Let’s Just Start Over! – Tom Mundahl reflects on the start of Advent in the midst of pandemic, climate crisis, and racial violence.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for the First Sunday of Advent, Year B (2020, 2023)
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Advent marks a new beginning, entry into a new church year. What a luxury it would be to face the future by erasing the challenges of the last year as easily as a child does by shaking her Etch-a-Sketch. Unfortunately, as we restart the liturgical year — our framework for telling and living the story of faith — the persistent challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, the climate crisis, and the raw wounds of systemic racism will not let go. Any naive hope for exemption from these is dampened by what the psalmist calls “the bread of tears” (Psalm 80:5).
That we are not the first generation to face such intractable problems is revealed by one of the earliest Advent collects which begins, “Lighten our darkness.” This prayer dates at least to the Fourth Century C.E. when it was described by St. Basil as “the candle-lighting hymn” (liner notes for the CD “Lighten Our Darkness,” various artists, Hyperion, 2006). It should come as no surprise, then, that during this season of new hope, we light candles.
Because we cannot “just start over,” we light another candle each week, not for aesthetic reasons or even to help find our way through this inconvenient season, but so we can take a new look at ourselves and our surroundings, away from the false illumination of a still powerful, but collapsing culture. During this season of darkness when we navigate by candlelight, we remember German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, reflecting on a decade of resistance to the Nazi regime, celebrated the surprising discovery that “we have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below” (Letters and Papers from Prison, Macmillan, 1971, p. 17). No longer can we take the clinically-detached view embodied by a gorgeous shot of our planet from space. Because our hands are “dirtied” by our responsibility for climate, pandemic, and racial violence, we must refocus our attention and, with Bonhoeffer, “dig in.”
As we advance into the murkiness of all that makes us anxious, we come to rely even more on the word of hope we hear from the scriptures, a word that has provided mooring during troubled times throughout the history of God’s people. The candles we light point precisely to this strong narrative. Because I was privileged to live near St. John’s University and Abbey during my pastoral service, I was able to see the Saint John’s Bible as it was crafted by Donald Jackson and his team. As the first handwritten Bible authorized by a monastic community in 500 years, the displays of the first sections with illuminations were breathtaking. But, as an advocate of frugality, I was taken aback by what I saw as the profligate use of gold leaf. Then one of the project’s directors explained that the gold leaf was used to catch candlelight so that reading scripture was possible–by reflective illumination. During the darkness of our time also, the Advent candles illuminate the scriptures so that we can rediscover the confidence and courage they provide. As we consider the readings for the season of Advent we will be on the hunt for clues and surprises that will “lighten our darkness.”
Despite a gracious “New Exodus” providing return from captivity in Babylon, hopes for a resurgence of a just and vibrant corporate life in Judah had dimmed. The people began to ask, “Where is the one who brought us from the sea…?” (Isaiah 63:11) and why does this God “harden our hearts…?” (Isaiah 63:17) It is out of this frustration that the desperate people cry, “O that you would open the heavens and come down….” (Isaiah 64:1). While this image calls to mind the Divine Warrior tradition, it drives even deeper to the Creator’s power to make new. Renewal includes both the “turning around” of repentance and “remembering” divine faithfulness (Isaiah 63: 11), especially in the Sinai event.
Even if the hopeful imagery of Second Isaiah seems to have weakened, the prophet and people hold their broken dreams together by that very act of recalling God’s faithfulness, the only force capable of renewing what has been “dismembered.” That memory does more than face backwards; it recalls that this is a God who makes way for the new, one who is capable of “tearing open the heavens and coming down.”
Here, the prophet returns to creative imagery from the earlier Isaiah. “Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter”(Isaiah 45:7). Recalling this earthy metaphor, the prophet goes on to affirm divine reliability. “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father: we are the clay and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8). It is this trust in the “maker of heaven and earth” that provides a way through even in the midst of despair. This hopefulness is amplified as the prophet adds divine assurance of restoration and harmony to the land (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Cambridge, 2009, p. 169). These promises encourage us as we struggle with issues of justice, threats of political violence, and pandemic fears during the twilight of Advent. Just as the thin gold foil in an illuminated Bible gives clarity to a text, so our thin threads of hope weave together the sturdy fabric of confidence and expectation.
With the foundation of this promise of re-creation, we are energized to take part in restorative ecojustice ourselves, whether that means resetting the climate-driven human-wildlife imbalance that has led to Covid-19 and prospective deadlier viruses (see Rachel Nuwer, “Nature is Returning,” Sierra, November- December 2020, pp. 28-33), or learning from soil scientists such as Walter Jehne about the role of hydrology in the climate crisis.
Not only do we need to continue study of the role of excess atmospheric carbon on biodiversity; we need also to study the restorative effects of biodiversity. Jehne estimates that restoring one percent of the planet’s cooling capacity through repairing hydrological cycles (preserving marshy areas, forests, uncovering urban streams and planting in the riverbank areas they need), increasing regenerative agriculture that minimizes or eliminates plowing, composting everything…would offset the effects of current anthropogenic carbon gases” (Rob Lewis, “Walking to the Restoration, Dark Mountain, 17, Spring 2020, p. 11). Of course, this is all the more reason to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to “lighten our darkness” by continuing to learn from our terroir.
