Advent Riffs: First Sunday, Sweet December

pottery shards

Pottery shards / Flickr / Creative Commons

Archaeologists dig for clues and artifacts of ancient civilizations. They may find an amphora handle and a fragment of a casserole, which will become part of a collection, perhaps on display in a museum. From these fragments, they may deduce the age of a home and the wealth or poverty of its inhabitants.

Like archaeologists, we dig through the scripture, looking for meaning and truths. What are the message to be dug out of today’s scripture readings?

Today’s scriptures, and particularly the Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent, seem like just too much disaster to bear. Line after line reveals doom, gloom, and damnation: “the tribulations that are imminent” and people dying of fright.

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”

We have natural signs of disaster aplenty: species extinction, the rising of the seas, wildfires in California, hurricanes in North Carolina, earthquakes from Alaska to Italy to Sulawesi, and over it all the return of fascism. Look to the news and see the signs in the sun and moon and stars, the roaring of the sea and the waves that Jesus warns about in the Gospel.

Proof-texting snags a couple of verses and tries to make a literal correlation with today’s realities.  If we look just at these verses, we see disaster and the end of the world. When we look at the news, the prospects seem not much brighter. But there’s much more to scripture and to our daily experience than the forecast of disaster.

Even in the midst of warnings and signs of disaster, the Gospel offers hope:

“When these signs begin to happen,
stand erect and raise your heads
because your redemption is at hand.”

We also see signs of hope, in the goodness and kindness of people, in their care for one another and for the natural world.

  • Every year, Auburn University architecture students take on a challenge: to build a good house for needy families in rural Alabama communities — for $20,000.
  • Once homeless, Kristy Yates went from janitorial work to social work through a Texas homeless shelter’s“Clean Slate” program.  . .
  • When Salvadoran refugees arrived in the small, impoverished Mexican town of Mapastepec, on their way to seek asylum in the United States, poor women in the town, cooking over open fires, made soup for two thousand people.
  • Today, on December 1, as a snowstorm swept through southwestern Minnesota, I visited a small grocery store owned by a refugee family. Maylary gave us pickled tea leaves and sweet rice flour pastries, and told us about “Sweet December.”  This Karen Christian tradition begins on the night of November 30. Food, visiting, and games last until midnight, when families greet December with prayers and songs. December is sweet in Burma, as a respite from heat and torrential rains, and even more as a time to look forward to and prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

We can look at a fragment of old pottery and see an old oil jar, broken and discarded in a garbage heap. We can look at the same fragment with the eyes of an archaeologist and find clues to civilizations that came before us and stories of people carrying on with commerce and with cooking. A shard from a broken jar can evoke a picture of a garbage heap or a vision of ancient city.

We can listen to today’s scripture readings and hear predictions of disaster and destruction. Or we can listen and find signs of promise and hope.

We can look at today’s world and see misery and suffering, the cruelty of governments, the wanton destruction of the environment.

Or we can look and see acts of human kindness, people planting gardens, the next generation organizing to build a better world.

It’s all there. The choice is ours.

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