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Advent day 24: Living in the past perfect

12.22. 2015 Posted By: The Mennonite 262 Times read

Malinda Elizabeth Berry is assistant professor of theology and ethics at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. With her family, she lives in South Central Elkhart and worships with Fellowship of Hope Mennonite Church.

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
Luke 1:46b-55

This year’s round of skirmishes in the “War on Christmas” has gotten me thinking about our collective need to think a bit more deeply about the histories of the celebrations that dot the religious and cultural landscapes of our society, especially the one we Christians are preparing for: The Nativity of Our Lord.

When we do some heavy lifting (theologically, historically and culturally), we see just how much we pick and choose which bits of the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle we like the most. Our choices about the traditions we develop to keep this season have more integrity when we have a deeper awareness about them.

My own study is how I have become a bit of a stickler when it comes to Advent, mostly because, as I prepare for Jesus’ nativity, Advent keeps me rooted in the prophetic oracles, calls to repentance, and vision of God’s liberation for the cosmos that easily get lost when we are overwhelmed by the business end of Christmas.

Advent isn’t a 25-day countdown like most commercial calendars would have us think. Advent, historically and theologically speaking, is about preparing for Jesus’ Second Coming as we recall the first time he entered human history. I don’t know about you, but Jesus returning on a rolling thundercloud of glory is one Advent theme I try to avoid.

A product of The Foundation Series, our Mennonite Sunday school curriculum from the 1970s and ’80s, I don’t recall receiving much instruction about the Second Coming. I hold this in tension with our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective which states that we Mennonites hold to a general resurrection, that is a resurrection of the dead, which requires the Second Coming. The Lukan record of Mary’s Magnificat is, to me, one of the more palatable reminders of the miraculous and holistic salvation Jesus brings.

Using past perfect verbs, Mary recounts all of the things God has done: Yahweh has looked with favor, shown strength, scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry, sent the rich away empty, and helped his servant. There’s a good deal of significance in all of those “hases.”

When we express a verb in the past perfect, it’s because the action began in the past and continues into the present, the actor repeats the action within an unspecified period between past and present, or when an action’s precise moment is neither important nor known. Maybe this is the key to facing what I want to avoid in Advent: God’s Great Shalom began deep in the past and continues on into this present moment and extends into the future beyond what we can foresee. Preparation for the future shapes how we look to the past and live in the present.

Since December 17, we have entered the last seven days of Advent measured and marked by the great “O Antiphons” sung during Vespers since the sixth century. These antiphons are the verses of the song we know as “O come, O come Immanuel.” While there are different translations of the antiphon for December 22, here is the wording I like best, calling to mind Micah’s prophesy we also read today:

O Ruler and Desire of the Nations,
     you are the cornerstone making us one:
Come and save the human race,
     which you fashioned from clay and dust.

Whatever future follows from our past and present, I am glad, Adonai, for what you have done.

Read all Advent 2015 reflections.

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