The First Sunday of Advent (Year C), 2 December 2018


December 2, 2018

Reading 1Reading 2Reading 3Reading 4Reading 1 AltReading 2 Alt
Jeremiah 33:14–16Psalm 25:1 – 101 Thessalonians 3:9–13Luke 21:25–36

by Robert McDonald

Discussion of the Texts:     To point out that we live in a world rife with suffering seems trite in our present context: widespread wars and domestic violence; rising temperatures and sea levels; the loss of arable land and water shortages; the daily deaths of countless species; etc. Still, it seems beneficial to recall this problem of suffering—or, more pointedly, what the late philosopher and Episcopalian priest Marilyn McCord Adams called the problem of horrendous suffering (Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (1999))—lest it become to us truly banal. Still more, we who are Christian (or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu, etc.) must reconcile this seemingly inscrutable fact with our belief in God(s), especially if we believe them to be inherently good. To this end, the readings for this first week of Advent present to us a type of theodicy.

Within the first (brief) reading from Jeremiah we are provided a prophetic statement—a declaration that “Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety” (Jer. 33:16) because God will exact “justice and righteousness in the land” (33:15). What is so poignant is that the writings of Jeremiah were, as Kathleen M. O’Connor tells us, “written for people in the throes of suffering” (“Jeremiah: Introduction,” The Access Bible, Updated Edition, 1023). And this suffering of the Jewish people in Babylon dovetails into the beseeching plaint of the Psalmist: “Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old” (Ps. 25:6). The Psalmist entreats God to remember Their people, to show justice and mercy, because “[a]ll the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness” (25:10).

For the Christian tradition, this mercy was shone through the life of Jesus of Nazareth, as shown in the affectionate letter from Paul to the Thessalonians. Paul’s words are especially pointed today as he gives thanks to God for the faith of the church at Thessalonica—though he does pray for an increase in their faith (1 Thes. 3:13). And, finally, the Gospel brings the whole day full-circle: where Jeremiah declared that a day would come for the “Kingdom” of God, Jesus tells the people those for which they should be on watch, and to

[b]e on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. (Luke 21:34–5)

This passage highlights, perhaps more than any other this week, the meaning of what it is to be entering the season of Advent.

Process Theology and the Texts:     There are a few points where we could draw a connection between this week’s readings and process theology. One such would be that of themes such as suffering and the “Kingdom” of God. In particular, we may be reminded by the reference to suffering above of a passage toward the conclusion of Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality:

What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world. By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love in the world passes into the love in heaven, and floods back again into the world. In this sense, God is the great companion — the fellow sufferer who understands. (Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality [1929] 1957, 532; emphasis added)

Of course, the words of another process thinker are also apropos here: “The Christian’s . . . dearest belief is that Christ envelops him [sic] in his grace and makes him participate in his divine life” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, How I Believe [Comment je Crois], 1969, 78).1

This leads us to another point: there are two approaches to process theology. I have found myself leaning ever more away from Whiteheadianism toward a Teilhardian variety of process thought. In a particular way, I find that Teilhard’s vision of the Cosmic Christ and the Omega Point to be compelling for the Christian process theologian. They provide ground for hope. Of course, this is not to say that Whitehead’s system does not provide valuable insights which can develop our existing traditions.

In this way, each of these traditions of process thought lend themselves to how we may understand the readings for this week. From Whitehead, we hear of a God who suffers alongside us, declaring that what passes from the world into heaven will pass back again, that prophetic promises will be fulfilled (Jer. 33:14). Within Teilhard, we find hope, as we read of in Jeremiah, despite the uncertainties we may experience in life, not unlike Teilhard’s experience in the trenches of the First World War:

I walk in the shadows of faith [. . . but,] [o]ur doubts, like our misfortunes, are the price we pay for the fulfillment of the universe, and the very condition of that fulfillment, that being so, I am prepared to press on to the end along a road in which each step makes me more certain, toward horizons that are ever more shrouded in mist. (Teilhard, How I Believe, 88, 90)

That then, in our society’s present state, is perhaps where we find ourselves, “in the shadows of faith.” But, we press on with the hope of the Advent season, a hope that a new light will once again brighten the world.

