Advent is an old English word derived from the Latin verb, venire, meaning “to come”. In the Western Church the period of preparation for celebrating the Nativity, commonly known as Advent, begins four weeks before the Nativity. It is a period of more intentional waiting in the Church year, often signified by the lighting of the candles of the traditional advent wreath.
Among the Eastern Orthodox Church you wont find an advent wreath. The weeks before the Nativity celebration involve fasting and intensified prayer, almsgiving and confession. The purpose of such intentional waiting is to prepare a place for Christ in the manger of our hearts. Waiting is not an easy path and fasting during a period where the culture over indulges, places those who honor it in the counter-cultural camp, with all the extra awkwardness this involves. But that may be a good thing because it offers an opportunity to ask ourselves what we are doing and why.
When Jesus came to Jerusalem, he wept over what he found there (Luke 19:41ff; Mt 23:37ff). He wept over how Jerusalem had turned away from God and He predicted that destruction would encircle Jerusalem as a result and the children would be dashed to the ground in a slaughter with not one stone of the great Temple left standing. His explanation for the calamity was a simple one “It will be because you did not recognize your opportunity when God offered it.” In other words, after two-thousand years and more of waiting for the Lord, you missed Him when He was born and walked among you in the flesh. You refused Advent.
We make take for granted that we know what we are doing since we celebrate Christmas every year, participating more or less in the Nativity fast, but that would be a big mistake. After two-thousand years or more of preparation, Israel made that mistake. The Archpriests, the scribes and the presbyters thought they knew, but they didn’t. The people participating in the Temple selling animals for offering in the temple and providing foreign exchange for the multicultural milieu that existed –exchanging Tyrean silver coins for other currencies—all thought they well understood Advent, but they didn’t.
The problem had to do with compensation. It was all about who had the authority to determine the type and quality of compensation that people turned to for their fulfillment in life. The heart of Israel, where the Temple stood was a structure so magnificent that it took 150 priests just to open the doors! There was so much gold in the Temple that when Emperor Titus conquered Jerusalem in 70 AD and stripped it clean, it caused the gold market in Syria to decline by 50%. That’s a lot of Gold. And Emperor Titus used the profits from that plunder to build the Coliseum in Rome where a primary compensation for the people of that time lay in the arena where gladiators severed each other’s body parts and lions tore Christians to pieces for the entertainment of the citizens.
Using addictive compensation to try and fill a spiritual void is a sickness. As a cultural norm, it is a pathology with a spiritual etiology on a mass level. Something was wrong in the Jerusalem Jesus came to, and the Temple epitomized it. The rightful owner of the vineyard had returned and he was seeking the fruits of the vineyard. Not money. Not cows or doves or gold. The fruit of God’s vineyard is love which is the fruit of the royal priesthood of a life turned first to God before all else. “Israel, The Lord Your God is One and you shall love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and body and you shall think of this when you get up in the morning and when you lie down, when you shower and when you eat and when you speak to one another.”
St. Luke tells us Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on a donkey and was heralded by a few admirers as a King. After weeping over Jerusalem, He headed for the Temple where He found business as usual and He caused quite an uproar behaving as an activist and a whistleblower. Driving out of the temple the money-changers and those selling the animals for offering in the Temple, He declared, “My house will be a house of prayer. But you have turned it into a robber’s den,” a place of thievery.
But folks, this was just commerce and religion as it was normally conducted. The Daily Post would describe them as good people like you and me just doing their daily work trying to feed their families when a rabble-rousing itinerant self-ordained prophet entered the scene and took upon Himself to cause problems. When Moses went up on the mountain to talk with God, and was gone longer than the people were comfortable with, they began collecting gold from among them to fashion a calf to compensate them for the anxiety stirred up by the long wait. Some people call that a stress reaction. Others addiction. Others idolatry. They are all related.
Looking for worldly forms of compensation for spiritual emptiness is a pattern with all of us like it was with Israel. We need to remember that God told Israel they didn’t need Kings, because God was King, but He consented. Then He told them He didn’t want a temple. Israel was God’s temple. It was David’s idea to build a building. Again, God consented.
Compensation for the seeming absence of God in our lives is what much of religion, psychology and commerce is all about. We human beings are endlessly creative in developing all sorts of diversions to keep us comfortably ignorant of the spiritual muck in the unkempt stables of our hearts. St. Isaac the Syrian says “Knowledge of God does not dwell in those who love comfort.”
