I’ve seen very few new movies this year but I suspect that even if I’d seen a bunch more I’d still think 12 Years A Slave was the year’s best. Here’s a short reflection provoked by the film that I wrote last week for our church newsletter.
“Daddy, are we getting close?” I won’t even try to guess how many times Eliot asked me some version of that question during our nine hour drive to (and from) Tennessee for Thanksgiving. Waiting is hard for active little boys.
Of course, much waiting is far harder – more painful – than a long card ride to visit people who love you. On Monday I was finally able to see 12 Years A Slave. Of the film’s many powerful themes I was especially struck by the pervasiveness of waiting, of enslaved and oppressed people who had little recourse but to wait. Their waiting was overseen by lying preachers, paternalistic plantation owners, and sadistic overseers. But more than the unimaginable waiting, what overwhelmed me was the presence of hope among many of the enslaved women and men. Despite the attempts by those who claimed ownership over their bodies to dehumanize them, these individuals anticipated an end to their suffering, to their waiting. A shared cup of water, a song sung in the field, a letter written in secret all pointed to an end beyond the waiting. In so many different ways they bore witness that the insufferable waiting would not have the last word, that their lives could never be defined or reduced by the so-called master.
Thanks be to God that we are not forced to wait in similar ways. The longings and anticipations most of us know are so far removed from those portrayed in 12 Years A Slave we could almost overlook the places of waiting in our own lives. That would be a mistake. Waiting is a trait of our cracked humanity within an unjust word. To ignore our longings for restoration, completion, and fulfillment would be to miss something essential about our lives… and our futures.
The Advent season is the reminder that we wait. The world portrayed in 12 Years A Slave may have changed, but suffering and injustices are as pervasive in our world now as they were then. On Christmas we celebrate the Messiah’s coming; during Advent we remember that we await His return. We remember that we live in the gap between how things are and how they will be one day. We remember that we are a waiting people and that our waiting has an end, that a day will come when waiting no longer has a place in our lives. Until that day, let us live as hopeful people whose lives – even during the waiting – are claimed and defined only by the God who who patiently waits for us.
The Christian Seasons Calendar is now being offered with free shipping. When ours arrived a couple of weeks ago, at the beginning of Advent, we spent a few minutes looking through the beautiful artwork that will mark the church calendar for us this coming year.
I love the idea behind this calendar and recommend it highly. Thanks to the folks at University Hill Congregation in Vancouver for making such a beautiful resource available widely.
The priority agenda for Jesus, and for many of us, is not mortality or anxiety, but unrighteousness, injustice. The need is not for consolation or acceptance but for a new order in which men may live together in love. In his time, therefore, as in ours, is the question of revolution, the judgement of God upon the present order and the imminent promise of another one, is the language in which the gospel must speak. What most people mean by “revolution,” the answer they want, is not the gospel; but the gospel, if it be authentic, must so speak as to answer the question of revolution. This Jesus did.
John Howard Yoder, Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.
We’ve scaled back our Christmas gift giving over the past few years. I’m not sure who in my extended family first had the idea, but at some point we began making donations to favorite charities in lieu of presents. At Christmastime we can count on a few greetings cards letting us know which organization or cause received a gift in our name. It’s nice, though for me not altogether altruistic.
For starters, the idea of shopping for gifts near the holidays nearly turns my stomach. At some point we noticed that a time of year that ought to have time for reflection and celebration was instead marked with stress and too much time at the mall and Amazon.com. Eliminating much of our shopping has been one way to reclaim Advent for its more noble possibilities.
We’ve not completely given up Christmas gifts. I look forward to opening a gift or two from Maggie on Christmas morning almost as much as I enjoy picking out something she’ll enjoy (typically a kitchen gadget of some kind). Maggie exchanges small gifts with a couple of friends and Eliot will surely have something to open from his parents this year. That’s about it. We send a letter and photo to our out-of-town friends and family and call it good.
Last year my mom suggested that the extended family direct our Christmas donations to The Water Project, an organization that brings “relief to communities around the world who suffer needlessly from a lack of access to clean water.” Enough folks chipped in and a well in rural Sierra Leone was repaired and now provides predictable water for the community of Yams Farm. Not bad.
Any other tired Christmas shoppers out there? You’ve got three months from today to introduce your family and friends to a new holiday tradition, one that could benefit some of your local or global neighbors. Not to mention the satisfaction of some extra time to receive Christmas for the gift it is.
I was pleased to see my favorite book of Advent readings, Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, on Christianity Today’s recent “Top 5 Books on Advent.” There are plenty of reasons to incorporate this book into your other Advent traditions.
First, the book is a collection of writings, organized by days, by many authors. This morning’s reading was by the Methodist preacher and bishop, William Willimon. Other contributors include Meister Echart, Madeleine L’Engle, John Howard Yoder, Karl Barth, Dorthy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Annie Dillard and- for the Christmas Day reading- St. John Chrysostom. Each of the authors provides a different perspective and each brings significant insight to a season that can feel predictable to many of us.
Watch for the Light also brings a theological depth that is easily overlooked during Advent. During a season of hokey TV specials, bargain shopping and goofy debates about the appropriate greeting (“Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas”) this book is a daily reminder of what Christians around the world look forward to on Christmas Day. An example from today’s reading by Willimon.
Charles Dickens’ story of Scrooge’s transformation has probably done more to from our notions of Christmas than St. Luke’s story of the manger. Whereas Luke tells us of God’s gift to us, Dickens tells us how we can give to others… The Christmas story- the one according to Luke not Dickens- is not about how blessed it is to be givers but about how essential it is to see ourselves as receivers.
Finally- and I suppose this could be true about any collection of daily Advent readings- Watch for the Light is a helpful reminder of the wonder and awe that ought to be inherent to Advent. I’m prone to miss the breathtaking significance of God taking on flesh; it’s a story I’m too familiar with. The observations of these authors give me fresh angles to approach the familiar scriptures and old stories.
If you don’t already have a collection of Advent readings, Watch for the Light may be a great place to start.
Any favorite Advent books you’d care to share?