It’s Advent! In liturgically-oriented churches, tables and pulpits are draped in purple. (Or perhaps a dark shade of blue, which to my mind is a nefarious invention of the liturgical-industrial complex.) Four-candled wreaths tick off the Sundays before Christmas. In homes, Advent calendars adorn walls.
And yet so much is missing.
“I have never seen a picture of John the Baptist on any Advent calendar,” Fleming Rutledge notes in her new book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, “yet he is the foremost image of Advent.” (276) Neither, in most churches, is their much space given to the darker themes of the season. Rutledge, the great Episcopalian theologian and preacher says:
“The medieval church designed the four Sundays of Advent around the themes of the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell…That was no accident. The idea was to show how the light of the birth of Christ appeared against a backdrop of darkness, depravity, and despair. So, as we prepare to enter the Advent season, the church hunkers down.” (238)
Hunkering. When’s the last time Mariah Carey sang a Christmas song about that?
It’s true that Rutledge believes that “Advent is definitely not for sissies.” (31-2) But she’s not trying to play Eeyore to your seasonal Tigger. What she does in this collection of writings and sermons, with biblical clarity and one of the finest literary arsenals around, is to reclaim the season in all its theological richness. Advent, it turns out, is “a season in which we help one another to face up to the truth about the human race in general and also the truth about ourselves.” (311) Any realistic picture of that truth is going to have to wrangle with evil.
Location, Rutledge says, is central to her book. John the Baptist gets pride of place in the season because he embodies the location of the Christian community in the timeline of salvation. In the wilderness, at the margins of the empire, within the stream of Israel’s history, but most importantly, pointing to “our true home in the future” (12), which has been made flesh in the present in the Crucified Christ and his Church.
There are some consistent themes in Rutledge’s writing (and she warns early on that these sermons, delivered over the course of her long career, will contain some repetition.) There is the apocalyptic theology that she explored so memorably in her previous book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. There is the “essential affirmation” that “God is the active agent in creation and redemption,” (18) and that God’s salvation comes into a context defined by a conflict with “the dominion of darkness.” There is the irresistible tendency of human beings toward self-justification and self-righteousness. And along the way there are forays into the events of the day, which are not calls to action but illustrations of the way the world and we are in the grip of forces that reveal our distortion and need for redemption.
This collection makes a great introduction to Fleming Rutledge. It’s also a tremendous resource for preachers who need encouragement in their annual fight for their souls as they, too, are tempted by the siren songs of nostalgia and egg nog lattes with their whispers of Christmas comfort. Rutledge not only cautions against the rush to the manger, but reorients the whole season to its roots. It’s not about preparing for Christmas so much as it is forcing us to look into the dark heart of the enemy, which is to say, our own hearts, and to tend the fire that burns for the coming Savior.
“Judgment and Mercy Arrive at the Same Time”
In a sermon delivered the year after the attacks of 9/11, Rutledge tells of an article by the New York Times’ Jim Dwyer that described the moment when Fire Chief Orio J. Palmer arrived with men from Ladder Company 15 on the 78th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center where desperate people were waiting to be saved from the raging fires. Two minutes later the tower collapsed killing all of them, but a communications tape records the moment when the firefighters arrived. “In their final moments,” Dwyer says, “they could behold the promise of deliverance.”
Perhaps you can guess where Rutledge goes with this:
“Why is this an Advent story? Because the promise and the deathblow arrived at the same time. The moment of deliverance and the moment of annihilation are overlaid, like two slides placed one on top of the other so that you see them both at once. The season of Advent is like that. Judgment and mercy arrive at the same time. War and peace are announced by the same voice.” (307-8)
For people living in the time between, where suffering and hope always co-mingle, Advent is the best of mirrors. And Rutledge is the best of preachers, pointing toward the God who came and comes again in Christ.
Disclosure: I received a review copy of Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ from the publisher.