A thousand years later, Sigmund Freud, suggested, as had the philosopher Feuerbach before him, that God and religion are an illusion constructed by the human mind to compensate for the frustration of human desire. In other words, God is just a psychological compensation.
This is precisely what Jesus challenged and it’s what upset the authorities the most. Behind every form of compensation lies an authority, a pretender to the Throne. This authority seeks to determine what counts as compensation for the human soul. This is the context for the coming of the King of Israel into the heart of the city, into the heart of our lives. First he must cleanse the temple of our hearts from all the phony compensations that make up our day and throw out the pretenders to His Throne. In the humility of His birth among us, He challenges us to receive this cleansing of all competing idols, especially those that hide behind the seeming respectability of religious piety and the status quo while in actuality we serve others gods who in our time, as in His, are definitely passions supported by and supporting the mercantile system of extracting profits from nature and from each other rather than first encountering and receiving both as a blessing from God.
Any challenge to the status quo inevitably confronts the powers that rule and benefit from the status quo – the ones who will kill the owner of the vineyard if necessary, not to lose power and not to have the status quo disturbed.
When Jesus was hailed as king, the “authorities” were watching and tried to pressure Him to rein it in. They said in effect, ‘Your disciples have gone over the top. Do something about it.’ In other words, ‘This isn’t how we do things around here, Galilean. You aren’t from these parts, are you?’ It’s a warning to ‘get in line’ and keep your followers ‘in line.’ As long as you SERVE OUR INTERESTS or stay out of the way, you are welcome. If not, we have other plans for you.
The meeting of Jesus and Jerusalem is a confrontation between divine and human authority. Whose city is it? Whose earth is it? Whose am I? What do you think when someone asks you a question in response to you having asked them one? If it’s a therapist, okay – although even they can be pretty disturbing at times. But in public, questions and confrontations like this are a negotiation for power. If we were present and understood who it is that had come out to question Jesus in public, we would be adrenalized in the midst of it. It is the group from the Jerusalem GQ – the best dressed, best educated, wealthiest elite of the city. The archpriests, the scribes (religious lawyers) and the Presbyters (ruling elders) of the Sanhedrin. Or as they say in the newspaper even today, “The authorities say….”
Jesus’ response to the questioning of these authorities is a simple one. He wants to know the basis upon which the authorities understand and derive their authority! From above and beyond human power, or are they merely earthly “self-made men” with illusions of grandeur? In other words, those who have set up a golden calf in the Temple and made Jerusalem into an international center of commerce rather than one of prayer for all the nations, are being asked, “Tell me by what authority you have set up your golden calf and become its priests.” It was an invitation to repentance and restored relationship with God and creation.
When these ‘authorities’ refuse to let their yes be yes and their no be no, because they have held a Focus group and know that the people wouldn’t be happy just now if they questioned Jesus’ authority, they let it go and look for a more secretive solution they can arrange behind closed without drawing public scrutiny. It’s how illegitimate power always works –out of public notice, in secret, controlling how it is perceived, managing the flow of infomercials to spin the heads of the masses without them realizing what is happening.
Without being able to discern the difference between authority from heaven and authority derived from earth, we have a big problem. So Jesus then tells the story about the servants of a vineyard who try to steal the vineyard and kill the owner’s son. Hmmmm.
Each of us lives between two worlds; one coming down from above calling us to eternal life and the other one dragging us down to hell with the burden of idolatrous compensations that substitute for the deep, unsatisfied and unrecognized spiritual hunger that calls to us increasingly, imploringly, as we approach our certain death.
This drama unfolding in Luke is one we face daily. We are the Temple and our hearts are the altar. Advent is a reminder to turn toward the coming of Christ who desires to cleanse us of every defilement of soul and body, so that we may receive upon the altar the gift of His love poured into us. We know we have begun to taste it, when we experience thanksgiving for the gift of life that comes from beyond our own resources bearing the mark of one not made with human hands who comes to us hidden so well in our own humanity that we fail to recognize Him in the place of our greatest vulnerability.
“If Christ be born a thousand times in Bethlehem’s stall and not in us, then we are lost beyond recall.”*
- line from a poem of Angelus Silesius, medieval Franciscan priest and poet