I’ve been thinking about my Granny this week. It was her birthday a couple of days ago and I told my kids so they kept breaking into loud Happy Birthday, which felt a little strange to me. They know about her through stories and photographs but they didn’t know her. Still, they sang at top volume.
I think that’s my song this week. Happy birthday out of time.
And there’s Advent for you. Celebration is in the air, and a birthday celebration at that, but the calendar can’t quite agree. We’re not at Christmas yet. Despite the tinsel and the ubiquitous carols, we still have weeks to go. Plum and I curled up together in an armchair after supper to read from his storybook Bible. He asked for stories about angels – he wanted to see their faces and trace his finger over the shape of their wings. I hesitated and suggested Jonah instead. Tonight, the Christmas story still feels both two thousand years ago and not nearly here yet. I’m walking slowly through these Advent days, waiting for the celebration of God among us.
This Sunday, we’ll light the third candle and consider joy. We are drawing nearer. Beangirl came home from choir practice and told me that it’s Gaudete this coming week. That’s a new term for me, but it means Rejoice and it sets the tone for this Sunday’s worship. We’ll find it in Paul’s words in this week’s lectionary Rejoice in the Lord always, and Zephaniah chimes in from the Old Testament.
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! … The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.
A needed call this week, I think. You shall fear disaster no more and Rejoice!
This passage comes at the end of Zephaniah’s short prophecies, and it rings out like a bell. Most of the book is about coming judgement and suffering, but here at the end, we find joy and the presence of God among the people. It echoes Jeremiah’s song which we read for Advent One. In that passage, Jeremiah’s understanding of the present is shaped by God’s revelation of the future. Here we have Zephaniah considering the days of grim judgement and singing for joy in almost the same breath. In a linear rational sense, this doesn’t quite work. How can present suffering be swept away by future promise? How does that work? But this is theological poetry, more akin to song than history. It isn’t one thing after another. Promises of God’s solidarity are the returning chorus that sounds in our ears, even in the midst of stories of suffering and fear.
Let both notes ring out this Advent. Lament for the broken world and joy at the coming of Christ. Celebration and ache in one breath. Longing and comfort. Redemption and repentance. We can’t take Christmas chronologically, pretending that we don’t already know the joy of the birth. We can’t be surprised by the story. This story has already shaped our lives and our communities. But we can be awakened again when we listen again for the living harmonies. Listen and sing.
My image for this week comes from a medieval manuscript illuminated by Joseph the Frenchman in Spain, 1299-1300. It depicts a menorah – the branched candelabra used to celebrate Hanukkah – and two branched and living trees. Hanukkah is rooted in the story of the Maccabeas and the rededication of the Temple. As we light our Advent candles, it is good to think of others who celebrate light and wait for God in these dark winter nights. What I like about this menorah image is that it reminds us how our faith is a living part of creation, rooted in ancient stories, branching out and growing, and always seeking the Light.