By Dan Clendenin
Thank God for Advent. I’m so grateful for our new liturgical year, when we begin once again at the beginning of our Christian story — the birth of a baby through whom God is reconciling the cosmos to himself. That story is good news for every person and all the world.
Whereas Mark and John don’t mention the birth of Jesus, Matthew and Luke do. At his birth, and then again at his death (on a sign above his head), Matthew calls Jesus “the King of the Jews.” The very first sentence of the New Testament calls him “the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Matthew’s genealogy of forty-two men in three sets of fourteen generations emphasizes this Jewish identity.
But Matthew also does something subversive. He includes five women who all had unusual stories. Tamar was widowed twice, and then became an incest survivor after her father-in-law Judah abused her. Rahab was a prostitute from enemy Jericho who protected the Hebrew spies by lying. Ruth was a widow who married the foreigner Boaz of the Moabites, who worshiped the god Chemosh. Bathsheba was the victim of David’s adulterous passion and murderous coverup. And then Mary was a pregnant teenager who was engaged to be married.
Matthew’s patriarchal genealogy that at first seems religiously scrupulous includes social outcasts and the sexually suspicious, widows, second and third marriages, incest, prostitution, lying, murder, adultery, financial ruin, foreign exclusion, and geographic dislocation. Matthew repurposes these stories so that they exemplify God’s revelation of love and redemption of the world. In the end, the Jewish genealogy of the baby Jesus looks like all of our own broken family histories.
Luke is the only Gentile author in the Bible. His genealogy of Jesus lists seventy-five names in descending order, from the most recent Joseph all the way back to Adam, and even to God himself. His fourteen names from Abraham to David are identical to Matthew’s list. The eighteen names from Heli to Zerubbabel are unknown to us except for his genealogy.
Luke traces the genealogy of Jesus back not just to the first patriarch Abraham, but to the first human being Adam. Jesus isn’t just the King of the Jews. He’s “the son of Adam, the son of God.” There’s a delightful wordplay in the original Hebrew text of Genesis — God created the first human Adam from the adamah, from the dust, dirt, earth, or ground.
As the Son of Adam, the baby Jesus represents all humanity. He’s not born from or to a single nation, or for any group of privileged insiders. He doesn’t come to the morally perfect or the ritually pure. Rather, his birth signals good news for everyone without exception, starting with Adam and the beginning of time itself.
If we’re honest, our world is consumed by overwhelmingly bad news that distracts and discourages us. Like sixty million refugees who have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Or Yemen, where 13 million people face starvation from what the United Nations warns could be “the worst famine in the world in 100 years.” We dare not turn a blind eye to this bad news. Rather, we immerse ourselves in it, and give ourselves to the world.
We also endure the political assault about fake news. One thing’s for sure: political power, whether ancient or modern, both left and right, seeks to control “the news.” It claims to be the single source of a saving message or “good news,” the sole possessor of all truth. These days I keep remembering my four years as a visiting professor in Moscow (1991–1995), where the official newspaper of Soviet communism was called Pravda (“truth”), and where 15 to 60 million people perished from the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 to the death of Stalin in 1953.
The political powers claim to be our savior, our redeemer, and our lord. This is truly fake news in the worst sense of the word. The toxic combination of illusion and idolatry is precisely how political power tempts us, and also what the followers of Jesus reject, for if Jesus is Lord, caesar is not Lord.
Confronted with these narratives of bad news and fake news, it’s easy to lose the signal amidst all the noise. Advent invites us to hit the reset button. To wipe the mud off our glasses. At Advent we return to our founding narrative of the Good News of God in the birth of a baby.
I love how the South African pastor and peace activist Allan Boesak (born 1946) repudiates the bad and the fake news, and affirms the good news of God. Here is his Advent Credo.
It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss —
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;
It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction —
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.
It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever —
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.
It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world —
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.
It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers —
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.
It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history —
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.
So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ — the life of the world.
In the introduction to the book Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings (2009), the editor John Dear describes how Berrigan (1921–2016) engaged the maelstrom of the world rather than flee from it, and yet how he immersed himself even more deeply in the stories of Jesus. Make your own story fit into the story of Jesus, he liked to say. Berrigan, writes Dear, “dared to think that God can be taken at God’s Word, most notably, in the Gospel message of Jesus.”
At the height of the American war in Iraq, when he was about eighty-five, Berrigan confided to Dear, “I’ve been maintaining a new discipline. First, I get as little of the bad news as possible. I only look at the New York Times once a week, if that, and occasionally BBC TV. Second, I spend more time than ever with the good news, reading and meditating on the Gospel every morning, to be with Jesus.”
That’s a pretty good alternative for an Advent reset.
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See Genesis 38 (Tamar), Joshua 2–6 (Rahab), the book of Ruth, and 2 Samuel 11 (Bathsheba).
See Allan Boesak, Walking on Thorns; The Call to Christian Obedience (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004). This “Credo” is adapted from a prayer by Boesak that was originally published in Gathered for Life: Official Report, VI Assembly, World Council of Churches, edited by David Gill (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1983).
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