Preparing to Prepare for Christmas (Part 2 of 2)
This Sunday, November 29, marks the beginning of the Advent season and the start of another year in the Christian calendar. (Remember that we’ll be starting the season by gathering–outside, masked, and safely distanced–for a Service of Consolation at Lake Nixon on Sunday evening at 5:30).
It’s a time to prepare ourselves for Christ’s coming in two ways: by remembering—placing ourselves imaginatively alongside all those who longed for his first coming, and by looking ahead—directing our focus toward all of the reasons we have, here and now, for crying out, “Come, Lord Jesus”; come and bring peace on earth; peace with justice!
“Life and Light to all he brings; risen with healing in his wings. . . .”
When was the last year that so many of us could so easily join together, longing (in song) for this to be so?!
Last week, before I could turn toward Advent I realized I needed to spend time sorting through thoughts and feelings about distractedness, and about the difficulties and the importance of speaking to each other during this challenging, confusing time. I concluded with words from my friend Emily Hunter McGowin that I shared on social media during election night:
I thought it was especially relevant to highlight Emily’s statement because yesterday many Christians around the world celebrated the feast of Christ the King, or Reign of Christ Sunday.
This is a relatively new addition to the Christian calendar. Here’s how I think about it: from Advent, through Christmas, then Lent, the Easter Season, and finally Pentecost, Christians make a point in our shared worship to follow closely the major points in the timeline of Jesus’ life. But it’s as if we press “pause” at Pentecost—during late Spring/early summer—shortly after we hear words like these, spoken to stunned disciples still coming to terms with a crucified and now resurrected Jesus:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:16-20)
So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1: 6-11)
The remainder of the Christian year (summer-fall) is generally called “Ordinary Time.” During that time we go back, listen, and learn more about who exactly “this Jesus” (as the angels put it) actually is, and what it means to follow him in the middle of our ordinary lives (that’s not really why it’s called “ordinary” time, even though it makes for a convenient point).
Then, the final Sunday of the Christian year in worship returns us to that scene, so that we keep this vision of Jesus’ return with “all authority in heaven and all earth” as the picture, frame, horizon or background for everything else we see, do, regret, and hope for. And then we start the cycle all over again, with four weeks of preparation for Christmas. Each time through the cycle we see and learn new things and recall familiar yet always relevant insights, just as a good story or drama always gives new gifts each time we read or watch it.
Practically speaking, what else does it mean to set aside time to acknowledge the “reign of Christ?” Is something like the image above really the most important one to keep fixed in our minds’ eye? As I mentioned last week, stressing the Christian claim that “Jesus is Lord,” should not be a distraction from real-world “politics”–from committed attention to flesh and blood needs and struggles for genuine peace and justice for all (the old warning against being so “heavenly-minded that you’re no earthly good”). And it’s true that we tend to attach all kinds of problematic assumptions to the very idea of “kingship” (this is the reason why many churches prefer to speak of the “reign of Christ” instead).
As my friend Emily said, it’s a claim that should give us deep comfort, but also make us tremble. Instead of providing more commentary from me on this (or saving it for a “part 3” 😉 ), I’m sure there will be opportunities to meditate on that statement as we move into Advent and hear more reflections from other 2BC members. But I do want to share with you some of the biblical readings selected for Reign of Christ Sunday, along with some art directly inspired by these passages. Notice that in both passages, the image of a true “king” is a shepherd. The meanings drawn from this metaphor are both culturally distant from many of us today but also unmistakably familiar.
Ezekiel 34: 11-16; 20-24
God the True Shepherd
“For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
. . . . Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.“
Matthew 25: 31-46
The Judgment of the Nations
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’