This Week: Nov. 28 - Dec. 4

Published: November 28, 2011

Happy Christian New Year!

Yes, Sunday, November 27, was the first Sunday in the Christian liturgical year. It was also the first Sunday in Advent. Many people think of Advent as the season of waiting or preparation for Christmas, and it is that, but Advent’s meaning is actually multilayered. The four-Sunday season of Advent historically emphasized the multiple “advents” or “comings” of Christ (Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the promised return of Christ, the continual coming of Christ into our weekly worship and our daily lives). In other words, Advent is more than a four week period of time to prepare for Christmas.

Ancient Advent words from Scripture, along with hymns that have been penned and handed down through the years to accompany them, liturgically embody contemporary realities. People today live with terrifying questions, with unexplained suffering, and with unfulfilled expectations. Advent is a vessel that holds these realities in tension with God’s hope-filled promises. During Advent, we peer expectantly into the manger, but we are also drawn beyond that manger, toward that longed-for time when all creation learns to dance to the new song of Christ’s promised coming in justice and truth. 

A hymn that expresses Advent’s contrasting tones is an African American Spiritual, My Lord, What a Morning. This spiritual was arranged and harmonized by Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949), an influential black composer who was passionate about preserving the tradition of African American spirituals. Spirituals, said Burleigh, are hymns of soulful depth and rhythm that express the profound faith of slaves in the face of unspeakable injustice. The striking imagery of My Lord, What a Morning offers a glimpse of this faith. The hymn even carries a double name that is revealing—My Lord, What a Mourning/Morning. What is the meaning of this double name? The bitter tears of mourning that flow out of oppression and marginalization give way to a new morning in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The hymn’s double name, along with its images of stars falling from the heavens, makes this spiritual a good partner to this year’s Advent lectionary readings, readings filled with the sights and sounds of mountains crumbling, stars falling, and heavens ripping open. God’s arrival on the scene in these ancient texts and in this old hymn disrupts and transforms.

For ministry students who are beginning the last few weeks of fall term classes before final exams, heralding a new liturgical year may seem an odd practice. There are still many papers to write before we can celebrate the end of this semester, much less turn our attention to the start of a new spring semester in January 2012. What we learn through theological study, however, especially through liturgical study, is that the rhythms of Christian life are to be out of step, at least to a degree, with what is happening in the world. Many people, for example, will spend extravagantly at stores and malls this Advent season. I was reminded by Melissa Wiginton, Austin Theological Seminary’s Vice President for Education Beyond the Walls, that the theological education enterprise is about equipping ministers to lead God’s people with and into Gospel extravagance during difficult times: “Those who would be pastors have to know how to love—God, themselves, their neighbors, their congregation—to pour themselves out in love. That is extravagance in God’s economy” (for the full article, see http://www.fteleaders.org/blog/entry/theological-education-as-divine-refuge/).

A voice calls out from Isaiah during the second week in Advent: “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord” (Is. 40:3). In this week’s lectionary voices, crooked streets are straightened out and valleys become mountains. Life as we know it is turned on its head. So, yes, exams await, but we can nevertheless celebrate and prepare to lead people into the Gospel’s peculiar promises of life in the wilderness, extravagance in the midst of seeming scarcity, and a new year at the end of November.

News:

The last day of classes for the fall semester is December 9.
Final Exams begin on December 12.
Winter break:  December 18, 2011 – January 13, 2012
First day of classes in the spring term: January 18, 2012

*A note about spring registration:  Online registration for the spring term ends on November 30. After November 30, students who want to make changes to their spring schedules will have to wait until January 18, the first day of classes in the spring term.

 

Blessings on your week,

  Jill Crainshaw
  Associate Dean for Academic Affairs

 

 

 

Image Sources: Ken Bennett, WFU (top); boston.com (bottom)