Twenty years ago, I was given a wonderful opportunity. A Vanderbilt seminary professor took ill and I was asked to fill in for almost five weeks in a class that explored, among other things, the liturgical year. It was one of the most freeing and enjoyable experiences of my life. I could say and do just about anything I wanted to, and endured very few consequences. Substitute teaching at the university/graduate level is a blast. There were nineteen students in the class, ranging in age from 22 to 59, from seven different denominations. Sixteen were on track to pursue pastoral ministry. The basic filter I asked everyone to adopt was “what is the theological significance of…?” In other words, what does this tell us about God, about our relationship to God, our biases about God, and what we think we are doing when we presume to lead others in the worship of God? I really pushed the students to explore and contemplate how we approach God — what we seek — and how we experience God — what we (and others) expect to receive. It was one of the richest and most gratifying experiences of my professional life.
At first, the entire class thought I was joking and received the assignments as basically simple-minded. Worship is worship, and we do what we do because that’s what people do, and we really don’t expect anything. Those of you who have read my blog over the years know that I harp on the “theology of worship.” I had a number of students ask me what exactly “theology of worship means.” I boiled it down to “what is God’s role in how we worship?” One young man actually said, “But what’s God got to do with how we do worship?” Man, that opened up a whole lot of discussion, and I barely had to talk at all. Questions came fast and furious: “Isn’t worship all about God?” “But aren’t WE the real beneficiaries of worship?” “What happens to us when we worship?” “Do people actually experience God in worship?” “What are people expecting to happen when they worship?” “How do we know if we are worshiping meaningfully?” “Does everyone experience the same thing when we worship?” “Does God really care whether we worship or not?” “Does the significance of worship change through the year? Throughout a life? Over the decades?” “Isn’t worship as much about style as content?” Every question provided more than enough to fill every class-time. It was amazing to see us move from academic, scholarly students to a place of inquisitive, exploratory discipleship. Learned religious church leaders transformed into deeply engaged spiritual seekers. I loved it.
When we turned specifically to the liturgical year, and I asked, “what is the theological significance of Advent?”, a wonderful thing happened. Simplistic, pedestrian answers popped forth — coming of the Son of God, waiting, preparation for the birth of Jesus, beginning of the church year, fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies, and on and on. Then, a second career woman in her forties, said breathlessly, “Oh, my!” She repeated it a couple of times, turned pale, and looked quite alarmed. The class hushed and I asked her if she were all right. She looked at me, placed her hands on her desk in front of her, and stated emphatically, “This is REAL.” I prompted her to say a little more and her eyes filled with tears, her lower lip quivered, and she burst into tears.
Once she calmed down enough to talk, she shared that she had been overwhelmed by a sense of presence, of someone or something communicating to her that Advent was the coming salvation of all of creation. She suddenly felt very anxious and almost frantic. She said, “I “felt” the word hope, but not like I’ve ever encountered the word before. Not hope so much as a feeling, but as a concrete reality — as if I went from having no hope to having hope for the whole world.” It came crashing in on her that the world of 1st century Palestine was simply a representation of almost every place in every age where violence, oppression, frustration, hopelessness and despair were part of daily life. And just as suddenly she realized that the theological significance of Advent is God saying to the world, “NO MORE.” The reality we live day-to-day is not the whole story. Just because history has made it seem like reality is just one thing lived out just one way doesn’t make it true. This woman evidenced transformation right in the midst of the class. She had been basically a shrinking violet, never saying much, never volunteering to answer questions, never taking the lead. In fact, she often revealed skepticism and a deep discomfort with the more spiritual and supernatural aspects of the Christian faith. In that moment, and in the remaining few weeks of the class, she became one of the most animated participants, prayerfully AND cognitively engaging in all we said and did.
What she unleashed in the class still impresses me. When we came back together the next week, it became clear that we were not going to get any farther in the syllabus. What had happened to their classmate guided much of their thinking over the weekend. A young man shared that it had deeply “spooked” him the way she said, “This is REAL.” He came back shaken. “This is real,” he shared. “I have been in church every year of my life in Advent. It is so normal that it isn’t special. I never questioned where God is in Advent, or really even in Christmas. God just IS. I don’t go into church with any expectations — to meet God, to meet Jesus, to connect with anything ‘divine’. I love going to church, but all my reasons have to do with how I feel. This whole thing has really screwed with my head.” Others agreed. For whatever reason, the woman’s Epiphany triggered a massive faith-quake throughout the class. I remember one girl telling me that she “didn’t come to seminary for this.” I asked her what she meant, and she said that she thought she was “beyond” all the “holy roller” stuff she grew up with. Hers, she confessed, was a very dry, genteel, and reasonable faith. I asked her how this all made her feel.
“At first, I was mad and disappointed. I felt like I was being manipulated. Somehow, in my mind, I felt like this all had to be contrived. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that none of this was planned, none of it was staged, and, yeah, I started thinking, “This IS real,” and yeah, this is messing with my head, too. I didn’t like it at first, but now I’m feeling, “but this is what I have wanted all my life. This feels like evidence that what I believe is really true.” I asked the class to take time and actually write out answers to the first question posed — “What is the theological significance of Advent?” Many responded that they couldn’t capture in words what they wanted to express, and many more confessed that what they ended up with felt inadequate. Most of the responses took a declarative tone: “the promised end to hopelessness and oppression,” “the arrival of God’s will on earth,” “the threshold to the very realm/kingdom of God,” “the period where Everything changed Forever,” “God returning to be with us forever,” “the end of a false reality for the beginning of true creation.” In short, the exercise moved almost the entire class from Advent as an abstraction to a concrete reality. Advent was more than a passive time of waiting and became an active time of preparation for change. Many found themselves less articulate than they would wish. Another young Baptist woman (I remember her as Baptist, because she would start every sentence with, ‘Well, now, I’m Baptist, so you may not agree with me…”) just kept repeating, “this is important, this is important, this is SO important.” Another older gentleman who was serving a rural church said, “I have been in church more than 50 years. I’ve been a leader in church for almost forty years. During Advent all those years I pushed to start singing Christmas carols and hymns. I simply thought it made absolutely no difference. It is funny how blind you can be when you really don’t get it. Christmas is Christmas because Advent is Advent, and if you don’t understand Advent, you won’t ever be ready for Christmas. This has changed a whole lifetime of thinking and acting.” He was one of many who told me when the class ended that it was one of the best classes they ever had and that they would never be the same. I hold that memory affectionately, because I actually did so little.
This memory comes to mind this time of year because everything seems to be designed to rush us to Christmas. For many, there is no significance of Advent beyond Christmas. We don’t connect with the fright, hopelessness, despair and pain of the people of God waiting for a Savior. We take so much for granted. I wish for everyone the eye-opening revelation that a seminary class experienced together twenty years back. It changed Advent for them. It changed Christmas for them. It changed worship for them. And they have been impacting others lives for two decades. May it be so with all of us. Blessed Advent.