Daily Advent Reflections

Daily Advent Reflection: December 3

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First Thursday of Advent

Psalms 18:1-20 · 18:21-50
Isa. 2:12-22
1 Thess. 3:1-13
Luke 20:27-40

Most of the time, I see the structure of the liturgical year and its various observances as a wonderful gift of our tradition. Waiting. Expectation. Preparation. Hope. These words are closely tied to our understanding of Advent, and they point to the joy, gratitude, and excitement that we feel during the Christmas season. The seasonal bustle of gifts, decorations, and gatherings, along with our anticipation of celebrating the birth of Jesus in community—we anticipate these things, and hold them in memory; they reflect the richness and love in our lives. But this year, familiar customs and simple nostalgia just won’t do.

I am writing this before the results of the 2020 election, and before the availability of a Covid-19 vaccine. In a few days Americans will know what the voters’ decisions have been, and start to discern a probable trajectory forward in our national life. I know what I’m hoping to see, and the suspense is killing me. And in the next several months, hopefully I’ll be rolling up my sleeve and getting a shot that will enable me to break my isolation and engage more fully with others, in person. But for the moment, I am stuck in worry, and located in Ordinary time, in a bad, sad, strange and difficult Ordinary time. How do we step across this threshold of the liturgical year into the beauty of Advent, when it might feel like we are standing in glue? 

What has been some kind of a saving grace is the commitment of groups of people to continue to connect—online, by phone, or email, or card. At St. Dunstan’s All Saints service this year, I got choked up seeing the faces on Zoom, including visual tributes to those who are now in the communion of saints. I wasn’t alone in that—many messages were exchanged that weekend expressing how grateful we are for one another, and how much we care and are cared for.

Today’s passage from 1 Thessalonians 3:1-13 touches us with the emotions that are so similar to what many of us feel—especially Paul’s words in verses 9-12.

"How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you."

Paul has been worried. He has decided to stay in Athens—this letter, among his others, reflects a time when he has left the fledgling communities to undergo his own challenges and persecutions, and leaving them to undergo theirs. He has built close relationships with them, he has taught and supported and delighted in what they have been able to build together. It is not an easy or secure time for any of them. What is touching is the affection and yearning Paul expresses. We can relate to Paul, our honored ancestor in faith—even though sometimes he’s curmudgeonly, judgy and harsh--because he cares so deeply about the community of faith moving forward, about who they were and what they would become. What a beautiful and hopeful thing to see such an outpouring of love from Paul! And in our times, we know that our emotions are very similar, and that we light up inside with happiness and gratitude to God when a well-loved face and voice we’re seeing and hearing at a distance assures us cheerfully, “I’m doing fine!” 

The spiritual meaning of Advent includes anticipation, hope, gratitude, and a feeling of being open to blessing. This year will feel very different. We will see and hear one another over phones and screens. There will be illness, financial stress, frustrations and disappointments of all kinds. We will need to make an extra effort to be kind, to reach out, to find those in need of generosity. Maybe we will set ourselves, alone or with others, to consciously “vigil”, an ancient practice of reflective waiting that has much to offer us. We will step into the hopeful time, embracing this space in our liturgical year knowing that it has always been there to offer us a chance for deeper communion, and also knowing that the One for whom we wait is the inspiration and model for our real-time, real-life love and care for one another.

Gloria Alt
St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church, Madison

Daily Advent Reflection: December 2

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First Wednesday of Advent

Psalms 119:1-24 · 12, 13, 14
Isa. 2:1-11
1 Thess. 2:13-20
Luke 20:19-26

Several years ago I attended a business conference in Washington D.C. It was my first trip to D.C. and I looked forward to the opportunity to do some exploring. One of my journeys took me to the Korean War Memorial. 

I marveled at the life size statues of soldiers walking through rice paddies, while ghostly images of men, women, and children watched on as depicted in incredible etchings in the marble wall surrounding the statues. But, it was the wall that I encountered, as I turned a corner, that took my breath away. There, simply etched in the wall were the words, “Freedom is not free.”

For me, this phrase echoed Jesus’ words that we find in today’s gospel, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (Luke 20:25) As followers of God, we have obligations to both God and the government and we are expected to take these responsibilities seriously.

We are blessed to live in a “free country”, but as we all know, that freedom comes with cost. There are financial costs just like the taxes mentioned in today’s gospel. There are laws and rules that are meant to be followed. 

