn towards the embrace of darker hues. But we are those who know that the light has come into the world, and thus we are called through our baptism to be the bearers of that light. The responsibility is huge – to shine in the darkness and not be overcome; to be that light the world so urgently needs.

Leaving Room for the Holy Spirit

A sermon from John Reardon for Advent 4. John is an intern at St Martin’s, a former Roman Catholic Priest who is seeking recognition of his Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church.

I suspect I am not the only one here this morning who has Roman Catholic roots. If you do, perhaps you remember being at a middle or high school dance and having a chaperone—nuns were notorious for this—approach you and your date during a slow dance and remind you not to dance so close, and instead, to “make sure you leave room for the Holy Spirit.” It never happened to me personally, but I know the custom remained in the collective memory until at least the 1990s. At the time, I was teaching Religious Studies at a Catholic prep school in Ohio—that’s how Jesus punishes people who leave Roman Catholic seminaries—and we had an event to raise money for charity in which different teachers had to kiss a pig brought in from a local farm. The idea was that the pig would be not terribly appealing to look at and would squeal and create a fuss, so students could be amused by their teachers’ distress. But one year the farmer brought a very young piglet. The poor thing was very sweet and obviously overwhelmed by being stuck in a gymnasium full of yelling teenagers. I felt for it. I bonded with it. The yearbook from that year shows a photo of me cradling it tenderly to reassure it. The caption reads, “Mr. Reardon, religion teacher, forgets to leave room for the Holy Spirit while kissing a pig.” The point of leaving room for the Holy Spirit was of course that the Holy Spirit would make a preemptive strike on any possible shenanigans the young couple might get up to. The Holy Spirit was the ultimate chaperone.

How ironic then that in today’s Gospel we encounter the Virgin Mary as a “girl in trouble” who has conceived a child “from the Holy Spirit.” Orthodox Christianity has generally understood this to be a literal, biological claim that upholds the teaching that Jesus Christ is both truly and fully human and truly and fully divine. Others, like Scripture scholar Jon Dominic Crossan, have pointed out that many biographies at the time the Gospels were written claimed great men like Augustus Caesar to have been conceived by a human virgin and a god. For Crossan, the main point to take from the Gospel stories is the radical claim that it is not Augustus, but a nobody like Jesus who was so conceived. How to respond? As a scientifically minded 21st century American, my only honest answer is, “I don’t know. I wasn’t there. It’s not a part of my experience for virgins to conceive children. I know that parthenogenesis does happen in some species, such as komodo dragons, but when it does the offspring is always female.” But my faith tells me that, for the God in whom I believe, all things are possible, and that God can bring about the birth of a child from a virgin’s womb if God wishes to do so.

Joseph cannot have found it easy to believe the angel’s message he heard in a dream. And yet he did. He started out by making realistic calculations based on what he knew from human experience. He had been cuckolded. He had been wronged under the law. A mild and just man, he did not want to expose Mary to the brutal legal penalty prescribed under the Torah for adultery, namely stoning. He decided to make the situation fade away as quietly and discreetly as possible. But God had other plans and communicated to Joseph in a dream with a vision of an angel. Joseph could have written off the dream. But he did not. Joseph had left room for the Holy Spirit, not understood as the protector from temptation and chaos, but as the presence of the Living God constantly at work in human history, bringing about new life, healing, redemption, and renewal in ways that no human being calculating rationally would consider to be likely or even possible. By naming his son Jesus, which means, “God saves,” Joseph ratified his faith that the voice of the Holy Spirit was stronger and more creative than the fear-based calculations of human beings.

