The season of Advent and I have not always been friends. In fact, the first Advent I experienced in the Episcopal Church almost ended my relationship with the Episcopal Church. You see, I grew up in a Christian tradition that treated Advent as the beginning of the Christmas season. Starting on Advent One, we were singing Christmas carols, making our way through all the old favorites. The tradition felt perfect – instead of focusing on a secularized Christmas, the Christmas hymns during Advent reminded us all of the “reason for the season.” Besides, there are so many familiar Christmas hymns, that there would be no way to enjoy them all during the short two weeks of Christmastide. Since our tradition also did not have services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, you had to squeeze in all the “Joy to the Worlds,” “Oh Holy Nights,” and “Away in the Mangers,” that you could before the holiday was over. In that tradition, Advent felt like a family gathering around a fire, singing songs of familiarity and comfort.
Of course, the Episcopal Church we landed in did nothing of the sort. The songs I heard during that first Advent were dreadful. They were slow and full of melancholy. They sounded as though whomever wrote them was hunkered down, alone, in a room without a fireplace. They had a hollow, haunted feeling to them, and the tunes were difficult to follow. I remember that first Advent feeling like all the joy had been taken out of Christmas, and all that was left was a sad sense of unfamiliarity.
So, if that were my first experience of Advent in the Episcopal Church, why in the world would I agree to having not just Lessons and Carols today – but Advent Lessons and Carols? I not only agreed to, but begged for, Advent Lessons and Carols because this service attempts to capture what the whole season of Advent does in the Episcopal tradition. Advent is not meant to be four weeks of celebrating the birth of the Christ Child. Advent is meant to be four weeks of helping us understand the enormity of what happens on the fateful night of Christ’s birth. And so, like the people of faith always have, we go back and tell the story. We tell our story. We set the scene of Jesus’ birth by using our story to understand the context of the monumental event of the nativity.
First, we go all the way back to the garden of Eden. Then, we remember the words of the prophets who told of a messiah, an anointed one from the house of David – and yet, better than David. We hear words of comfort, words of preparation, and words of promise. We hear of a young, inexperienced woman and the announcement that she gets of a coming child. And we even hear from Jesus himself, who tells us of the call for repentance in the face of fulfilled promise. All of that – from Eden, to failed kings and judges, to wearied exiled people, to scared, young women, to the message of repentance all are needed to remember why that infant in a humble manger is so important. His story is bigger. His story starts long before his own story starts. His story is our story.
I am especially grateful for the rooting that Advent provides this year because I have been feeling pretty rootless lately. With all the noise of world news lately, we can easily become lost. We can get caught up in the heat of politics, pandering, and promises and forget to whom we belong. We can see destruction all around us and wonder whether hope is lost. Into the face of that loss, destruction, and longing, Isaiah says today, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” At the time of Isaiah’s oracle, the people of God had been in a time of high tensions. “…The northern kingdom of Israel and the Aramaeans of Damascus tried to force Judah and King Ahaz to join their rebellion against Assyria. On Isaiah’s advice, Ahaz refused; but then, instead of joining the rebel alliance, he called Assyria to intervene.”[i] Of course, this led to disaster and eventually the end of the northern kingdom. You can imagine Isaiah’s frustration with a king who does not trust God, and who only half-way follows God’s instructions. And with the massive destruction of the northern kingdom, Isaiah could have been tempted to lose hope. But the text we get today is not a text of damnation or even chastising. Instead, Isaiah is able to hold on to hope. In the midst of what feels like total destruction, Isaiah proclaims, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
Those of you who read my blog know I am not all that great with plants. Most plants survive only a few weeks, maybe months if I am lucky. The running joke is that I pretty much have a brown thumb instead of a green thumb. The one exception is a little bonsai plant that my husband and I were given as a wedding present. Somehow, miracle of all miracles, I have managed to keep that plant alive for the fifteen years since our wedding. I had taken to calling it our “love plant,” because I surmised that only our love was keeping the plant going. But when we moved to Williamsburg, having the brown thumb that I do, I assumed that the plant would be just fine sitting in my car for a few days. When we finally moved into our house, I realized something was wrong. The heat of the day must have scorched the plant, because every leaf was turning brown. Within a week of moving in, all the leaves had fallen and even those 15-year old branches were looking withered beyond repair. I was pretty sure the plant was dead, but I couldn’t bear to toss our love plant. For some odd reason, I kept watering the plant, hoping something would happen. But even plant-lovers who saw my plant looked at me with pitying eyes when I showed them the plant. Two months later, I looked over at our sad, presumably dead plant, and at the base of that bonsai plant were two little new shoots of growth. I couldn’t believe it! After a period of mourning, new life was emerging. Hope emerged that our withered love plant might just have a little more life left.
Isaiah’s promise is similarly powerful. “Out of something that appears finished, lifeless, left behind, comes the sign of new life – a green sprig.”[ii] As Christians, we certainly understand the green sprig from the stump of Jesse to be Jesus Christ. He is the only one who can redeem and bring new life. He is the one who brings us hope. In a few weeks, we will not just be celebrating the birth of a cute baby. We will be celebrating the shoot from the stump of Jesse – a branch that will bring new life out of destruction, pain, and suffering. In our world of destruction, pain, and suffering, I cannot imagine a better message of hope.
Once I understood the significance of Advent in the greater faith narrative, my years-long loathing of Episcopal Advent began to fade. The more reserved songs of Advent slowly began to feel less like dirges and more like raw, vulnerable songs of hope. Suddenly the soprano voices singing the high notes of “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree,” the phrase, “Most highly favored lady,” and the comforting alleluias of “Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” became welcome, comforting friends, and not the nemeses I once imagined. Finally, after years of dread, instead, I found Advent in the Episcopal Church to be a gift – a time set apart to gather around with family and tell the old stories – our story, and prepare our hearts for the new shoot from the root of Jesse.
The telling of our story is not just important for understanding who the Christ Child is. The telling of our story is also important for understanding who we are in relation to the Christ Child and the world. When we understand ourselves to be redeemed by the shoot of the stump of Jesse, the way we operate in the world changes. We look at a world of destruction, pain, and suffering through the lens of hope. And when we look through the lens of hope, we are not a defeated people, but a people who see promise, even when others cannot see that same promise. We know what the shoot from the stump of Jesse has done, is doing, and will do. And that means our whole way of being changes. Our story changes. Our song changes. And we change too. Thanks be to God!
[i] Bruce C. Birch, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 27.
[ii] Stacey Simpson Duke, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 28.