Advent: A Season of Redemption

December 9th, 2013

An Unusual Advent Tale

The feature film 12 Years a Slave, released in the fall of 2013, tells an Advent story of sorts. Based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South in 1841, the film depicts the brutal realities of a slave system that was crippling both black and white Americans. In the film, Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays Northup as he goes from being a respected musician with a wife and two young children to a condition in which he is chained, humiliated, and forced to conceal all signs of his former life, even his name. The white characters, including a slave owner who reads Scriptures extolling the God of Abraham to the enslaved people who work his land, are revealed as morally distorted people who are, in their own way, deformed by slavery.

In what way is this an Advent story? After all, our images of the season are often tinged with the lights of Christmas and surrounded with warm images of cozy fires and family gatherings. How can such a disturbing experience speak to the themes of the Advent season?

In the lectionary Scriptures for the third Sunday of Advent, we find a message of redemption that was cherished by exiles living far from home and by Christians who celebrated the liberating work of God in Jesus. Solomon Northup was a man who suffered from one of the most damaging expressions of sin in American history and who longed to be freed. How does the theme of liberation from the effects of sin still speak to our world today?

What Is Advent?

Perhaps we should begin with a word about Advent itself. The season that enters churches in a wash of purples or blues is probably best known for the ring of four candles surrounding a central Christ candle that will finally be lit on Christmas Eve or Day. Each week for the four Sundays before Christmas, one more candle is lit in the Advent wreath as a witness to the coming of Christ.

Since the story of Christmas is usually told with the reciting of God’s coming in the Baby in Bethlehem’s manger, the focus of Advent can tend toward the past, as if we were waiting for a celebration only of how God came once long ago. But the candles also look toward a future when Christ will come again. In the mysterious atmosphere of Advent, we find that we are companions with God’s people of many different ages who looked for a new day in which God would overturn the old order and establish justice in the land. As artist and writer Jan L. Richardson puts it in her book Through the Advent Door: Entering a Contemplative Christmas, Advent “takes its substance and shape from those who have passed through these days before us, from generations who have waited in the dark and carried the light.”

So the texts that are often read during the Advent season have the character of a holy double entendre. On one level, the people to whom the prophet Isaiah spoke are hearing a word spoken to their literal experience of exile in a foreign land. In Isaiah 35, they can imagine a road that will lead them back to a fallen Jerusalem where God will complete their restoration. But on another level, people of every generation can hear in this old prophecy a promise for redemption. As Richardson says, “There is a sense, after all, in which we Christians live the apocalypse on a daily basis. Amid the destruction and devastation that are ever taking place in the world, Christ beckons us to perceive and to participate in the ways that he is already seeking to bring redemption and healing for the whole of creation.”

The Door Opens From the Outside

Advent, then, is more than just a season of preparation for the telling of the old story; it is a time of anticipation of the new story of God’s presence in the world. But what is it about this time that has the feel of bondage? In the Communion liturgy of The United Methodist Hymnal, the Great Thanksgiving makes reference to deliverance twice. The first is to deliverance from captivity, which is illustrated most dramatically in the freeing of the Hebrew slaves from Pharaoh’s hand in Egypt. The second points to Christ, who in “his suffering, death, and resurrection . . . delivered us from slavery to sin and death.” Physical and spiritual bondage are joined in this prayer, and God’s activity leads to deliverance from both.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and church leader who lived 1906–1945, spent two Advents in a Nazi prison as he awaited execution. He was able to connect his physical imprisonment to his spiritual condition. Quoted in the book God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, Bonhoeffer said, “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent: one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other—things that are really of no consequence—the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.”

Celebrating a Genuine Christmas

Bonhoeffer was not in control of his physical condition, but it pushed him to realize his absolute dependence on God as well. For Christians living in the developed world, in which a sense of freedom is often connected to material affluence, this awareness of dependence on God may be hard to access. Mary’s song of joy in Luke 1:46-55 as she gives witness to God’s call to be the mother of Christ may sound like a threat with its reference to God pulling “the powerful down from their thrones and [lifting] up the lowly” (verse 52). But perhaps it is an invitation to live in solidarity with those whose condition is similar to Bonhoeffer’s—dependent on circumstances beyond their control but free through the work of God on their behalf.

Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was shot and killed in 1980 as he celebrated the Eucharist in one of his churches in El Salvador during that country’s violent civil war, often talked about the way that those who lived on the margins had a unique and important perspective on God’s work. “No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor,” Romero said in a 1978 Christmas homily. “Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.”

Life, Not Survival

Solomon Northup is just beginning to come to grips with the enormity of what has happened to him, as portrayed early on in 12 Years a Slave. Chained below deck on a steamboat headed to New Orleans where he will be sold as slave labor, Northup listens as his companions, headed to the same fate, advise him on how to survive. They tell him that he should not reveal his name and or resist the abuse he receives. Northup, however, is not content with such a minimal standard as survival. He speaks the deepest desire of his heart when he responds, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”

Advent is not a season for passive waiting and acceptance of the way things are. In the space of this time on the church calendar, we are invited to enter into God’s work in our lives and in the world. We are challenged to get in touch with the longing for redemption that courses through the biblical witness. And because God has entered into history to redeem the people of God and because Christ has promised to come again to free God’s people, survival is not enough. Along with Northup, we wait for a day when all people can truly live.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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