Whether it’s on a personal level or a collective one, this equation holds remarkable truth when you fill in the sum with JOY. But it’s not for me a naturally intuitive equation—since when I’m grieving, I’m never looking or hoping for anything as grand as JOY—instead, just a little relief from the pain in the form of a good night’s sleep or some peace of mind is all I can usually even think to hope for.
What does this have to do with Advent 2020—the beginning of a new church year? In Advent (the four weeks before Dec. 25), we normally focus on how INCARNATION (or God infusing ordinary life with divinity) is the beginning of a new way of seeing the world and ourselves. In somewhat typical times, newness and babies and mysterious stars shining in humble places makes for joy simply because we’re all weary and in want of some Wonder as the year winds down.
But for me, I’m not needing to focus on incarnation during Advent this year. No, not in the midst of a global pandemic—whose viral, economic and politicizing forces are slicing through our norms and security and predictability and health like an axe through an acorn. No. Frankly, I’ve been dying to get to Advent so we could remember again, as an entire people, the Pattern of our Deep Belonging to God Forever.
For Advent is historically the time for us as religious folk to go back to what we call COVENANT, or what I think of as the “never-ending-and-always-there-to-catch-you” relationship with the divine. Our covenant runs back through all the saints and sinners you can think of, including the prophets of the Hebrew Bible (First Testament), King David, Queen Esther, Judge Deborah, and Father Abraham. Their covenant (or forever relationship) with God gets played out in personal and collective ways in a classic pattern of threeness, whose remembering has sustained millions of humans for thousands of years: Here is the Pattern of our Deep Belonging:
1) know you are here for a reason (chosen),
2) know that you will fall (destruction or collapse or dissolution—often not due to anything you did “wrong”),
3) know that you will be found and restored by God more whole than you were when you started (paradise).
This is the entire narrative of the nation of Israel from Genesis to Malachi. The last chapter of Malachi speaks of the people who remember this covenant when difficulty comes, and who are intentional about trying to live from this place of remembered-covenant. Scripture says that balancing and centering ourselves in our belonging to God, during times of travail and chaos, will allow us to be opened to experiencing
“the sun of righteousness rising, with healing in its wings, and feeling the joy of little calves leaping out from the confines of their stalls.” Malachi 4:2
I’ve never been around baby cows when they were let out into springtime fresh fields to mo-o-o-ove, but it sounds like something I’ve got to see!
Fr. Richard Rohr writes of this three-part pattern of universal transformation, whether personal or collective, as 1) order, 2) disorder, and 3) reorder. [https://cac.org/order-disorder-reorder-2016-02-23/] And here is where that lovely church custom of the Jesse Tree comes in, helping us count down the days to the Christmas miracle of our own unique incarnation of God’s love, just as Jesus pointed out to us so long ago.
The Jesse Tree is daily faith practice during Advent [https://www.faithward.org/jesse-tree/] in which we recall who God has been through it all—the thick and the thin times in our own lives and in the biblical record. The idea of scrolling through personal and collective history allows us to see how God was able to, over and over again, fulfill the covenant (faithfulness to us) by helping to establish newness out of disorder. The image of new growth coming forth from a dead stump is what we frequently point to:
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots…” Isaiah 11:1
Jesse, of course, was the father of King David. And the prophet Isaiah was encouraging folks to remember the three-fold pattern in their own time. The Davidic Dynasty likely appeared to be extinguished forever for the people back then, much like life as we know it appears to be extinguished forever for us now in many ways, but the prophet says,
Wait! That’s not who our God is! And when you remember that you are a part of the reordering that is coming to our planet because of this crazy time of pandemic disorder, take heart! Your everyday choices matter! Take bolder steps than ever in loving, forgiving, celebrating, and praying. For this is how we push back the darkness and hold onto Joy.
Thanks be to God, again and again and again.
p.s. For more ideas for worship this Sunday, resources for kids, or creating your own Jesse Tree