God gives us “free will.” But, that does not mean that we should do whatever we want. Throughout Scripture, we are given guidelines for living as God’s children. Perhaps, most famous of these words are the Ten Commandments and The Beatitudes. (When I worked with children, I referred to these as the “Thou shalt nots and the thou shalls.”)

As you reflect upon today’s Gospel, it might be helpful to ask yourself these questions: What does living in a free country cost me? How willing am I to fulfill these obligations? How might I grow in my commitment to my country? Likewise, What does free will cost me? How willing am I to follow God? How might I grow in my relationship with God? 

Here is one more question to ponder. What do I do when my duties to God and country conflict? Scripture and tradition teach us that God should always come first. What will you choose?

Kathie Beuscher
St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church, Greendale

Daily Advent Reflection: December 1

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First Tuesday of Advent - December 1

Psalms 5, 6 · 10,11
Isa. 1:21-31
1 Thess. 2:1-12
Luke 20:9-18

Here’s the thing: it’s all too easy to identify the tenants in Jesus’ parable with the people I dislike the most in real life. By “people I dislike the most” I mean those who stand on the other side of the political line that has been feverishly drawn in the sand, or the folks who still cling to that outdated flavor of Christian fundamentalism which I feel compelled to heartily reject because I am an enlightened Episcopalian.

It is also all too tempting to see myself as one of the vineyard owner’s noble servants, as a prophetical figure who attempted to set all of these narrow-minded people straight but to no avail. And perhaps I wouldn’t be completely unjustified in reading Jesus’ parable in this way. After all, verse 19 tells us that the chief priests and the religious teachers knew that Jesus was teaching this parable “against them.” The religious teachers of Jesus’ time seemed to be far more obsessed with law keeping than with love, and just as it is in our day (in certain Christian circles, at least) some laws were highlighted to the detriment of others.

These teachers clearly handpicked and sometimes made up the laws that best suited their own agendas, and they judged and rejected those who did not measure up to their fabricated ideals of holiness. These teachers were more adamant about their own traditions than they were with human flourishing, but their traditions were clearly an innovation in Israel’s religious life.

There is a reason why we don’t read about the Pharisees, for example, in the Old Testament. These new traditions were mostly reactionary stances to the political situation of the day. If these teachers would have had a motto it would have been “Make Israel Great Again.” There is nothing new under the sun, so it seems.

The chief priests of Jesus’ time were no better, being people who directly colluded with the Roman government. They partnered with Rome in oppressing the Hebrew people, especially those who made up the peasant class. The chief priests of Israel used to bear the image of God to the people, but in Jesus’ time they were seen as nothing more than the demonic incarnations of the “imperial domination system,” to borrow a line from Marcus Borg. Yet, if I were to read the parable in this way, the way that flatters my side of things, I would fail to see its wisdom. If I were to read the parable in this way, I too will prove to be someone that Jesus is telling this parable “against.” If I were to read this parable in such a way where I am oblivious to the fact that I am also the type of person that this parable can be told “against,” I would reveal that I have less self-awareness than even the chief priests and religious teachers. At least they knew this parable was being told “against them.” To use Jesus’ words to condemn others as I seek to justify my own agendas (political, denominational, or otherwise), is precisely the type of thing that Jesus is seeking to condemn. The whole point of Jesus’ parable is to condemn condemnation.

As John says, “God did not send his Son to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” To use this parable as means to condemn all the condemners only perpetuates the problem. Furthermore, I imagine that the tenants all thought they could do a much better job running the show if only that pesky vineyard owner, and his servants, and his son were out of the picture.

Just because the tenants felt this way, though, it did not give them the right to act upon the impulse. I do not have the right to think and act in such ways either. If the only way I can envision a better world—a “Thy Kingdom come” sort of situation for this world—is by imagining that all the people I deem as “troublesome” are no longer in it, I will have failed to grasp the scope of God’s dream and the breadth of God’s love.

My friends, as we continue into this season of Advent we must consider how we have played a part in keeping the wheels of condemnation turning, how we are more like the vicious tenants than we would like to admit. How have we wished away the presence of others? How have we deafened our ears to a prophetic word simply because that word was uttered from the mouth of someone we didn’t care to listen to? How have we been oblivious to the image of God in those who don’t see the world quite like we do? How can we break the cycle of condemnation in our own lives?

The Rev. TJ Humphrey
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Beloit