“Advent is a season observed in many Christian churches as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas as well as the return of Jesus at the second coming. The term is a version of the Latin word meaning “coming”.
I read an essay titled Worth the wait: Isaiah 64:1-9: Isaiah refuses to pretend anymore by James Brenneman (Nov. 2008) at christiancentury.org.
Initially I wrote an angry response. Then it struck me that I was being unkind: Brenneman was proposing a sort of theodicy not unlike my own – though now-abandoned attempts, struggling with the silence of God and apparent absence of God, trying to find meaning in that silence. My vitriol was unnecessarily harsh: God forbid I become a ‘troll’.
Still: for my own peace of mind I needed to respond to his essay, and decided to do so on my own blog site.
Some passages I’d like to consider, with my thoughts in red, and my emphasis in bold type:
“We long for the advent of Christ.” Yes!
“The Advent prophet, Isaiah, expresses the frustration that many of his fellow believers feel after years in exile. They are longing for God to re-enter their lives in tangible, this-worldly ways. It’s been a long time since God sent pillars of cloud by day and fire by night.
“… pillars of cloud by day and fire by night.” A technical detail about the text, but I wonder if the pillar of fire and smoke really was a ‘theophany’¹, or perhaps the smoke and fire were from the animal sacrifices by day and night, or a tribal memory – residual trace – of a Bronze Age Canaanite Vulcan deity? “… where did the YHWH cult originate? Who were the first people to worship him? And how did he end up being the sole deity of a group called Israel, who, as their very name says (in Hebrew), didn’t even start out as a Yahwistic people, but as followers of El, the main god of the Canaanite pantheon?”²[Haaretz]. But these are matters of historicity for scholars to debate.
“It’s been a long time since God rained manna from heaven or sent plagues upon Israel’s enemies. It seems to these Jewish refugees that God is no longer minding the store.
Jack Miles, in ‘Christ: a Crisis in the Life of God’, explores this change in God from the interventionist deity of the early New Testament, to the post-Malachi, disengaged, silent God of the intertestamental/deuterocanonical period (the ‘400 Years of Silence’. It’s a fascinating read by a former Jesuit.
“God… sent plagues upon Israel’s enemies.” Plagues – and commanded genocide: strange interventions indeed. If we accept – as do evangelical Christians – that the Bible is inerrant, we have a dilemma. Jack Miles examines this dilemma with great insight: If Jesus is God incarnate, then Jesus is the God who sent the plagues and commanded the genocide of the Amelikites. (1 Samuel 15: “Thus saith the LORD of hosts… … go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”
Saul gathered the people together … two hundred thousand footmen, and ten thousand men of Judah. … And Saul smote the Amalekites … and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them: but every thing that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly.” It goes on in this vain. As one blogger pointed out,Saul killed the old men, the pregnant women, the children and babies. But because he spared Agag and some of the spoils of war, God never forgave him for it.
But Brenneman points out that “Isaiah refuses to pretend Advent anymore. Too many years have come and gone without a sign of God’s presence. (Is it wrong to ask for a sign of God’s presence? Jesus said, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” – implying Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. This should be sufficient for an ‘evil and adulterous generation’.
In blunt and violent terms, the prophet begs God to come out of retirement: “Tear open the heavens and come down,” shake up the landscape with forest fires—enough to boil water. Make the mountains quake. Isaiah seems to be saying, “Don’t just stand there silently, God. Do something!”
The prophet Isaiah also laments that in their waiting, the people are emotionally withdrawn and have lost their will to stay in touch with God, to walk anymore in God’s ways. Why? “Because you . . . hid yourself, we transgressed.”
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” – Proverbs 13:12. If we are sick from hope deferred – from God’s hiding from us – what might the consequences be? “Because you . . . hid yourself, we transgressed.” Is Isaiah blaming God here? And who could blame the prophet?
“There is no one who calls on [God’s] name” anymore. (Why have they become d Others have described the absent God as the Deus absconditus or ‘hidden God’ who is the ‘Elusive Presence.'” It’s mischievous of me, but I can’t help but see in the Latin ‘absconditus’ the English word ‘abscond.’ I may be pushing the translation too far@ but Merriam-Webster defines ‘abscond’ thus: “In general usage, abscond refers to any act of running away and hiding (usually from the law and often with funds), but, in legal circles, the word is used specifically when someone who has already become the focus of a legal proceeding hides or takes off in order to evade the legal process.” And that’s how I feel about God in the face of the suffering and death from cataclysmic events like earthquakes and tsunamis, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, famines, floods, disease, war, genocide. The diabolical diseases which beset humanity and the whole animal kingdom, the tortures and cruelties of the Industrial Animal Complex – dear Christ! – I could go on. So yes, Mr. Brenneman you paraphrase Isaiah well: “Don’t just stand there silently, God. Do something!”
“Have you ever felt like Isaiah or the people of his day, wondering where in heaven or on earth God is? Have you tried to pray and felt nothing, seen nothing, sensed nothing for a long time? Have you ever been ready to throw in the towel or felt the sad weight of Bob Dylan’s song, “Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door,” with no one answering? If so, you’ve entered Advent, when we cry out to God to “tear open the heavens and come down.” We beg God to come down, to enter the public squares of life, to blast our enemies to smithereens, to holler into our existence with a cosmic bullhorn. We want a loud and noisy Advent.
