The Second Sunday of Advent, 2014
Professor Dale Martin
Christ Church, New Haven
As some of you know, I grew up in a fundamentalist church in small town Texas. For the first twelve years of my life, my family were members of the Pruett and Lobit Street Church of Christ. Churches of Christ often name themselves after the street they are on, that being about the plainest and least liturgical way they can conceive of naming themselves. South Main Church of Christ; Missouri Street Church of Christ. We attended the Pruett and Lobit Street Church of Christ because an elder of that church was an elementary school principal in town, and he had called my father, who was at the time working in his father-in-law’s hardware store in Atmore, Alabama. The principal was also an elder in the church, and he needed a man, and it had to be a man, who could teach fifth grade but also serve as the song-leader in the church. Those were the requirements of the school-teaching job. (Can you imagine trying to get away with that hiring practice now?) The Churches of Christ don’t use instrumental music, only a cappella singing, so the church had to have a strong song leader to stand in front of the congregation, pitch the hymns properly, wave his hand, and lead the church in singing. My father got the job when I was a negative one year old, so we ended up in Baytown, Texas at the Pruett and Lobit Street Church of Christ.
That church was so conservative—and so wary of anything remotely Catholic, or Episcopalian or Presbyterian or Methodist for that matter—that we were urged from the pulpit not to observe Christmas or Easter, at least not as religious holidays. Christmas derived, we were told, from the Roman celebration of the Saturnalia, a pagan holiday dedicated to the god Saturn. We regularly heard sermons decrying even the yearly celebration of Easter, which was also originally derived from a pagan holiday. After all, if we were truly biblical we were supposed to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus every Sunday, not just once a year. I don’t know how many sermons I heard in my first 12 years of life arguing against any observation of any traditional liturgical holiday. The liturgical year observed by all those damned churches out there was not biblical but derived from previous pagan calendars, so we were to ignore them, at least as far as religious celebrations.
Finally, around the time I was 12 years old, my parents could stand it no longer, so we left that super conservative Church of Christ to attend a, by comparison, moderately fundamentalist Church of Christ. They did not actually celebrate holidays like Christmas and Easter in church, but at least they didn’t preach against them. Yes, even in small Baytown Texas, we had only one high school but there were seven or eight Churches of Christ. We were no better than the joke we used to use about the Baptists. You know what they say: “Let’s make like a Baptist church and split.” So my parents had plenty of choices in different Churches of Christ.
I tell that story to show that one can be a Christian without observing the traditional Christian liturgical year. Scholars of religious studies may talk about different cultures or religions as based on at least two different kinds of liturgical calendar. Perhaps the more “primitive” or universal are the ritual calendars based on the seasons of the year and the life cycle. Many cultures have some kind of holiday right at the winter solstice and again at the summer solstice, then other holidays at the spring equinox and the fall equinox. The Jewish calendar celebrates Passover at a traditional time of spring planting; the festival of tabernacles or booths occurs at harvest time. Christianity eventually developed to celebrate Christmas at the time of the winter solstice and Easter around the spring planting period.
Many Christian churches have agreed on a three-year cycle of scriptural readings, the common lectionary. Thus, I often hear a passage of scripture read here in Christ Church, and I am reminded of a sermon I preached on the same passage maybe six or nine years ago. Another example of our cyclical liturgy.
And, like many traditional cultures and religions, we observe liturgies patterned on the life cycle. We tend to baptize infants not long after they are born. We may run young people through some kind of catechism right around the age of puberty. We celebrate their marriages in church, though that was never done in the ancient church. We bury people or memorialize them when they die, all with the proper rituals and words. In our following of liturgies based on the yearly cycle and the life cycle, we are simply like many cultures and religions around the world.
But in the Church of Christ we were denied those cyclical liturgical patterns because we knew, from reading our Bibles, that those holidays and rituals developed only later, after the period of the formation of the ancient church and the New Testament. In our attempt to be strictly biblical, we were told to ignore such non-biblical rituals such as infant baptism, Christmas, or Easter. We didn’t baptize infants just because they had the fortunate luck to have been born to Christian parents. No, we baptized only those people who decided they wanted to be baptized, though that usually happened, by pure coincidence I’m sure, right around the age of 12 or 13, what the church called the “age of accountability,” when if you weren’t baptized you were likely to die reponsible for all the sins you were certainly going to commit as a teenager and therefore end up in hell. But in any case, baptism was not supposed to be linked to any life cycle—just to individual one-time conversion.
Our religious calendar was the kind one finds all over the Bible: that long line of eschatological time stretching from the creation of the world by God, through the time of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, through the kingdoms of Israel and then Judah, the exile and return, the preaching of John the Baptist, the coming of Jesus, his death, resurrection, and ascension. Then came the dispensation of the church, in which we found ourselves, as we awaited the eventual return of Jesus, the judgment, the establishment of the kingdom of God, and the dispersal of all humanity either to heaven or hell. One long line of history, not cycles of years or lives. One long line of one-time dispensations from the beginning to the end. That was the calendar we lived by, an eschatological calendar with only one beginning and one end.
That long time line is just what we get in our scriptural readings today—if, that is, we extract them from the liturgical year-time in which we now read them. From the prophet Isaiah we read those great lines that inevitably make us hear Handel’s “Messiah” in our heads: “Comfort ye my people…A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ The glory of the Lord shall be revealed…The Lord God comes with might. He will feed his flock like a shepherd, carry them in his bosom and gently lead the mother sheep.”
Then we have the admonition from 2 Peter: Just because it has been years since the promise was made of Jesus returning in glory, don’t give up. It is still in the future. The day of the Lord will come like a thief. One day is like a thousand years for the Lord, and a thousand years like a day. It is coming. He is coming. Do not give up. And then in the Gospel, the announcement by John the Baptist about the advent of Jesus, echoing Isaiah: “I am sending my messenger ahead of you…Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” These passages all illustrate the long, linear time of the beginning and end of all time, eventually calling us toward the future salvation we still await.
At the risk of falling into the somewhat self-congratulatory tone many of us at Christ Church sometimes adopt when we praise this parish we love so much, let me praise this parish I love so much. Here, because we are fortunate to be members of this particular body of Christ, we get to celebrate both these great traditional ways of marking time: the cyclical and the linear. We do read and listen to these texts that announce the long time of history and eschatological future, from the creation of the world to the final redemption of that creation by God through Jesus Christ. But because we read these texts within the cycle of the lectionary every three years, and we do so within the life cycle and yearly cycle of the liturgy, we experience our individual lives and communal life together over and over through the years. By encoding the linear time of the Bible with the cyclical time of the liturgy, we are blessed to celebrate these joys over and over. And the joy just increases, I think, when we can join our present experience, what we do right now, today, with our memories of years of hearing these stories and celebrating these joys. It is Advent, just as it was last year and the year before and the year before. But that will one day come to a close: when the final advent of Jesus Christ renders all pain gone, all tears dried except tears of joy. So as we celebrate Advent in another year, let us look to the future also, when all of us lambs will be gathered into divine arms and saved forever.