Speaking Expectation in a Season of Fear
All over the world, Christian churches are currently celebrating Advent—a season of reflection and expectation marked every year during the weeks preceding Christmas. Across the US, Advent includes a wide variety of traditions from candle lighting ceremonies to special hymns and prayers. Though not every church specifically calls their celebration Advent, all Christian traditions celebrate the Christmas season with an acknowledgement and celebration of the joy of expectation given to Mary, the mother of Jesus, by an angel announcing that she would conceive by the Holy Spirit and bear the Messiah—the long-awaited savior of God’s people and the world.
The posture of joyful anticipation that is most visible in Christian communities during Advent is deeply connected to both the celebration of the coming of the one we believe is the Messiah foretold in the prophetic speech of our spiritual ancestors in Jewish traditions and a hope for his return to redeem what has been broken by our human frailty. Year after year during Advent (and often Sunday after Sunday the rest of the year), we preach joyful anticipation with a confidence that expresses and inspires hope for a better future regardless of our current circumstances. It is a powerful means of augmenting and instigating joy in the midst of sorrow, but this year my ministry with people whose lives are, and will certainly continue to be, most impacted by policies that consistently marginalize, erase and vilify them compels me to ask if joyful anticipation is enough.
After suffering eight long years of congressional obstructionism on the federal level coupled with overwhelmingly abusive state-level legislation including a record number of anti-woman policies, the mis-deployment of religious freedom protections to target LGBTQIA+ people, voter suppression, and harmful trends in education policy, the people in our pews enter this season of joyful expectation with the prospect of a president-elect whose entire campaign was bathed in hateful rhetoric against almost every marginalized community in the United States. For many people of color, women, poor people, people with disabilities, religious minorities, queer and trans people and others in this current moment, there can be no blind joy and expectation because, in material reality, our very lives are at stake!
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), in the ten days following the presidential election there was a spike in hate-based harassment and intimidation that resulted in nearly 900 reported incidents. SPLC further reports that many of these incidents included references to the president-elect’s new America. Amidst talks of Muslim registries and cabinet appointments that align completely with the frightful rhetoric of the president-elect’s campaign and the normalization of white nationalist sentiments in much of our consumed media, it is no mystery why people feel unsafe.
How, then, do we celebrate with joyful anticipation the coming of the Messiah when what we see on our current horizon is leadership that is at best unconcerned with our lives and at worst, committed to doing more violence against us than we have endured in the last fifty years or more? How can we celebrate a coming Messiah with wistful longing for the time when “the government shall be upon his shoulders” (Isaiah 9:6) when the shoulders upon which it currently rests seem inadequate and willing to throw us into the fire to continue to warm themselves and uses misinterpretations of our faith to underpin their narratives? How can we speak with integrity about joyful expectation of a saving Christ when we feel like expectation has betrayed us when we need saving NOW?
I ask these hard questions not out of fear or hopelessness, but in order to remind Christian leaders in complicated contexts that not only is it ok to ask such questions—it is imperative for effective ministry. This is not the time for theologies of ease and comfort. This is a time for honest and sometimes difficult reflection and communication. We can preach expectation while fully acknowledging the world we are living in right now. The historical and political moment demand it. In fact, I contend that it is only by holding that tension throughout this season that we can hope to help make real change in the lives of the people who trust us with the care of their souls. But what does that look like?
What if, this Advent, we shift our celebration so that it encompasses the narrative of the birth of Jesus, the joyful anticipation of the coming Messiah AND the expectation that we will rise as the Body of Christ to do the work of restoration for which this moment so desperately calls? What if, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus and eagerly await the coming of Messiah, we are also reminded that perhaps we are part of the coming that we are awaiting?
As an ordained minister and a reproductive justice advocate, I encourage us to stand up against the current trend of attempts to use our faith as a tool of oppression and justification for violence just as our awaited redeemer did. As the Body of Christ it is incumbent upon us to refuse to let the lives and struggles of any of our family be made invisible out of fear of speaking and acting on their behalf.
From my perspective. the celebration of anticipation for this moment must include expectation of the ways in which the Body of Christ—the people of God—might show up at the intersection of race, class, gender, ability, religious diversity and sexuality. I serve this Advent season in expectation of the Body of Christ regaining its voice to address systemic poverty and racism, sexism and heterosexism, hyper criminalization and mass incarceration of people of color, the need for accessible and comprehensive health care for all people, comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education for all students, a living wage for all workers, safe food and water for all from Flint to Standing Rock, bodily autonomy and safety, and resistance to unnecessary privatization of jobs and schools that support the families of the people I serve.
Only by recognizing the responsibility of the Body of Christ through this lens can I fully rejoice in the idea that “the government shall be upon [Christ’s] shoulders,” because I know that as of now, that same government is still ours to command as seekers of Justice. We are not beaten. We can expect to see the goodness of the God in the land of the living because we—the Body of Christ and all of our family seeking justice—have the power to bring it about.
This Advent season, for the sake of relevance and impactful ministry, let us consider how to live more fully into our identity as followers—indeed as the very material body—of the one who spoke against the consumption of the vulnerable by the jaws of a corrupt Empire. Let our joyful anticipation of the expected Reign of God include an expectation of our own actions toward bringing it into existence.