“…felt nothing, seen nothing, sensed nothing…” – Christopher Hitchens and Mother Theresa both experienced this to be true of their ‘encounter’ with God.
But most often we get Deus absconditus, God who hides from us, whose presence is sometimes more elusive than we want it to be. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in the fourth century, said of Christ’s first Advent, “The Lord did not come to make a display. . . . God came to be made known according to our need and as we could bear it.” “God came to be made known according to our need and as we could bear it” – really? REALLY? Just who is this fourth century bishop to say what we can or must bear, or to say so on behalf of humanity? Dear God! What of The torture chambers and ‘auto-da-fé’ of the Inquisition – perpetrated against heretics, apostates and “witches”? What of the Nazi death camps, the Gulags, Pinochet’s torture chambers, the horrific sexual abuse of so many thousands of children by Catholic priests, the pain of cancer and God knows (an interesting turn of phrase) how many other horrendous illnesses! Pray tell me what we can bear, I’d like to know. Let us reason together, Athanasius the Great, and I will drag you by the scruff of your pretty robes – no – Ill takr your hand and wellw step with all our horror and dear and shame into the gas chambers of Auschwitz, to the mass executions in Russia by the Einsatzgruppen, or the bloodied forests of Bosnia, the Hoeryong concentration camp in North Korea where families were routinely gassed. I’ll ask you to make your glib assertions as we watch the sickening experiments on prisoners by The Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731. You won’t have heard about it, dear bishop, all of this was yet to come. The subjection of people to Vivisection without anaesthetic, the deliberate exposure of innocent men and women to Germ warfare toxins, Frostbite testing, infecting men and women with Syphilis to observe the progression of their agonies, Rape and forced pregnancy. Should I go on, most noble bishop, to persuade you that you are mistaken, that your theodicy is bankrupt and a source of atheism? Your bishop would have not encountered too the kind of existential despair which emerged in the 20th Century, specifically after the Great War where Christian nation tore apart Christian nation, leaving 40 million military and civilian casualties. In light of this, how unacceptably glib James Brenneman’s comment seems, “it seems… God is no longer minding the store”. The “store” is a madhouse run by the inmates, the Chief Warden is nowhere to be found.
“Some church traditions refrain from singing Christmas carols during Advent. oI completely ‘get’ this. Purple, the color of remorse, adorns the altar (as it should) a ritual warning us not to greet God prematurely or presumptuously—that is, at least not until we acknowledge that we are clay in the divine potter’s hands, people chastened by God’s silence, ready to be molded anew as the “work of [God’s] hand.”
“Advent is mostly about a God who “breaks open the heavens and comes down,” not stopping halfway. God in Christ comes all the way down to meet us in our sinfulness, down into a manger bed, down to the cross, down to the grave. This is written in a very mystical and obscure way in my view. I do think the theopaschite mystery has more merit than any dominionist, fundamentalist theology, but it remains to be seen how this advent means anything to the person being gradually eaten away by the venom of a spider or snake.
We spend too much time trying to work out the details of when and how Jesus will come again. In the process, we fail to grasp the truth that Christ has come not once, not twice, but hundreds of times as God-with-us, our Savior. Here I think of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: Ivan’s arguments agains God is existential, where Alyosha responds to the world’s agony not with debate, but practical engagement, acts of lovingkindness, mercy, empathy.
Note: Another of Dostoevsky’s stories, ‘A Gentle Creature,’ closes with a cry of pain that rings with the same emotional density as Ivan’s outpouring. ‘Is there a living man on the plain?’ cries the Russian legendary hero. ‘I, too, echo the same cry, but no one answers.’4
The Advent of God happens every time we repent, turn from our sins and seek God’s forgiveness. The hidden God, Deus absconditus, becomes God our Savior. Advent is worth the wait!”
I hope you are right, James.
1) A theophany is a manifestation of God in the Bible that is tangible to the human senses. In its most restrictive sense, it is a visible appearance of God in the Old Testament period, often, but not always, in human form. (gotquestions.org)
3) The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky is a passionate philosophical novel set in 19th century Russia, that enters deeply into the ethical debates of God, free will, and morality. It is a spiritual drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, and reason, set against a modernizing Russia.
4) Project D by Dennis Abrams: https://projectdblog.wordpress.com
Additional thoughts about Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov:
“Numerous commentators have understandably stressed the moving pathos of Ivan’s humanitarianism; it has been suggested, as Blake said of Milton, that Dostoevsky was really of the devil’s party and could not suppress his emotional agreement with Ivan. There is no question that Dostoevsky poured into these passages all his own anguish over the abominations he was recording. However, Ivan represents, on the highest level of intellectual and moral sensibility, the supreme and most poignant dramatization of the conflict between reason and faith at the heart of the book, and it would have been inconsistent with his thematic aim to have softened or weakened his utterances. Faith, as Dostoevsky wishes it to be felt, in The Brothers Karamazov, must be really pure, a commitment supported by nothing except a devotion to the image and example of Christ, and the opposing arguments of reason must thus be given at their fullest strength.”
I still find myself in agreement with Ivan — for me, when I was young, it was learning about the holocaust that pushed me in that direction.
I think that Frank is being harder than necessary on Ivan — I think his anguish over the suffering of the innocent is real, and his need for justice equates to justice on earth and not necessarily punishment or retribution, but not just the promise of justice in a non-Euclidean afterlife.