Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the religious season leading up to Christmas. If you’ve been in a church in December you’ve probably seen the wreath with the five candles in it, which are part of the liturgy at this time of year – you light one on the first week, add a second for the second week, etc.
At least in the Methodist church, the candles traditionally have themes represented by each candle. I’ve decided that as a kind of spiritual exercise in the weeks leading up to Christmas I will try to be more conscious of the things that give me whatever that weekly theme is. You know, like people in November who posted things they were thankful for leading up to Thanksgiving. I’m not saying that I’ll post it every day, but I’m going to make a real effort to think about it, be conscious of it, even if I don’t write it out or anything. (I may end up mentioning things that are particularly meaningful, but this is mainly for me.) In the Methodist church, the first candle symbolizes hope, so this week I will be trying to be conscious of those things that are particularly meaningful for me.
In many ways, this is ridiculously easy. The Hobbit is just around the corner, and I’m actually mooting this weekend with a friend in Massachusetts to see the original trilogy on the big screen. This is something to hope for, to look forward to, if ever there was one. It is, in a very real sense, my own unexpected party; I mean, I was looking forward to the movie but it’s nice to make more of an event of it. I’m also setting up meetings with people regarding my dissertation, starting to make progress on that front, so I’m really getting more and more hopeful about the future.
But in the Christian tradition, at least the Methodist church hope isn’t some kind of touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy feeling that everything’s going to be okay. This week we actually read one of my least favorite readings in the Advent liturgy, Isaiah 1. One sample:
Why should you be stricken again?
You will revolt more and more.
The whole head is sick,
And the whole heart faints.
From the sole of the foot even to the head,
There is no soundness in it,
But wounds and bruises and putrefying sores;
They have not been closed or bound up,
Or soothed with ointment.
Where exactly is the hope in that? It’s hardly the making of a Hallmark card. But the hope for me comes from the fact that, in the text, we cannot make up for these past wrongs but we also don’t have to. In the text, God rebukes the Israelites for offering lots of empty sacrifices for things they’ve done wrong (“Bring no more futile sacrifices: incense is an abomination to me.”) Instead,
“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes.
Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good;
Rebuke the oppressor;
Defend the fatherless,
Plead for the widow.”
Basically, don’t do it again. Forget the past because there is no making up for it, and the repeated sacrifices are just proof to God that, once more, sacrifice was necessary. When I heard this passage as a child I found it truly weird – this was hope? We were starting the Christmas season, pristine white snow and trees decked out in white and gold and the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes – with this? With wounds and bruises and putrefying sores? But as I’ve grown up, I’ve been struck by what a countercultural version of hope this passage contains. It’s not about having a clean start; rather, it’s about not needing one. This is where we get probably the most quoted passage from this Sunday’s reading.
“Come now, and let us reason together,”
Says the Lord,
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
They shall be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They shall be as wool.
As I read this, the message I get is essentially: don’t preoccupy yourself with your own sinfulness. Don’t focus on making up for what you’ve already done wrong. God does not want sacrifices, regrets – He wants true repentance. A turning-away, a sincere effort at not doing it again. And when you fall down once more (because we are all human, and even with God’s help repentance and growth is always a stumbling process) … don’t say you’re sorry in the sense of focusing what you’ve done wrong again. Just try once more to do better. It’s a focus on the future not on the past. Which of course is at the heart of hope and Advent generally. This is a thought that I have framed in rather religious terms, but I think it’s worth taking seriously even if you’re not religious or simply a different religion. So maybe it’s worth thinking about what kind of thing gives you hope, and what it means to truly look forward to the future for you?
Reading this passage right now, I also have definite thoughts on war, peace and the Gaza conflict in particular. I may come back to that if I have time, because this Bible passage definitely seems relevant in a way I hadn’t keyed into before.
As an aside, I’m aware that if you’ve grown up around Christian fundamentalism or even evangelicalism and certain strains of Calvinist (Baptist/Presbyterian/etc.) thought… this may seem a strange way of thinking about repentance. A lot of strands of Christianity focus on the sinfulness of us, the abject evil that is humanity’s “fallen nature” so that none of us can be good through our own efforts. We can never make up for what we did. And I’m not going to deny that that’s the way a lot of Christians parse topics like that. I do believe my approach is in the texts and in traditional Christian writers if you know where to look. I just don’t want this to come across as whitewashing more accusatory, negative ways of looking at human nature and forgiveness. I’m not saying all Christians think about these topics, in this way, though I guess I am saying I wish they would. IMO it’s a better way of approaching them.
Enough of the religious heaviness. I did want to share some fannish things on the topic of hope. First, what meditation on hope would be complete without the great hope is kindled scene from The Return of the King? Looking at it as a beat in book!Gondor’s history, I hate it. In the movies it never ceases to bother me. But viewed in isolation (and particularly if I blink at just the right moment to avoid Denethor’s grimace) I can’t deny it’s beautiful and encouraging.
I also wrote an advent ficlet series back in 2010, based around the five themes of advent and focusing on the women of Gondor and Rohan. I’ve always loved those ficlets so I thought I’d share them.
Aragorn, as the new king of Gondor and Arnor Reunited, ushered in a new age of peace – and, Gondor quite naturally hoped, the beginnings of a new dynasty. But just because something is expected does not mean it will come easily. (Arwen-centric.)
Finally, I’d like to give a shout-out to Lady Branwyn who’s doing an advent calendar where she posts a Tolkien illustration every day. The first illustration is a double-goody: a Tolkienian eagle, drawn by JRRT. This promises to be fun, and a great way to reconnect with my Tolkien roots. As much as I’m looking forward to the new movie, I’m sure there are things I won’t like so I may need a bit of fortification heading into it.
Doing anything special for Advent on your blog, either regularly or just a one-off meditation? Drop me a link and if I think it fits with what I’m writing about I’ll include it.