Monday, December 21, 2015

Advent Reflection Night

As you may have noticed, I did not blog this Advent. Instead, I spent the time doing intentional work on personal relationships. I was asked by the leadership team at my church, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, to give an Advent reflection. My prompt was the final two verses of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel:"

"O come, Desire of nations, bind In one the hearts of all mankind; Bid Thou our sad divisions cease, And be Thyself our King of Peace.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear."

The evening also included the collects of the four weeks of Advent. The collect for the fourth week of Advent is also relevant here:

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

And now, the reflection:

My name is Sara Nesbitt. I am a member here at St. Mark’s and I work in the Center for Social Concerns at Gannon University. Though I myself am Episcopalian, my office is founded on Catholic Social Teaching and is charged with ensuring the University carries out the mission to which God calls us. This mission includes teaching and celebrating the dignity of all humanity, an option for the poor and vulnerable, and solidarity. My job is to inspire and equip students to work for social change - a collaborative effort to attack the root causes of injustice. We are sister offices with campus ministry to keep us grounded in our faith, but a distinctly different office to allow us more freedom to challenge existing power structures.

My work (and passion!) requires me to look at the world, at its current events, and help students and the University process these things and respond from a place of grace and faith. I cannot look at tonight’s hymn without also looking at the world in which we are singing it. I come to you tonight to help contextualize a response. I come to you tonight informed by my work at Gannon and my faith as nurtured in the Episcopal church, most recently at St. Mark’s - but speaking for myself and the way in which I am experiencing the world. I hope and pray that you find some value in it too.

“O come desire of nations.” One needs only to hear the news to know that Christ is not the desire of all nations. This is true when one looks at the rise of the Islamic State and their murdering those who have a different conception of God or Allah than they do. It is equally true when one sees western Christians turning away those in need of a safe space that will allow them to live their lives in peace - just as the Jewish people crying out about their oppression in earlier verses of tonight’s hymn are.

“Bind in one the hearts of mankind.” There are no lines of ethnicity, religion, or citizenship in this plea. It is simply individuals within the whole human family. It is easy to make broad generalizations about people you don’t know. Generalizations become harder - but truly binding hearts together becomes easier - when you get to know individuals like my friend Almedina, my work-study Malik, or my classmate Marwa.

“Bid thou our sad divisions cease.” In the wake of violence in Paris, the Central African Republic, and San Bernadino or Ferguson, Chicago, and Mizzou, it’s easy to see that the world’s divisions are as deep as they were when tonight’s hymn was written centuries ago and Isaiah was prophesying about the birth of the Messiah millennia ago.

I do not have professional theological training. I am not equipped to stand up here tonight and tell you what God’s salvific plan for all of humanity is. I do have some academic training and try to be faithful to what I hear God saying through scripture and through the world. I am equipped to tell you that I believe God’s arms are open wider than we can imagine. I cannot explain to you the nuances of the original Greek, but I can tell you that in Luke chapter 19, Jesus says that “today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”

What I do know is that in its purest form, this hymn is a prayer. It is not enumerating things that God is going to force on us. The incarnation is not a threat. Christ is not the Elf on the Shelf, disappearing from our homes every night to report back to God the Father to keep a tally board of good versus bad behavior so that we get exactly what we want on Christmas morning. This hymn is a prayer. We, along side the prophets who give us such beautiful, poetic language for God-made-human, the hymnodist who wrote the original Latin text at a point equidistant between the birth of Christ and our remembrance of it, the nineteenth century chorimaster of St. Mark’s college, Chelsea who put the hymn in its present form, and those of us here tonight - we are begging Christ our brother to bind in one the hearts of all [hu]mankind.

Binding in one the hearts of all [hu]mankind does not mean that we will all suddenly agree. I have no illusions that the students that I work with will suddenly start reporting their service hours appropriately - they have different priorities for the outcome of their service than I do. I have no illusions that we are going to wake up tomorrow with an ideal slate of candidates - we’ve had factions since before the constitution was written. And I have no illusions that we are all going to suddenly agree on what to do about gun control, the Syrian refugee crisis, or even if we should drink our coffee black or with cream and sugar. We come from different life stories and have unique experiences that shape our worldviews, and they all are valid.

I do pray that we all can come to a place where we can sing this hymn and wholeheartedly beg Christ to be the desire of nations, to bind in one the hearts of all humankind; to bid our sad divisions cease, and truly reign as king of peace. We might have different definitions of what that looks like based on our own experiences, and that’s okay.

But - it is not enough that we ask for these things. Clearly praying is important - please don’t misunderstand. But prayer is not simply a time of thanking God for what we have and asking God for what we don’t. Prayer is also a time in which we are listening for God’s call on our lives. How do we take what we learn from this quiet time with our creator and allow it to impact our life in the world? What does binding the hearts of [hu]mankind mean in our lives in the world? How can we effect the cessation of sad divisions?

I don’t mean that God has serious repercussions for us if we don’t go out and sign petitions or stand in picket lines. I will remind us that the collect for the fourth week of Advent that we just heard speaks of preparation. Amidst a worldly season in which we are so caught up in preparing celebrations and decorations and gifts for people we love - or that we feel an obligation to, this hymn asks us to prepare internally and let that preparation reflect externally.

I am not asking you to put one more thing on your to-do list in this exceptionally busy season. I’m not going to do the popular thing of asking you to take something off your to-do list either. Instead, I’m going to tell you what I’m working on and why - maybe you’ll find some wisdom in it.

Advent - especially this Advent - is for me about internal preparation and relationship. So far during this reflection I have focused on the seventh verse of the hymn. I’d like to bring your notice now to the last verse - which is also the first verse. It is a verse of seeking relationship - of asking Christ to make himself more fully known in the world. A time of looking around us at the people we know, the people we have some connection with, and the people we share the planet with, and asking Christ to be among us.

What does that relationship look like? That is up to you. What I can tell you is that an intentional internal preparation of spending time in relationship with Christ will lead us naturally to improved human relationship - of more effectively binding our hearts in one.

There will still be the divisions of opinion, still disagreement - but it will be founded out of a true desire to seek the best for all people.