The day before the climate change conference began in Paris, Christians of all stripes sang, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” It is coincidental. But COP21 and giving voice to our yearning and hope illuminates this moment when the planet is at a critical juncture due to unsustainable human extraction and consumption? What is the meaning of “Advent” in such a world? This world?
Fr. Thomas Berry and others critique a brand of Advent piety and apocalyptic thinking that is otherworldly:
The salvific, redemptive traditions of the West tend to save humans out of the temporal order or to assign meaning to the temporal order in terms of a ‘salvation history,’ with an ultimate goal outside of time. (The Christian Future and the Fate of Earth, Kindle loc 398)
Reflecting on our hymnody in Advent would, I think, evidence this anticipation of being “saved out” of time and also disclose a counterbalancing hope of “redemption within” the temporal order. For an instantiation of the latter see the concluding hymn for Advent Morning Prayer in our new Lukan Book of Hours:
Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,
Hail in the time appointed, his reign on earth begun!
He comes to break oppression, to set the captive free;
To take away transgression and rule in equity.
(James Montgomery, my emphasis)
Or see the opening hymn for Advent Morning Prayer:
O come, O Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by your advent here.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Note the poetic dependence on earthy imagery!
A fuller examination of our Advent hymn and prayer texts would be interesting and revealing. We might find that some are, as Berry charges, oriented to God “saving us out of the temporal order” or assigning meaning to life in time with an ultimate goal outside of the temporal order. Other songs and prayers and ritual practices may need to be embodied in new awareness of how precious is the life of this planet we humans call Earth. The issues of climate change are pushing us to choose life here, now and to sing and say in new ways “for God so love the world….” The world God loves is not ephemeral and disposable, to be replaced by a discontinuous “heaven.” As we sing in the Great Thanksgiving: “Heaven and earth are full of your glory.”
Historic Christianity denies escapism. Without denying the hope of heaven—the continuity of now and then and here and there (characteristic of most of Charles Wesley’s hymns)—the force of the Hebrew Bible’s prophetic tradition and the long sweep of orthodox and ecumenical Christian liturgy and doctrine is that life on earth and our integral communion with all things is the realm of discipleship on this blue-green ball in an immense universe. Even with cosmologist’s exploring the possibility of “other universes” I continue to believe that the Biblical tradition calls us to assert that ultimately in Love’s universe there is no other “there” for us.
THE THIRD MEDIATION FOR HUMANITY
That is what Thomas Berry illuminates with his “three mediations” (See Chapter 2 in The Christian Future). The first mediation or critical relationship we have had to address is the human-divine for ten thousand years or so. The second is the human-human relationship with all of its challenges in the family, within nations and between nations and cultures for the last several thousand years. The third mediation is uniquely emergent in our time (since the 1970s): it addresses the relationship of humanity with our ecosphere—this planet—that must be resolved if there is to be a continuing human future on the planet. (See loc 451)
Far from being escapist piety, understood in these terms, Berry
To see this third mediation as a preeminent Christian task in our times is to begin formation of a powerful planetary force that will hopefully become effective on the scale needed . . . . Only religious forces can move human consciousness at the depth needed….over the long period of time during which adjustment must be made. (Christian Future, loc 460)
I muse on Berry’s next emphatic statement as the Climate Change conference in Paris continues: “Only religion can measure the magnitude of what we are about.” (loc 460)
No, they won’t be singing Advent hymns at the Paris conference. That is the task of public worship in our churches. Will we sing, preach and pray in such a way that our minds and hearts are caught up in the magnitude of what God is about in the New Creation as COP21 goes on simultaneously with our embodying Advent anticipation?
Pope Francis’ Laudato Si, his encyclical on the care of our common home, is invitation and call for our liturgical engagement and reflection leading to change for the life of the world. Laudato Si teases out the dimensions of our baptismal vocation on a planetary scale. Advent worship happening simultaneously with the Paris meeting could and should deepen our preaching, prayer and awareness that “heaven and earth are full of your glory” is a glory humanity may not tarnish with impunity! Or to put it positively, it is a glory we are called to see and know and cherish “on earth as it is in heaven.”
MARY’S SUBVERSIVE SONG
In Advent the Holy Spirit calls the church to join with Mary’s subversive song.
You have shown the strength of your arm;
you have scattered the proud in their conceit.
You have cast the mighty from their thrones;
you have lifted up the lowly
You have filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich you have sent away empty.
When we sing the Magnificat we dare an alternative reading of the world; we give voice to our doubt that the present “system” is working and put our trust in the one who “has done great things for us.” We leave behind being “nice” and complicit with the existing order of things. We renounce (remember that part of baptism) our pride, privilege and sin of clinging to the extractive economic, political, industrial-consumer system that plunders the poor and the planet. Strangely, the scientific community is joining the prophets in saying, Seek good and not evil that you may live. (Amos 5:14) They are all but unanimous that fossil fuel powered life as we know it is unsustainable and that climate warming will soon be irreversible.
Giving voice to Mary’s subversive song is not most of us learned in Sunday School or catechetical formation. Yet transformation on the scale need requires we too touch the nerve of her daring subversiveness. Many of us at the OSL retreat know the power of singing Rory Cooney’s setting of the Magnificat (Book of Offices and Services, no. 71) where with Mary we sing to God:
My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of you justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn.
Words and music © 1990 GIA Publications, Inc
There is passion there to fuel transformation.
Advent song, Psalms, and liturgy afford us a space to question our complicity with a systems that impoverish God’s creation and to risk finding new ways to embody the apostolic hope of the New Creation already begun in Christ crucified and risen.
How will you and your congregation take up the challenge faced by those gathered in Paris and that we all face on this warming planet? How will our apostolic hope inform and form us for the transformation we pray for in Advent? How will it shape your preaching and teaching and service short term and long term?
December 2, 2015