Editor’s note: Throughout Advent, bloggers for The Mennonite will write reflections on the upcoming Sunday’s Lectionary text. These reflections are archived at themennonite.org/advent. Sign up for our TMail newsletter and follow us on Facebook to receive the reflections.
Sun., Dec. 22 Lectionary readings: Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25
I’ve always struggled with how to teach my children the true meaning of Christmas using Advent themes of anticipation and surprise. It has always felt impossible to move beyond the cultural expectation.
Somehow, when we talk about Jesus’s birth, it always ends up being about presents. After all, birthdays end up in presents.
But in these last few years Advent has seemed to take on a whole new apocalyptic perspective. And suddenly the concept of teaching my children Advent from the perspective of waiting for the light of the world to overcome the darkness seems so much more important and relevant. And I wonder why it took so long?
As I sit in this moment so close to the equator in the country of Myanmar I realize why I have not seen Advent as the annual crisis it is until now.
When you live in consistent, predictable light as they do here in Myanmar you cannot fathom how oppressive prolonged darkness can be in the dead of winter far from the equator.
As a middle-class white American woman I have lived consistently in predictable light.
But now I have a physical reaction to reading the news, and I can’t seem to open up the next article detailing the catastrophe that’s happening in our country, in our world or to our planet. I have a sense of despair I’ve never had before. And I find myself crying out for God to come and save us in a way that I’ve never had to before.
From a white American perspective it can feel like the world is ending. And I feel shame for it and sadness for how oblivious I have been to the despair of others until now. I’ve known it with my head but I’ve never had to feel it in my body.
And I know I don’t feel the darkness of these days the way other minority groups in America feel it right now. But I finally feel in my whole being.
The upcoming Sunday’s Lectionary text from Psalm 80 seems to be my daily cry from America.
But right now I am in Myanmar, a country that has experienced some form of civil unrest for 50 years, and it continues.
Hesston (Kansas) College, in partnership with Mennonite Church Eastern Canada and Myanmar Mission International, have sent me and Michele Hershberger to equip church leaders and church planters in Myanmar through an Anabaptist perspective of Christian discipleship.
We have been invited by refugees who long to return to their country and help them to know Jesus with their whole bodies through daily discipleship.
We are visiting congregations of people whose families have been split apart from war and ethnic conflict and they persist and thrive with abundant joy and humbling generosity.
We are visiting first-generation congregations who convert from Buddhism, who meet in tiny sweltering homes for worship instead of the elaborate pagodas. And their joy is palpable.
And while all things in their country, politics or welfare have not been set right, there is an abundant life that does not have a hint of despair in it or at least the way we show it and articulate it in the United States.
And I come to the humble realization that so much of my concept of Shalom, salvation and restoration has to do with my nation-state and my political beliefs and ultimately a macro version of Christendom that intellectually I criticize but ultimately I long for.
I long for a nation-state that shares my beliefs. I long for not being persecuted for what I believe. I long for a consistent and persistent light to live in.
However, at the same time, I realize how the consistent and persistent light I have been privileged to live in has blinded me to the perils of others.
Which is why it is so important that we have to believe in the incarnational Jesus who comes to the world to defeat the darkness. It was one thing for God to look on humanity and see the darkness we were living in in the perils of our brokenness and give laws to make it better. But it was a totally other thing for Jesus to come down in human flesh and share in the brokenness and despair with us. Emmanuel.
I know God does not want us to live and experience darkness. But the world is full of darkness and the only way we can empathize is to go through it ourselves with ears and eyes wide open, and mouths shut.
And the only alternative to despair is to believe with our full being that Jesus will come again to overcome the darkness. But, until he does, it is up to us, the church, the body of Christ to stand in the fullness of Jesus until he returns.
Many of us who are Mennonites have been hesitant to frame the story in such binary terms because we are afraid of the slippery slope toward violence. But from the beginning the Gospel has always been framed in terms of life or death.
This is a powerful Advent story I believe I can teach my children to live in to. It is a story that seems epic in their eyes, something you can live for and die for. It is the epic battle of Good and evil for which every human has an innate desire. Every story my children are drawn to carries with it similar themes. It is the kind of alternative story that would make Hollywood rich.
If we take the life of Jesus seriously then we have to admit that this does not happen on a macro scale of a governmental size but one person, one transformed life at a time. If we are Jesus-centered people then we have to expect to do it as Jesus did: human transformation through intentional discipleship.
We as an American church need to repent of our desire to change the world through secular institutions and reclaim our birthright of building an alternative kingdom on earth as it is in heaven through discipleship. May it be so.
Come, Light of the world, come.
Jessica Schrock-Ringenberg is director of the Center for Anabaptist Leadership and Learning at Hesston (Kansas) College. She and her husband, Shem, and three children live in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, near Kansas City, where they own a business. Jessica’s passion is envisioning, disturbing and equipping the church.