Monday, 4 November 2013

Advent: a season in search of a theology

“Advent: a season in search of a theology”: There may be a bit of a problem in the title.

“Theology” is one of these words that’s received a bit of a bad press lately. Often, “theology” becomes the excuse for some Christian to avoid dealing with our contemporary world.
  • Some Christians, for example, use “theology” as their excuse to oppose the ordination of women.  
  • Some Christians use “theology” as their excuse to be prejudiced against GLBT people.      
  • Some Christians use “theology” as their excuse for creating a false opposition between Christian faith and science.  
  • Some Christians use “theology” as their excuse for not relating positively to people of other faiths, and even at times for not relating positively to other Christians.
I’m not talking about that negative, heavy-handed thing when I use the word “theology”.
The word “theology” essentially means: “talking about God” or “ideas about God”. And that’s the way I’ll use this word in this article.  Theology, in short, is “ideas about God”, preferably “ideas about God” expressed in an inclusive, open way, rather than any heavy-handed “thou shalt not” sort of thing.
Advent, this time when we prepare for Christmas, is a season in search of a theology. It’s a season in search of an appropriate idea about God.
In the broader community, we find a time of frantic - if enjoyable - activity for many people in Advent. Retailers and advertisers pressure shoppers to buy their wares. Most of us go to great lengths during this lead-up to Christmas in buying gifts, buying food, preparing food, attending (or hosting) Christmas functions (or end-of-year functions). For many, there is a time of frantic activity. But (to be honest) most of us enjoy it really, even if we do complain about it.
This contrasts with the way Advent is often observed in some churches. In many churches, Advent is a very austere time, almost a mini-Lent. The sense of joyful preparation for the good news of Christmas is sometimes muted. Instead, we hear a dour message of judgement coming through, as if the good news we’re preparing to hear is just an afterthought.
  • For one example, I know of some churches where Christmas carols are not sung until Christmas Eve at the earliest. I prefer not to do that, but to sing Christmas carols during Advent alongside the hymns of Advent. (Maybe not on the First Sunday of Advent, though.) 
  • To give another example, some churches give a heavy emphasis during the early part of Advent on the Second Coming. This often raises the questions for many people of how literally, or how otherwise, the church regards the Second Coming? While the Second Coming is a powerful metaphor for our faith that the future is firmly in God’s hands, we have a real problem when we regard the Second Coming in an overly literal manner. This often leads to various forms of religious lunacy, particularly when it is accompanied by a strong theme of judgement – and judgementalism. (My own feeling here is that churches need to be very careful about teaching anything - whether to children in Sunday Schools or RE, to teenagers in Confirmation classes or youth groups, to adults in sermons, or to anyone in the church’s liturgy - that it expects people to later “unlearn” in adult study groups. There are too many worshippers who never attend adult study groups. There are also far too many adult study groups that are overly timid about challenging inappropriately literal understandings of scripture.)
As I said, there are some churches that treat this time of Advent as almost a mini-Lent, as a dour, austere time of judgement that contrasts negatively with the hope, optimism, and generosity that are celebrated in the wider community. This, I believe, is one example of a time (one example out of many) when the broader, secular community has far better religious instincts than many churches. 
Thus, I believe Advent is a season in search of a theology; a season searching for a compelling idea about God.
In searching for a positive theology for Advent, I believe that a good place to start is with the generosity that we see celebrated within the community. Advent, the period leading up to Christmas, is a time when the community celebrates generosity.
  • It’s a time of year when many people consciously try to be generous, to be tolerant, to be considerate of others.  
  • Of course, this is a generosity, a tolerance, and a consideration that should be practised all year round. 
Still, in many ways, there is a greater sense of generosity around the community at his time of year. Even if the generosity sometimes verges on the extravagant and the “over the top”, there is as a spirit of giving about. That’s why most charities do an appeal at Christmas, even if their major appeal is at another time of the year. 
At Advent, I believe the thrust of our celebrations as the Christian Church should be on the generosity of the living God toward the world.
  • We celebrate God’s wildly extravagant generosity that resulted in his great act of self-giving through Jesus Christ.  
  • We prepare to encounter Christ, not in fear, but in joyful expectation.  
  • We look forward to our Christmas encounter with Christ Jesus who embraced our humanity.         
  • We look forward to this encounter with all the excitement of a child waiting for the arrival of that other midnight visitor on Christmas Eve. 
Our worship during this time leading up to Christmas should reflect this growing expectation, as well as our celebration of God’s extravagant generosity. In celebrating the generosity of God, we celebrate also God’s call to us to be generous. Through such programmes as the Christmas Bowl (and similar programmes in other countries), we can stand with communities around the world as they seek to be active peacemakers in the name of our God of extravagant generosity.
“Advent: a season in search of a theology”? I believe our Advent ideas about God should be based on God’s extravagant generosity, the generosity that didn’t stop giving, even to the point of God giving Godself for the sake of the world.

And, if you'd like some of my reflections on Advent and Christmas sitting on your bookshelf as well as on your computer, you may want to buy my book  Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained from Amazon.

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