Joseph’s openness stands in stark contrast to the attitude of King Ahaz of Judah. Ahaz was a frightened man. The kings of Israel and Syria wanted him to join them in an alliance against the Assyrian Empire. He knew that was a bad bet and would not join them, so they plotted to overthrow him and replace him with a puppet who would do their bidding. Fearing them, Ahaz made an alliance with the powerful Assyrians in order to keep Judah safe. He compromised his mandate as a descendant of King David to keep the practice of the Torah pure and blended in pagan practices, including the sacrifice of children. He did not trust that God would keep God’s promises to protect the Kingdom and the Davidic line. He clung to his fears and his calculations of what was probable and did not trust in the God who can do anything. He did not even want to hear from God for fear that his plans might be disrupted and he might instead be asked to place his trust in something unbelievable. So when Isaiah tells him that God will allow him to ask for any sign he wishes, he affects a false piety and says he does not wish to tempt the Lord. God gives him the sign anyway—a young woman will be with child and will give birth to a son to be known as Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

God saves. God is with us. How easy is it for us to believe these things? Like Ahaz, we see a world filled with violence, horror, and fear. The suffering of the people of Aleppo. The ravages of poverty, abuse, and addiction. The surreal hardening and coarsening of our national life. The personal challenges and difficulties that beset our personal lives and those of our loved ones. The Reign of God does not appear very probable. The vision approaches at times, only to elude our grasp, apparently swallowed up in madness, chaos, and cruelty once more.

As Advent progresses towards the celebration of Christmas, we are invited to place our trust, not in our fear-based calculations of self-interest and survival, but in the child born of the Virgin from the Holy Spirit, the child whose name means “God saves” and whose title means “God is with us.” The advent of God’s Reign has never involved linear, incremental progress in human history. It has always been more hidden, more paradoxical. Times of apparent progress have given way to times of backsliding, violence, and hard hearts. But out of the very rubble of past hopes, the Holy Spirit has always been at work, operating deep down inside the workings of the world and the workings of human hearts, raising up new possibilities from the rubble created by human sin. This truth came home to me recently when I heard a lovely poem by the Irish writer Michael Coady, entitled “Though There Are Torturers.”

Though there are torturers in the world there are also musicians.

Though at this moment  men are screaming in prisons, there are jazzmen raising storms

Of sensuous celebration, and orchestras releasing  Glories of the Spirit.

Though the image of God is everywhere defiled  a man in West Clare is playing the 

concertina, the Sistine Choir is levitating under the dome of St. Peter’s,

and a drunk man on the road is singing, for no reason.

We are invited to imitate, not Ahaz, but Joseph. Angels speak in our dreams too. In
Aleppo a man puts on a clown show for children and another creates a sanctuary for cats. There are torturers but there are also musicians. Calculation based on the fear that we are alone and without help does not have the final word. The final word is for those who, like Joseph, leave room for the Holy Spirit, not just to protect us from temptation, but to stir us to faith, to risks, to daring, and to song. God saves. God is with us.


Great Expectations

A sermon from Linda Mackie-Griggs for Advent III  


“What then did you go out to see?”

Among all of the words in the English language, the word, “expectation” has got to be one of the most freighted. It brings with it, on the one hand, the eager anticipation of, and preparation for, something wonderful in the future, or on the other hand, the stomach-churning realization that something we anticipated has disappointed somehow. No one wants to deal with something, in others or in ourselves, that has not lived up to expectations.

Listen to John’s words from prison: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?”

In earlier accounts, John the Baptist has greeted his cousin with awe and joy as the Anointed One who is to come and rescue Israel:“Behold, the Lamb of God!”, he has declared to his disciples, palpably excited that the hopes of his people are about to be fulfilled.

But now John has been jailed by Herod. He may not know it yet, but he will die in prison. And his hope is ebbing as he realizes that his joyful expectation of Jesus’ triumph over Roman occupation is in jeopardy. He is losing hope. You can almost hear the accusatory tone; the impatience, the doubt: “…should we look for another?”

And Jesus responds, as he often does, by turning to Israel’s roots. He alludes to the prophet Isaiah, some of which we heard today in the first lesson. Jesus says, look around. The things that the prophets told us of are actually happening; healing and justice are abounding—the Reign of God is breaking in, just like Isaiah said it would. Don’t lose hope, John, he says. All is going just as it should.

But of course, that is part of the tension here. Jesus says that the words of the prophets are being fulfilled, but evidently, John has different expectations of exactly what that should look like. John expects a heroic Messiah who will overthrow the Roman occupation—and he’s definitely not the only one who feels that way. But thus far Jesus is not meeting those expectations. There is a disconnect between differing visions of the Kingdom—the Reign of God—and this disconnect may well lie in how we read Isaiah, which is the foundational text that informs Jesus’ response.