While these steps to restore a regenerative creation and human resilience must all be community-based, moving beyond denominational “silos” to maintain a deeply-rooted theological foundation is essential. We learn this from Paul, who writes to the Corinthian assemblies in order to confront the challenge of internal division. As Hans Conzelman suggests, the very first word of the formal thanksgiving comprising our text, eucharisto, “I give thanks,” drives toward the assurance that all the gifts necessary to live out the community’s calling, including the strength to persevere, will be provided (1 Corinthians, Hermeneia, Fortress, 1975, p. 25).
Because these gifts are freely-given, there is absolutely no basis for status differential or discrimination: all are called to serve. Of course, this is the time of year when the word “gift” often carries quite different meanings. It has been suggested that some may compensate for virus-produced anxiety by “doubling down” on holiday gifts. Walter Brueggemann counters that such shopping sprees provide a false “achieved satiation” that sedates us into thinking that everything is just fine and that there are no problems that cannot be “fixed” by more consumption (The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed., Fortress, 2001, pp. 36-37).
The gifts Paul refers to are given to empower a servant community to nurture the mystery of hope, to build a community so inclusive it comprehends all creation. No other scaling of koinonia is comprehensive enough to do justice to the faithfulness of God (1 Corinthians 1:9). Commenting on this text, Richard Hays warns: “We are apt to think of the church’s life and mission on a small, even trivial scale. We tend to locate the identity of our communities within some denominational program, or within local politics, or within recent history. But Paul urges us to understand the church in a cosmic frame of reference….” (First Corinthians, Louisville, John Knox, 1997, p. 20).
We may conclude that chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel provides us with more of the cosmic than we bargained for. Description of “wars and rumors of wars (v. 7), “fleeing to the mountains” (v. 14), false messiahs, and astronomical irregularities combine to create an atmosphere more suited to bad Halloween horror movies. But far from being otherworldly, this dramatic language seems to describe the life situation of the earliest community and its response to the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE.
If scholars Adele Yarbro Collins and Ched Myers are right, this chapter documents the struggle within the early community over which tack to take responding to this violent popular uprising. Collins suggests that “wars and rumors of wars” and the warning that “the end is yet to come” (Mark 13:7) fit best with the situation early in the Jewish War. “If the war were already over, it would hardly have been necessary to point out that the end had not come” (The Beginning of the Gospel: Probings of Mark in Context, Fortress, 1992, p. 82). Myers goes further, suggesting that this chapter is written for an audience in the resurrection community tempted to join forces with Zealots in military action. “In such a moment, there was only one voice that could match the persuasive call of the rebel recruiters: Jesus the living teacher” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel, 2nd Ed., Orbis, 2008, p. 330). This is a strong call to embrace nonviolence in response to the climate crisis and the healthcare and racial justice reforms while we wait and watch during Advent.
This gospel offers no passive appeasement of Roman imperialism. The evangelist makes this clear in the first verse of the gospel. Historians remind us that emperors considered themselves great benefactors of their subjects as is made clear in the documents and pronouncements detailing their activities. For example, the Priene Calendar Inscription found near Ephesus, dating from the early first century CE, claimed that the birth of the emperor, considered a “son of God,” “signaled the beginning of good news for the world because of him” (Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Fortress, 2012, p. 18). Contradicting this imperial arrogance, our gospel writer starts: “the beginning of the good news (“gospel”) of Jesus Christ, son of God” (Mark 1:1). In fact, Lathrop suggests that this clear statement should be considered the title of this anonymous gospel.
“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:33). This strong imperative sentence could be heard as a threat producing nervous foreboding. Instead, it is an invitation to faithful and attentive service. A community that no longer lives in anxiety about making the right eschatological call is freed for helpful response to whatever assails us. A time of fulfillment will come; in the meantime ecojustice, feeding the hungry, and caring for the sick are seasonal watchwords.
Alertness and watchfulness are more than a strategy; they replace the world of temple cult with trust in the word of the Risen One (Mark 13:31). The old fig tree (Mark 11:12-14) representing temple culture no longer bears fruit. A new crop is coming to nourish this community of attentive care, a fig tree-tree of life that will sustain servants of creation in carrying out what is necessary (Mark 13: 28-31).
As we approach Advent 2020, we know our task is daunting–almost unthinkable. Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm has said that the next months of the pandemic will be by far the darkest (Osterholm Update Podcast, Episode 29). “Lighten our darkness” continues to be our prayer. And, when we are able to, we will join together in song.
Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death,
that growth can flower from our grieving,
that we can catch our breath and be transfixed by faith.
So even as the sun is turning to journey to the north,
the living flame, in secret burning,
can kindle on the earth and bring God’s love to birth.
(“Each Winter as the Year Grows,” No. 252, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg-Fortress, 2006)
Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN