Most of you who have any experience with Christianity are probably aware that we’ve just entered Advent, the 4-week period leading up to the celebration of Christmas.
Advent is traditionally seen as a time of waiting. A season of preparation.
Liturgically, it’s the beginning of a new year in the life of the Church. It marks the start of a calendar based on celebrating the significant events in the Jesus event.
I’d guess for most of us that historically has meant something from a largely individual perspective. It’s a time for us to consider our faith. To think about the “reason for the season” and “what Jesus means in our lives.”
For a lot of folks from more evangelical traditions, it can be a time of deep guilt-tripping. Of reminding people of all the ways they haven’t lived up to the church’s expectations.
And for some, sadly, it’s still a time to double down on the culture wars against those they imagine as persecuting their inherent privilege.
But maybe we should think about Advent, especially this Advent, a little differently.
Maybe we should see it as a time not just for us as individuals to ready ourselves for the coming of Jesus, but for our churches to prepare for a new age.
As a time of waiting and preparing for a truly new beginning.
The 500-year rummage sale
In her brilliant book The Great Emergence, author and public theologian Phyllis Tickle suggested that roughly every 500 years Christianity undergoes what she called a massive rummage sale—a sea change in which the institution fundamentally reinvents itself.
The cycles are pretty easy to observe: just looking back to the time of Jesus, we can see these epochal swings about every five centuries: the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE, the Great Schism of 1054, and the launch of the Protestant Reformation in 1517. Similar historical cycles have played out in the pre-Christian era as well.
And here we stand on the threshold of the third decade of the 21st Century, barely three years removed from the quincentenary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Church.
It’s no secret that Christianity has felt its sands shifting for the past several years. Postmodernity has brought with it new ways of thinking about institutions in general and the church in particular.
But the global pandemics of 2020—Covid-19 and white nationalism—have perhaps catalyzed a new movement that will shape the future of the church for the next half a millennium.
It’s the end of the world as we know it
For those of you who come from traditions that follow the Revised Common Lectionary—the three-year cycle of scripture reading for both public worship and private devotion—the gospel text for the first Sunday of Advent this year was Mark 13:24-37, what is often referred to as the “little apocalypse” or Olivet Discourse.
In the passage, Jesus is speaking to his disciples about the signs of a coming age…a time when the world as they knew it would be radically altered. Cue REM.
I bring this up because the passage—like almost all apocalyptic writing—has often been broadly misinterpreted as meaning that Jesus is describing the end of time and his return to take some people to heaven and send others to eternal conscious torment.
But apocalypse, as a literary genre, really refers more accurately not to the ultimate end of history, but to the end of an era or a span of time. It uses imagery and metaphor to evoke understandings particular to its original audience. (For an excellent primer on apocalyptic writing I highly recommend this episode of The Bible For Normal People podcast.)
So when Jesus is talking in the first part of that passage (largely paraphrasing Isaiah 13:10) about skies being darkened and stars falling from heaven, he’s not talking literally about the earth and humanity being eliminated, but a coming shift in society, culture, and worldview that will elementally change the way people perceive themselves and the world they live in.
It’s not the end of the world…it’s just the end of the world as they know it.
An apocalyptic moment?
As it begins to look like vaccines for Covid-19 may be on the horizon and our time of restricted living may have an end of some kind in sight, churches are starting to think about what their world will look like post-pandemic.
Many—perhaps even most—are banking on simply returning to their prior practices.
Practices which, by the way, have seen the church in decline both in numbers and cultural influence for decades.
But some are seeing this as an apocalyptic moment. As an opportunity to turn the tide on almost a century of self-serving theology where the salvation of the individual soul was the main point, and to embrace a more Jesus-centered ethic of justice, compassion, and mercy that sees the collective human experience as the highest end.
One that strives for the common good of all people rather than the selective good of the religious.
An epic opportunity
Over the past 9-10 months I’ve been in many, many conversations with visionary leaders and imaginative people who see this time as a literally epic opportunity for the church.
Not just a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make significant changes, but one that only comes along once in an age.
The tide of modernity has turned. The underlying diseases of Christendom and colonialism behind the symptoms of decline and irrelevance have been laid bare.
The question is, will we see the opportunity before us for what it is and embrace the ways of a new era, or will we retreat to what is comfortable and commodious?
Will we go back to our cozy habits that keep the difficulties of those disadvantaged by our society safely at a distance?
Or will we embrace the challenges of overturning the systems and structures of power and privilege that marginalize and oppress our siblings?
Can we fundamentally reject our collaboration with empire and rediscover the revolutionary way of Jesus?
Winter is here, but summer is near
My hope is that Advent 2020 will not just be a time of familiar liturgies and lighting candles and comforting hymns, but a true time of preparing for the world as we know it to change.
The shepherds in the fields surrounding Bethlehem couldn’t have known the movement that would be ignited behind the homeless child of refugee parents born in that barn in their village.
They could never have imagined the empowerment people like them would experience just a few decades later when Jesus not only preached, but physically demonstrated God’s alignment with the poor and the outcast.
Now is the time for us, the people of that movement that quite literally changed the world as those of his time knew it, to do it all over again.
It’s time to darken the skies of systems that advantage wealth and privilege and knock the stars of greed and power from their heavens.
The fig tree is starting to bud.
And even as winter falls upon us, summer is near.
In January 2021, I’ll be migrating this blog from joewebbwrites.com to a more content-rich site at accidentaltomatoes.com, which is currently hosting my bi-weekly podcast and links back to this site for blog articles. I’ll be posting details about that soon, but if you want to continue to keep up with these writings, please be sure to subscribe to accidentaltomatoes.com for email updates whenever new content is posted! Meanwhile, you’ll still be able to access all of our archived articles here at joewebbwrites.com. Thanks for reading! —Joe