Isaiah wasn’t a single person who wrote at a single point in time. A number of prophets wrote under that name between about 8th and 6th centuries BCE, and their writings are generally seen as being organized into three major sections, as we heard last week. The reading we heard today falls in First Isaiah, which emphasizes the importance of worshiping one God who will purify Jerusalem before inaugurating a vision of peace, healing and reconciliation. Of particular importance in this vision is the Davidic line of kings, of which, according to the Gospel accounts, Jesus is the culminating figure—the Anointed One that Isaiah prophesied over a half-millennium earlier.

Isaiah describes the coming Reign of God as a time of healing and justice, and Jesus alludes specifically to this in his response to John. But, as we just heard in the first lesson, that isn’t all Isaiah said. It’s not just about humanity:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.…

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;

the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;

the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 

Do you hear that? The prophet’s vision of the coming Kingdom encompasses all of Creation. This isn’t something we usually consider. But as we look at the water protectors at Standing Rock and what they have accomplished, and as we grieve the destruction and suffering being visited upon our Mother Earth due to pollution and climate change, we are invited to broaden our vision of the Reign of God beyond the anthropocentric—to remember that it’s not just about us.

Jesus turns to the crowd, and he begins by asking them about their expectations of John. “What did you go out to the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?” Some scholars speculate that this was a reference to an image on royal coinage. Jesus continues to press the issue—what did you expect to see? Royalty in soft robes? Really? What kind of kingship do you think the prophets were talking about?

Or, did you expect a prophet? Well that’s what you got—and you may not know it yet, but you’ve gotten a lot more than you expected.The implicit question to the crowd in this interrogation has been, “What is YOUR vision of the Kingdom?” Because Jesus is implying that he’s about to turn it upside down. He says,

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

And it’s the last part of this statement that rocks the world. Yes, John is important—he’s the forerunner sent to prepare the way for Jesus. But what does it mean that he is the least in the Kingdom?

To answer that, I have another question:

What is our expectation of the Kingdom? If our expectations are in any way informed by the world as it is and not as we are called to help form it, then we are probably off the mark.

Let me introduce you to a living parable.

untitled1Steve Blackmer has been dubbed by Harper’s Magazine, ‘The Priest in the Trees.”* He’s an Episcopal priest, ordained just a couple of years ago and called from the beginning of his discernment to a ministry focused on conservation and healing in the natural world. During his time in seminary, he was struck in his study of Scripture by how much of the narrative is immersed in the land—mountaintops, valleys, lakes, gardens, deserts, rivers, wilderness. His Church of the Woods, now a year old, is comprised of just over 100 acres not far from Canterbury, New Hampshire. Liturgy in the Church of the Woods involves hiking, stargazing, storytelling, meditation walks, trail work, and open-air Eucharists. His vision is to help people understand, and repent of, what he calls ‘ecological sin.’

Steve tells this story of a major turning point in his ministry: He calls it the Chainsaw Eucharist. As he was clearing brush and saplings in the forest he came upon a stand of mature beech trees that were in the way of a new meditation trail. He cranked up his chainsaw and began chopping away. But as tree after tree fell, he became increasingly uneasy. He stopped. He realized that in cutting down those trees he had neither shown nor felt the slightest regard for the fact that he was taking lives that were worthy of reverence. Right then and there he set up an altar with his traveling Communion kit and turned to the Lectionary reading for the day. It was from Isaiah:

I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you. . . . Shout, O depths of the earth! Break forth into singing, O mountains, O forest, and every tree in it.

The author of the story writes: [Blackmer] prayed the prayer of confession, consecrated the bread and wine, and offered them to his fellow congregants — the trees — before partaking himself.

Set aside the complete lack of liturgical orthodoxy of Blackmer’s actions here, and see it, as I said, as a living parable: What is the Kingdom of God like? The Kingdom of God is where Jesus gave himself for ALL of Creation–for everything that God declared Very Good from the beginning of time. ALL of it.

