So Advent begins, the season in which we recognize the state in which we all live, all of the time — this in-betweenness. Lately I’ve been thinking not about Christ’s birth, or even his return (whatever that may mean), but about his death and resurrection.
I’m part of a group Advent reading of Auden’s For the Time Being, and before our first meeting yesterday, I became somewhat fixated on the poem’s epigraph, from Romans 6: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid.”
This verse sounds, fittingly for Advent, as if we are in mid-conversation with Paul. It pulls me not toward the verse itself, or what comes after, but what comes before: Romans 5 and its discussion of Adam and Jesus, the one whose trespass brought sin and death, and the one whose sacrifice brought grace and life. I can’t help then but read the opening sections of For the Time Being (which is all I’ve read so far), about the annunciation, through the lens of Jesus’ death (and resurrection) rather than birth. Which I think is what is intended.
One of my favorite quotes comes from the Anglican writer Evelyn Underhill, who once wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury: “The interesting thing about religion is God.” The italics are mine but that’s how I hear the words, and I can imagine her emphasizing each with a poke in the Archbishop’s chest.
I think of something similar about Advent, reduced to overpriced calendars of jams and dog treats and tiny bottles of booze counting down the days to a federal holiday: “The interesting about Jesus’s birth is his death.” The point of the Incarnation wasn’t the God-baby in the manger, which is the frustrating obsession of the modern church, but the God-man brutally murdered on the cross — and his miraculous, unbelievable, paradoxically life-bringing-for-all resurrection.
This particular theme is also on my mind because I’ve started reading Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus in preparation for a class (just “for fun,” ha) on the Theology of the Cross. I may note my way through Rutledge’s book here on the blog, but for now I will take comfort in the way she makes it sound sensible to focus more on Good Friday than Christmas, even at this time of year.
“Surprisingly,” she writes, “the liturgical season of Advent, rather than Lent, best locates the Christian community. Advent — the time between — with its themes of crisis and judgment, now and not-yet, places us not in some privileged spiritual sanctuary but on the frontier where the promised kingdom of God exerts maximum pressure on the present, with corresponding signs of suffering and struggle.”
Or, as Auden writes, “The Demolisher arrives / Singing and dancing!”