Yesterday was the beginning of the season of Advent! For Christians, this is a liturgical season, consisting of 4 weeks leading up to Christmas and Christmas Sunday (the Sunday closest to Dec. 25 even though we know that isn’t the actual date of Jesus’ birth). The focus of Advent is on the coming, or Advent, of Jesus through his birth. Advent is also focused on the return of Jesus at a future date, when Christians, generally, believe he will make God’s shalom vision real and complete forever. Jesus’ second Advent involves judgement, which is not cool or hip or comfortable, but it is in the scriptures none the less. That means that the Advent season is a liminal season.
Liminality is the experience of living in-between. It is often used to describe periods of transition where you are not what you were, but you are not yet what you are becoming. Some examples include transitioning from high school to college; from college to career; from single to married; from non-parent to parent; from career person to retired; from child to adult; and so on.
In the context of the Advent season, the liminal space is occupied with a promise of peace that accompanies the birth of Jesus. It is also a space occupied with the reality that peace is not present, but is coming. So we are living in a period of transition where things are not what they once were, because Jesus has come. BUT, they aren’t what they will become.
Often, people describe periods of liminality as times when there is confusion, doubt, questions, a lack of clear identity, and the feeling that you are being ground up! I know…it sounds awful. In the context of Advent, what often gets ground up is your faith.
Peter Rollins wrote an excellent post on the difference between faith, certainty, doubt and belief. Go read it and come back. Faith, according to Peter, has more in common with “living in a particular way” than believing, being certain about or having doubts concerning particular things. This is key when considering the Advent season. Much of our focus, as Christians, is on understanding or making sense of this liminal space. The question we often ask is: How can we make sense of the promise that the birth of Jesus will bring radical socio/economic shifts towards God’s justice AND the absence of said socio/economic shifts towards God’s justice? Our answer is to push that radical shift towards God’s justice into the future. But is that a move towards faith? It depends on how you define faith.
If faith is being certain about what you don’t see, then pushing the “radical socio/economic shift towards God’s justice” into the future, is an act of faith. The faith task for the Christian, in this view, is to keep believing that the promise of peace at the birth of Jesus has come to pass while also coming up with answers that explain away the reality that it hasn’t’ happened. In the words of 80’s pop-rock idols, Journey, the task for the faithful is Don’t Stop Believing!
However, if faith has more in common with living in a particular way, perhaps our task is not to rationalize the discrepancy between promise and reality, but to live away the discrepancy!
Missing the point?
Christians believe that the world is not what it was because Jesus was born! AND, they believe that the world is not what it will be when God’s shalom is fully realized. But we have trouble with the space between. Perhaps it’s because we don’t spend enough time with the question of how God’s shalom will be fully realized? I don’t believe that it is a coincidence that what Jesus taught, and lived out in his life and death, and called his followers to live out, leads to God’s shalom. Have we taken the easy way out by defining faith as belief instead of living out the particular way of Jesus?
Have we missed the point? Our focus on Jesus can be good and life-giving. Unless, we are looking at Jesus as the only actor involved in making God’s shalom tangible in the world. If we act as if Jesus is the only one on the hook for the fixing the way the world is, we will stand idly by, waiting for Jesus to make things right.
I’m not suggesting that we aren’t in a liminal space. I believe that because of the birth of Jesus the world is not as it once was. I also believe that the world as it is is not as it will be. That is the space that we live in, as followers of Jesus. What I am suggesting is that the faith response is not to push fulfillment off into the future. The faith response is not to place responsibility for concrete/tangible justice and transformation on Jesus’ shoulders alone. The faith response is to pick up Jesus’ mantle, under the power of the Spirit, and continue the work.
The experience of being “ground up” in the liminal experience of Advent is not about reconciling beliefs, chasing away doubts or grabbing hold of certainty. The liminal experience of Advent is about reconciling the way we live with the way of Jesus. Jesus’ birth changed things and is changing things. The way he is changing things is through his followers who are called to a different way of life. Our focus is on Jesus, but not as the sole actor, responsible for making God’s peace with justice a reality. Our focus on Jesus has to also include the call of Jesus to join him as co-actors responsible for making God’s peace with justice a reality. It’s not our theology or our beliefs that get ground up, it’s our way of life.
Living in protest
This is the difference between a Christmas season vs. an Advent season. A Christmas season in America is a consumer holiday which thrives on the injustices that Jesus came to change. Advent is a call to live out God’s shalom, under the power of the Spirit, after the way of Jesus. Those things are not compatible. We will either live in protest and have an Advent season, or we will live in compromise and have an American Christmas season.