Preaching the Texts:     There are a number of themes we can draw out for preaching these texts. One such theme is that of hope and suffering: in such turbulent times as those within which we find ourselves, how do we respond to our suffering? Or, more importantly, how do we respond to the suffering of others? For my part, I can say that I often time struggle to hold out hope—I have been known in particularly difficult times to express cynicism, nihilism, or worse. But the Jewish people to whom Jeremiah is addressed knew suffering, as they had witnessed their nation collapse and be overrun by the Babylonians; yet, they held out in their hope that God would one day intervene for them, that God would once more enter into their collective life to rescue them.

This connects us to another point, one tangential to the last jumping-off point: do we look only for our own “salvation,” or do we seek to assist others, be they members of our community or not? I would dare say that our answer should be that the very question is a false dichotomy! Our own well-being does not preclude the well-being of others, nor does focusing on other mean that we are unable to care for ourselves—this is the myth we are taught by our present society’s bent toward the radical individualism endemic of the (post)modernity stemming from much of the heritage we have gained from the European Enlightenment. This is a mentality not unlike that of Cain asking God if he was his brother’s keeper (Genesis 4). From a process perspective, we can go so far as to say that the relationship between the self and the community is mutual, that the well-being of one fosters the well-being of the other, and vice versa. The most difficult part of all of this, the question we are asking ourselves today, is this: who are our neighbors (Luke 10:29)? Is it merely the person next to me in my church, mosque, synagogue, or temple; or is the scope much wider? How far does the circle expand?

The importance of this question should not be lost on any of us. I recall a “parable” that I once heard from the Catholic priest Rev. Larry Richards,2 a nationally renowned Catholic speaker. The point of the story was this: when we reach the “Kingdom,” when we are “standing in line with the righteous” at the gates, will we recognize how we failed to help others when we see them being turned away? What will we do when their eyes meet ours with the look that simply asks “Why didn’t you love me, too?” The season of Advent marks the Church’s preparation for a burst of light in the world, but do we let this same light shine forth from ourselves to all, whether we meet them or not? Some final questions: can “Judah” be saved? Will righteousness roll over the land? Can we trust that God will do these things? Not without our help, I should think.

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Endnotes:

  1. It would be remiss to not acknowledge that Teilhard’s thought was problematic (of course, Whitehead and his followers fall into their own dilemmas); in particular, Teilhard was unfortunately androcentric (as evidenced by the quoted text—though this was deeply cultural for his time, religion, and profession), anthropocentric, ratiocentric, and Eurocentric. Along with my fellow Teilhardians, however, I am of the opinion that Teilhard’s thought is not irredeemable.
  2. For those who have read my previous commentaries, it is known that I am very much a Roman Catholic (though I do dispute certain teachings, such as an all-male priesthood). I would also acknowledge that I grew-up in the same Catholic diocese where Larry Richards serves, having even known him personally when I was in high school and college. Given these things, I will say that my experience of him was that of a priest whose Heart “is in the right place,” though I disagree with some of his methods. Additionally, I think he holds to a rather sophomoric level of Catholic theology. None of this is to say, of course, that I do not value the years I spent working with him in Erie, Pennsylvania—indeed, I doubt that I would have arrived at my present understanding of and appreciation for process theology without his influence. (To be clear, he is not a process theologian.)

Robert McDonald

Raised Roman Catholic, Rob is a second year PhD student with the Center for Process Studies at the Claremont School of Theology. Having studied philosophy, theology, history, and public policy/administration at the undergraduate and graduate levels at both Gannon University (Erie, PA) and Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA), his specific research interests with the Center and CST (to hopefully culminate in a dissertation) are the ethical implications (especially environmental and social) of a comparative analysis/integration of the lives/works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ and Morihei Ueshiba (as well as the Kyoto School of philosophy and the traditions of the Ainu People of Japan), in light of Whiteheadian process thought. Rob is also the current English Coordinator for The Balkan Journal of Philosophy, Editorial Assistant with the Whitehead Research Project, and the 2018/19 Research Assistant for Philip Clayton.

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