Second Sunday in Advent: The Dawning of the Age
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13;
Suppose that the most obvious way for the evolutionary forces of the Universe to assure the balance of power between human consciousness and the rest of the life-forms on Planet Earth is to develop a psychology so prone to violence that it will kill itself off, with no need to be subject to any other predator. Whenever civilization reaches a level of erudition where the arts and priorities of the spirit are paramount, some barbarian horde comes sweeping across the desert or over the ocean or down the mountain or through the forest, valuing only what is essential to animal survival: land, females, and food. At the same time, humans seem to be genetically programmed to blame themselves for every adversity. Given these conditions, the archetypes of apocalyptic holocaust, interventionist tribal gods, and the Savior King make ultimate psychological sense.
But consciousness evolves just as life-forms do. Very early on, humans realized that the curse could be lifted, the prophesy could be confounded, if radically creative action was taken. The most recent rising of that kind of consciousness in the West brought cultural concepts such as “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius” borrowed from astronomy, and the idea of “critical mass” borrowed from physics, that point us away from personal, interior concepts of intervening gods and heroes to aligning our energies with the powers that arise from post-modern understandings of the nature of the Universe that lead beyond mere survival to flourishing abundance.
A brief digression for those who scoff at the “New Age”: Some of that metaphor comes from the observation that the Solar System of which Earth is a part travels its own path around the edge of the Milky Way Galaxy. Over vast amounts of time – 10,000 years or more – the star patterns seen from the Planet change. One theory about the cause of the rise of patriarchy is that the star patterns that governed the best times for planting and harvesting had gotten out of kilter with the prevailing seasonal and weather conditions on earth, and the women who had read those patterns lost credibility. This has nothing to do with superstitions about whether the stars predict destiny, and everything to do with an inability on the part of ancient leaders (women or men) to realize that the planetary position had changed relative to the stars, and that other conditions should be considered. A more recent and analogous problem resulted in calendar changes in the West from Julian to Gregorian.
In the 21st Century, our Solar System has traveled far enough around the Milky Way to begin to bring us out of the star patterns in the Zodiac that comprise Pisces, and into Aquarius. Because the Age of Pisces brought the Axial Age that produced the great religious and spiritual ideas ranging from the Tao to Buddhism in the East and monotheistic Judaism and early Christianity in the West, people who see patterns in human spiritual development are finding hope for a “second axial age” as the star patterns of Aquarius begin to fill the horizon.
The problem with the readings in the Common Lectionary for this Second Sunday in Advent is that they are stuck in the muck of personal blame, shame, and guilt for the human condition, and look – in vain – for a savior hero to roar in on Santa Ana winds and burn with unquenchable fire the useless and evil chaff winnowed out of the whole grain on the threshing floor. Isaiah looks for a descendent of the great King David to restore the political power and might of ancient Israel. The Psalm is a coronation anthem, calling down the tribal god’s spirit of justice on the ordained ruler. In his cherry-picked letter to the Christian community in Rome, Paul calls for everyone to live in harmony, because the Christ who brought God’s truth to the Jews did it in order to also “rule the Gentiles,” as foretold by the prophets.
Clearly, Paul was not above a little cherry-picked proof-texting himself. But Paul was not writing after the cataclysmic sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 60-61 C..E. Paul was not writing after the political settlement of theological debate by the Council of Nicea, convened by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century. Paul was not writing after three millennia of Christian dogma had appropriated the agricultural metaphors of Celtic Europe into a liturgical year whose purpose is to convince the people of their unpardonable original sin, and – in the spirit of every barbarian horde since the beginning of human time – to control the most intimate and important aspect of human survival after food: women and sexual behavior.
The precursor to the metaphor of “critical mass” that leads to cataclysmic transformation at the atomic and sub-atomic levels may be Victor Hugo’s pronouncement in the 19th Century that “nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come.”
The work of the Westar Institute’s Jesus Seminar, and for this writer, the work of specific scholars such as Karen Armstrong, Marcus J. Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Matthew Fox, and John Shelby Spong, may be the pivotal work that launches such an idea in the 21st Century. Bishop Spong has said that Christianity must change or die. Hopefully that death will not mean the death by fundamentalist terrorists – from whatever religion – of the current experiment in self-consciousness launched some 100,000 years ago by the known Universe. Karen Armstrong has constructed a history of God in the West that includes all three religions of the Book, while Borg, Crossan, and others have done the historical research that is beginning to remove the veils of pre-modern misunderstanding of who Jesus was, where he came from, and what his message meant. Matthew Fox, in alignment with visionary mystics such as Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, and Starhawk (among others), works to create the foundational myths that can inform and shape spiritual life in a post-modern cosmology that speaks to all exiles from pre-modern religions. With such enormous enlightened minds engaged in such an endeavor, how can “progressive” Christianity continue to insist on teaching and preaching traditional orthodoxy?
It is patently unfair to the unfailing commitment of the Apostle Paul to the great work of restoring God’s realm of justice-compassion through his interpretation of Jesus’s life, ministry, and death, to continue to solidify Christian dogma by cherry-picking and proof-texting Paul’s authentic letters to the communities he founded in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonika (the first letter), and to Philemon, the leader of one of those communities. Letters attributed to Paul that are clearly not Paul require some careful homework before they are incorporated as definitive guidelines for post-modern Christianity. If Christian worship leaders are going to preach on passages from Paul’s letters (authentic or not), that should be done in the context of the entire letter and the political and social conditions of the 1st Century, and how those principles that authentic Paul spells out apply to Christian (and other) corporate and secular life in the 21st Century – if they do.
The same admonition applies to the rest of the canon, and perhaps most strongly to the books of the ancient Hebrew prophets.
So what do we do with the voice crying in the wilderness: “Change your ways, because God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion is closer than you think!! Prepare the way of the Lord! Make that path straight!” Use it, not to terrify and condemn, but to ignite the flame – the fire in the belly – that inspires covenant, non-violence, distributive justice, and peace – which was the intent of the liturgist who wrote Matthew’s Gospel in the flickering light of torched Jerusalem. Then review all of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and remind readers and listeners that nothing can separate us from the love of God as Jesus experienced it and taught it. Nothing. The Covenant is there. All we have to do is choose to participate. Then perhaps the legacy of that “shoot . . . from the stump of Jesse” might be realized: “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”