By Cynthia Briggs Kittredge
My good friend Cathy is a priest and an excellent preacher. She says, “I love to preach on any Scripture that has food in it.”
Well I love to preach on any text that has the out of doors in it — especially stars, sun and moon; weather, clouds and rain; and seasons, summer, fall, winter, spring.
I try never to miss a meteor shower. I’ve watched from in the back yard in the city of Austin, in the desert sky in West Texas, from the stony beach on the Atlantic coast of Canada where we go in the summer. In New York City 2004 I stepped out of the bar onto Park Avenue and witnessed the lunar eclipse on the night when the Red Sox beat the Cardinals and broke the Curse.
Nature stirs my spirit, and nature (like food) is a basic element of life that we share with all the peoples of the world, and that we have in common with our faithful ancestors of long ago, when just about everything else was different. People weren’t driven to distraction. They weren’t fixating on their iPhones to tell them what time it was, whether it was cold or rainy, who was up and who was down, if they were satisfied or not, if they’d been “liked” or “tagged,” whether or not they were loved.
The people at the time of our Scriptures looked at the sky for signs of rain or storm.
They followed the seasons by the lengthening shadows or the brightening dawn; they hunted and gathered and farmed and fished by signs in the color of the water and the smell of the earth. Weather tells us what time it is — summer or winter, day or night. Reading the weather tells us whether to plant or to weed or to harvest. For us, like for our ancestors, the weather speaks of the cosmos, the social order, and our inner lives.
It is the tradition of the church that on the first Sunday of Advent we read Scripture from the prophets and gospels that predicts extreme weather — “signs in the sun and the moon and the stars, the roaring of the sea and the waves.”
The prophets read disruption in the cycles of the seasons, and disturbance in the patterns of the stars, as signs of precipitous times — “the last days.”
John Barton, scholar of apocalyptic poetry, has noted that in the prophets you don’t expect the next phrase to be “the rest of the country will be partly cloudy with scattered showers.”
For the prophets preached of a time when there would be a coming, a breaking through — God would intervene and rearrange the cosmos, human society, and human hearts. In the words of the gospel of Luke: “the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
We read these texts in Advent as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus — because our faith knows that Jesus is God’s breakthrough, and because our faith promises that Christ will come again.
But really? Extraordinary weather! Fainting, fear and foreboding!? The Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great in glory!
At the beginning of what in our culture is the Christmas season, when we anticipate comforting predictable rituals, the Christmas parties, shopping, the family gathering for better or for worse, these Scriptures strike an alarming note.
Particularly now at this moment in the history of our planet when fire and flood and tempest are religious metaphors but are literal threats to home and life, when each wildfire or hurricane portends future natural disasters, these ancient images are especially troubling.
In some Christian circles, these images revive millennial enthusiasm about the end of the world and provoke a what the hell, who cares?, God’s in charge” and a we will be saved kind of arrogance — “let the earth burn.”
Even though we reject that interpretation of the Scripture, these prophetic images create dissonance when we want harmony.
They speak of dissatisfaction when we want to enjoy perfection. They are troubling and weird. They don’t sound like good news for the holiday season. As Flannery O Connor says about Christianity, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”
But the oddness of Advent is an invitation.
The invitation begins with deep dissatisfaction. All is not right with the world.
Jeremiah speaks to those in exile from their home, those who are tempted to accommodate with their captors or to give in to utter despair. They are afflicted by longing. They longed for God to restore them to their home and to reestablish justice.
In the Jewish and the Christian tradition we have a long genetic memory of not belonging, of being displaced. We have a long genetic memory of exile.
In Advent we become aware of dissonance. We experience a lack of harmony. Our values and our actions do not line up. How we spend our time is not really who we are.
Dissatisfaction creates longing. And we have longing planted in our hearts.
Our culture says that this longing can be satisfied by the right gadget, or a by new program, or even by a change in Administration.
So we seek to acquire these things or to make these things happen.
Or we can try to get rid of longing with obeying the endless to-do list or by keeping up with every social media platform or by eating or drinking — what the gospel of Luke calls “dissipation and drunkenness.”
But Advent says our longings are good; they can lead us to what is really real. Don’t deny them but head right into them and dare to ask, seek, knock.
O Come O Come Emmanuel. Oh! Please, please, please come.
Advent’s picture of the last things, its “sense of an ending,” reorients us in time. Isn’t it hard to live in time? I think it’s hard to accept that we have a limited amount of it.
A man went to his spiritual director to report on his progress, and he said, “I’m doing great, just great — with everything — except mortality and humanity.”
You can obsess and perseverate and hyper focus about the pain of the current moment. You can try to escape time or transcend it. You can be overwhelmed by a sense of dread about the future — the next fire, the next paroxysm of violence, and suffer from all too familiar postmodern affliction: “consumed with anxiety.”
The scripture of Advent invites us to enter into time in a new way.
The sense of an ending that Advent presents to our reluctant, worried spirits makes the present even more significant.
The odd “last things” of Christian faith invite us to enter into time more intentionally and with more awareness. The extraordinary weather of the exceptional time makes the routine predictable warmth of summer and the chill of winter all the sweeter.
Artist and naturalist Clare Walker Leslie, in her books and workshops, teaches the practice of keeping a nature journal. To school children and to adults in every profession she shows how to select a notebook, record the date and the time and the angle of the light and the character of the air, to observe the insects and birds, the leaves, the ground, and to sketch a leaf or the shape of a bare tree or a squirrel gathering acorns. You don’t have to possess lots of knowledge about science but you gain it day by day; you don’t have to know how to draw, you learn it page by page.
When we notice the weather, we savor time. We don’t say “to hell with the earth,” but we turn to her again with awakened appreciation.
And finally, Advent invites us to hope.
When we take the world for granted, we gradually lose the capacity to imagine it differently. It is impossible to be surprised. Just as we have denied our longing, we have layers and layers of protection against hope, protection from the possibility of a joy or a blessing that is not a result, a reward, or a goal.
Brené Brown has even given us a vivid phrase for that protection: “foreboding joy.”
The prophets and the gospels invite us to hope — to reimagine a world where citizens welcome the stranger and the rich share with the poor. The describe it with the natural world:
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent — its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.
We have a genetic memory of harmony, unity, peace, and shalom. “The kingdom of God is among you.”
In a season of forced cheer, Advent gives us longing. Amid fantasies of despair and escape, Advent brings us into the present and back to the earth. What we have forgotten, Advent remembers.
As the world changes, Christian faith is more and more odd.
You may be fortunate enough to have been born with faith, or you may have been nurtured in it at a vital parish like All Saints, or you may be wooed toward faith, through the out of doors, through poetry and beauty, through Scripture or by connecting with our weather-watching mothers and fathers in faith, by practices of attention and prayer. However it is for you, you may begin again on this first Sunday of Advent.
May we pray and long and hope together for the coming of God.
The Very Rev. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge is dean and president of Seminary of the Southwest, and professor of New Testament.