None of Creation, not the natural world that we steward, nor the poor, nor the sick, nor the outsider are to be regarded as something that is in the way of our selfish desires. God’s Dream is to turn all of that on its head; in the words of the Magnificat, to cast down the mighty and lift up that which we would treat as lowly. It’s audacious, it’s what Isaiah envisioned, and that’s what Jesus wanted John the Baptist to understand.

Because, you see, John’s expectation was as imprisoned–as boxed-in–as he was. As he began to lose hope he thought he might have been expecting too much of Jesus, when in fact, he expected too little; as did the crowd that Jesus addressed. They expected to see the liberation of Israel—something they could imagine– not the unexpected–beyond imagination–, which was the healing and renewal of all Creation.

The prophetic imagination of Isaiah, and of the entire Gospel message, calls us to participate courageously in the Dream of God. It is a daunting message, and at the same time a hopeful and joyful one. Today we lit the pink candle on the Advent wreath to mark Gaudete Sunday, which means Rejoice. And we can rejoice today. We can rejoice in the audacious expectation and hope that the God who comes as a child is faithful to all of Creation, and calls each of us to be the ones that we’ve been waiting for.









Faith, Hope, and Love – in difficult times


The backdrop

After the death of Solomon, largely due to the tyranny of his reign, David’s united Kingdom of Israel split into its northern and southern constituencies. The name Israel continued to designate the northern kingdom with its capital at Samaria. The southern kingdom took the name of the predominant tribe in the south – Judah, with Jerusalem as its capital. In 721 BCE, the Assyrian army captured Samaria and deported the king, nobility, and priesthood of the northern kingdom into captivity. This left only the poorest of the peasantry, who over time intermarried with the foreign peoples around them producing the racially mixed Samaritans we know about from Jesus’ day.

The destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel left the southern kingdom of Judah to fend for itself within the whirlwind of Middle Eastern politics. As today, in the time of the First Isaiah Middle Eastern politics were marked by rapidly shifting alliances between small vassal and proxy states caught up in the global tension between the two superpowers of the time- Egypt and Assyria.  How little things change.

At the time of Samaria’s fall, two kings in Judah — Ahaz and his son Hezekiah ruled as co-regents. Judah had survived as a vassal state in an uneasy relationship with Assyria, an arrangement that afforded some security paid for through an annual tribute to the powerful empire.

In 715 BCE, following the death of Ahaz, Hezekiah became the sole regent of Judah and initiated widespread religious reforms, including the breaking of religious idols. He re-captured Philistine occupied lands in the Negev dessert. In the belief that Judah’s fortunes would fare better in an alliance with Egypt, Hezekiah took a stand against Assyria by refusing to pay the annual tribute. In response, Sennacherib attacked Judah, laying siege to Jerusalem.

It’s in this political context of crisis that the prophet known to us as First Isaiah warns Hezekiah of the disastrous consequences of this reckless foreign policy. With the Assyrians at the gates, he counsels Hezekiah to hold firm and return the future of Judah to the covenant relationship with YaHWeH. In the midst of this dangerous political situation Isaiah proclaims an extraordinary vision, not of doom and gloom, but of a future time when out of the ruined and burned stump of the once mighty Davidic kingdom there will spring a new shoot. The new shoot is a metaphorical allusion to the Messiah, the promised one who will rise up to restore the fortunes of Israel. In the midst of impending crisis and destruction, Isaiah’s prophecy is a dream of improbable things:

the wolf will lie down with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the calf and lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

Isaiah’s vision constitutes a resurfacing of something I think of as the transgenerational vision. This vision is deeply counterintuitive. Isaiah sees the Messiah coming not as a mighty warrior, but as a little child. It is not surprising that the early Christians understood this prophecy as a direct reference to Jesus’ birth and therefore, a powerful corroboration of their claim that Jesus was the promised one.

In Matthew’ s gospel, John the Baptizer emerges as a crucial figure within the unfolding of the transgenerational vision that identifies Jesus with Second Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. In conscious time and space, John is most popularly identified as the cousin of Jesus. In the trans-generational vision John is Elijah returned and emerges as Isaiah’s: 

voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the lord, make his paths straight! 

