“Brothers and sisters: Before we open our hymnals and sing the many grim verses of ‘Now Cometh the Hard Part,’ . . . the congregation is kindly requested to indulge in a brief interlude of soul-replenishing joy.” (David Remnick, in The New Yorker, Nov. 19, 2012 issue)
These wonderful words describe to a T the annual ending of the church year and the annual opening of new cycle of readings with Advent, a four week interlude of joy.
But the fact is, Remnick wrote them as the intro to his comments on last week’s election. The congregation he is addressing is every citizen in the US. And he warns us all that the Hard Part, far graver than the fiscal cliff, is global warming, the consequences of which have come painfully into focus in the natural catastrophe known as Sandy.
The church year ends, and the new one begins, with various apocalyptic readings. And most of us who preach are at a loss for words in response to them. In our speechlessness these dire words are omitted, left unremarked upon, lost, in favor of the soothing promises of peace found in Isaiah, the poetic imagery about messengers, the yearning hope that justice will, vaguely, arrive. In this, Scottish theologian John Bell says, we turn Bethlehem into a Baby Shower with no significance beyond itself.
This year, more than many, the Hard Part presses us for attention. Advent arrives in the wreck of the Rockaways, shattered homes too close for comfort, despairing people begging for relief. Preaching a vague peace will not satisfy anyone. And Remnick reminds us that this is only the latest in a string of impactful weather events related to global warming – the European heat wave of 2003 (which left 50,000 people dead), the Russian heat waves and forest fires of 2010, the droughts last year in Texas and Oklahoma. The German insurer Munich Re estimates that the cost of weather-related events in North America over the past three decades amounts to thirty-four billion dollars a year. Harder to measure is the human toll.
The gospel reading to end the cycle is directly applicable. In it Jesus and Pilate are talking. Pilate asks Jesus, Are you king of the Jews? Jesus asks Pilate, Do you ask this on your own or did others tell you about me? Pilate answers, I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation has handed you over to me. What have you done? And Jesus answers, For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asks him, ‘What is truth?’
And there we have it, the powerful avoiding the question by questioning the truth. As the old hymn says, Truth forever on the scaffold. And the scaffold has always held more than the body of Jesus, it has always held the world.
In my tradition it is hard to relate Christmas to Easter, Advent to crucifixion. The carols people love to sing are not the ones with words about the Gate that leads from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, from Eden to Gethsemane. The shepherds we cherish are washed and wide-eyed, not grizzled and hard-bitten. We take Jesus’ own words, that his kingdom is not of this world (meaning his power is not from this world) and we manipulate that to say his kingdom is about life after this world, not in it, that he comes as a friend but not an agent of social change, that, in his teaching us of a kin-dom in which we, too, have a share of the Spirit, he is not demanding our diligent and responsible care for the Creation.
What justice do we allow ourselves to breathe in deeply at his birth? What peace and at what cost, do we allow to interrupt our agendas? What power do we see in Christ, if we eliminate his urgency?
Remnick writes: for the most part, the accumulating crisis of climate change has been treated as a third-tier issue. And like a Hebrew prophet, he warns us that there will always be real and consuming issues to draw our attention away from this dire and looming catastrophe: marital scandals in the CIA, fiscal battles, immigration bills, bombs and intrigue in some hot spot. But all of this distracts us from the sustained sense of urgency climate change requires. The warnings of Scripture are that it is for this level of menace, and really only for this level of menace, that Christ comes into the world, not to whisper soothingly to each of us in moments of private distress, but to inspire us all in urgent hours of apocalyptic terror.
Part of Jesus’ exceptionalism is the suppleness of his moral thinking. He does not separate life into either/or categories – sin or redemption, apocalypse or heaven, but holds within his heart and mind chaos as the crucible for birth, hope rising in terror, justice calling us in the wreckage of the Rockaways.
Part of American exceptionalism, Remnick says, is an especially virulent form of magical thinking, that a difficulty delayed is a difficulty allayed. American exceptionalism includes the truth that America has been the exceptional polluter and is therefore exceptionally responsible for leading the effort to heal the planet. It is a colossal task. One might say, Messianic. It will require enlisting science, engineering, technology, regulation, legislation, and persuasion. It will require pooling our gifts of Spirit to accomplish deliverance of the planet. And all of this requires the power of truth in the telling of our story.
We have seen the chaos. The birth we are awaiting, and the truth we need to hear, is that soul-replenishing joy enters the world, and us, only when we lift up the truth of dire need, so that people of the truth can hear and respond.