Death and Advent

Why should I fear in times of trouble,
when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
those who trust in their wealth
and boast of the abundance of their riches?
Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life,
there is no price one can give to God for it.
For the ransom of life is costly,
and can never suffice,
that one should live on for ever
and never see the grave.

When we look at the wise, they die;
fool and dolt perish together
and leave their wealth to others.
… Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
they are like the animals that perish.

—Psalm 49: 5-11, 12

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
…I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.

—Isaiah 61:1-3, 10-11

I must admit I am composing this devotional afresh just before it is to be posted. I had to. The mixed metaphors of this holy season have caught up with me. Advent, a season of waiting, formerly a season of penance, is full upon us today as we enter the midpoint of this season. I have been struck in reading the devotionals written for WWSIC (particularly those that follow the daily lectionary) at how the advent season is so admixed with the passages of Jesus’ death and ultimate resurrection bringing new life into the world, even life after death.

Life and death. Are these not the crux of the Advent season? In the time of year when we witness the “death” of the sun and foliage; in this time of year when Earth herself seems to go into hibernation, it is hard to not be reminded of the realities of death. I think of this both figuratively and literally.

As Psalm 49 from today’s lectionary reminds us, none of us shall live forever. Rich or poor, we are but creations of God, and no matter how wise or wealthy we may work to become, “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.” And yet, many of us find ourselves in a culture that wants us only to seek knowledge and wealth. Moreover, we find ourselves in a cultural season that celebrates overconsumption and greed. If we find ourselves not pondering physical death this season, we may be pondering spiritual or financial demise. And, just where in a season of joy, hope, love, and peace are we to sit with such woes? In Advent we await the birth of Christ and all that means. But this does not mean that all is “well with my soul” in the waiting. In the waiting we find the realness of life: the aches, pains, fears, and contractions that come before birth, particularly when it is unknown how the labor may go.

The season of Advent is dark. The love, hope, joy, and peace we yearn for may not yet have come. Still we wait. It is a wonder to me how and why we do this. Professionally and personally, I am keenly aware this season of how myriad emotions of the human experience—particularly loss—changes the waiting. And I’m aware how experiences of injustice and oppression make the waiting seem like it will simply go on and on, and that change to finally bring relief may never arrive.

And there it is in the lectionary this week: the presence of death in the season of Advent. It is a reminder that we do not live forever. But it also a reminder of God’s promised work in the world. In the passage of Isaiah for this week we are told that God intentionally sends one to help the “oppressed,” “broken-hearted,” “captives,” “prisoners,” and “all who mourn.” It is a promise that even when the world seems most troubled, God is still working out a way out of no way. It is a hopeful text, telling us that God is seeking to liberate those who have been exiled for years—even generations—in a foreign land; that God is coming even for those in a culture that leads them to believe that materialism and greed is all that exists. And God is not only coming for those who mourn—for loved ones or beloved values—but God is going to provide all who mourn “a garland instead of ashes.”

What stands out to me most from this week’s Isaiah text is the promise that God has already “clothed me with the garments of salvation / covered me with the robe of righteousness.” It is a comforting promise, even as I mourn a colleague, and as I am reminded of all those whom I/we have lost this year. It is comforting to me as I think of a friend fighting for life in the ICU even as I write. It is promising to me, this promise that God is not only coming but has already provided garments and robes for me, and all people, at our meeting, the way a mother prepares for her newborn. As the darkness of the season deepens it is comforting to know God is sending someone to meet me on the way, someone who will bring good news and will make me—and all of us—welcome even in the darkness. In the end, it is a mixed metaphor of both death and birth, of waning and waxing.

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