Of vision

The transgenerational vision is one of hope and expectation weaving in and out of history. It surfaces in prophetic utterance, beginning with the First Isaiah (chapters 1-39) prophesying into the Assyrian crisis of the 720s BCE. The vision submerges to reemerge two centuries later in the voice of Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55) prophesying into the Babylonian crisis of the 580’sBCE. The transgenerational vision submerges once again only to reemerge a generation later in the voice of the Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66) addressing the struggles of the exiles returning from Babylon to rebuild Judah and Jerusalem.

It next resurfaces in Christ during the crisis of the Roman occupation in the 1st century CE. The transgenerational vision connects us to a past stretching back through the prophecies of Isaiah and the other major prophets of Israel, into the primal Genesis narratives of creation. It constitutes a resurfacing of future hope, echoing the vision of earlier generations but now anchored and given shape by the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

Of hope

Today, it’s fair to say that our world is facing into a new period of instability. The Middle East is ablaze. The European Project stumbles as one Western Democracy after another lurches to the right. Huge population migrations are on the move escaping war and poverty. Russia’s return to its old imperial dreams of expansion is a cause for concern and this nation is gripped by a growing tide of rage and fear as we face into a future we no longer feel in control of. We are assailed by the hectoring of one false prophet after another, and we cover our ears or if we have sense switch off the 24-hour cycle of opinion regurgitation masquerading as news.

Isaiah’s message to Hezekiah was to stop politicking solutions that only lead to a deepening spiral of crisis. Isaiah reminds the king that the only security lay in faithfulness to God. He exhorts the king to have the courage to trust the God who hears the cries of the people to bring them out of bondage – bondage in this instance to one failed policy after another. He offers the king a vision of God’s faithfulness and promise.

Prophetic voices for our own time 

Paul Tillich was among the top three formative theologians in the decades following the Second World War. He noted that:

If we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. Those who wait in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait. 

Alice Miller, to my mind, one of the great psychologists of the 20th-century echoes Tillich’s words when she proclaimed:

We are who we have been waiting for.

Tillich and Miller are prophets of the Kingdom.  Kingdom shaped expectations are recognized because they are always counterintuitive – seeming at the time improbable, even impossible. Counterintuitivity is the hallmark of moving  beyond the limitations of world views imprisoned within the distortions of the status quo.

Tillich’s words point us to a quality of the transgenerational vision, namely the way it collapses the temporal boundaries of time and action, as in becoming the hope we are yet still waiting for – the kingdom of God is both now and not yet. The quality of future hope shapes the nature of our action in the present. As we find ourselves in a world increasingly soothed by the malignant doctrine that the ends justify the means, we need more than ever to recognize that the means which inspire the peoples’ hope and expectation will dictate the quality of the ends towards which they are led. Means and ends are related in the same way as the quality of fruit is related to the health of the tree that bears it. Playing on people’s fears, exciting their rage and hate for the other is like planting a diseased tree and expecting it to bear good fruit.

Isaiah’s prophecy is of a time when under the leadership of the most vulnerable and fragile of all God’s creatures – a nursing human child; John the Baptist’s proclamation is that the Kingdom comes with a fierce urgency, with no time to waste; the prophetic words of Paul Tillich and Alice Miller shed light on the dynamic between seeming improbable hope and the task of the present time.

Of waiting

I add a third to my two aforementioned prophets of the 20th Century, the poet T.S. Eliot. In 1937 Elliot visited the village of East Coker and subsequently named the second of his four Quartets East Coker.The poem discusses time and disorder within nature that is the result of humanity following only it’s own wisdom and not God. Leaders are described as materialistic and unable to understand reality. The only way for humanity to find salvation is through pursuing the divine by looking inwards and there in the discovery of our interconnections the image of God. In the third stanza of the poem Elliot brings a novel twist to the idea that in the act of hoping we reshape our current experience. He writes:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope – For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love – For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith – But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Advent reminds us that so much expectation is actually the patience born of waiting. But waiting is not idleness. That for which we wait compels us to turn away from our hard-hearted complicity with injustice, and forge new pathways for the kingdom’s coming, one step and one breath at a time.

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