Sunday, December 5, 2010

Advent 2: Of Locusts and Stumps

At dinner this evening, we all seemed to be sitting before the precipice that is reading period here at Harvard. Classes ended on Thursday, folks slid into this weekend with a sigh of relief, and now preparations are beginning for a week of paper writing, or for final exams that begin the following week. Some are writing three or even four papers. Suffice it to say, a lot of work looms. And the very idea that this is unfolding during Advent, a season that calls us to simplify and slow down, seems, as someone put it at dinner, somewhat cruel.

In a sense, I suppose the end of lectures last week marks a simplification of sorts (and with my lecturer hat on, I can definitely attest to the truth of that!), but finals more than takes up that slack. If anything, the other side of Advent that I dwelt upon last Sunday, its strange spacio-temporality of endings and beginnings, its newness erupting into the humdrum of everyday life, seems a more accurate reflection of what life is like this time of the semester. And while those who don't live by the academic calendar may not have final papers and exams in the next two weeks, they have plenty of other equivalent or worse deadlines and crunches-- 'tis the season.

In the midst of this crush, two images stand out for me from today's readings: John the Baptist's abrupt appearance on the scene, and the strangely hopeful image of the shoot growing out of the stump of Jesse.

First John the Baptist (courtesy of Matthew 3:1-12). In a way, his clothing and diet say it all: he wears "camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist and his food was locusts and wild honey." I think about this garb and what immediately comes to mind is a) it can't have smelled very good and b) it must have itched something terrible. And the food? Three words: locusts are bugs. Grasshoppers, basically. Sometimes they swarm (and this Discovery Channel article explains why, amazingly-- the image at top is from it), which makes me think of Indiana Jones saying, "Snakes... why did it have to be snakes?" And while I do realize that bugs are consumed in various places around the world, I have to say, no amount of wild honey could get me to eat them. But if bugs and itchy, smelly clothing are part of John the Baptist's prophetic demeanor, his message is this: prepare the way for the one coming after me. You think I'm startling? The one following after me "will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

Second, the shoot coming out of the stump of Jesse. We got this image twice-- once from the second reading, Paul's letter to the Romans, and once from the first reading, the prophet Isaiah (the whole passage is Isaiah 11:1-10):

"A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD."

This shoot is the messianic prophecy-- this image suggests this messiah emerging from a previous generation, the tree of Jesse the father of King David. But more specifically, this emergence opens out just when all seems lost-- hence the stump. The passage goes on to say that this bursting forth of hope will unfold in ways that confound expectation and change rules both social and natural: wolves lying down with lambs without temptation to eat them (not, needless to say, equivalent to me and locusts), a little child leading a band of erstwhile enemy animals, a nursing child safely playing over the den of a poisonous snake. And further, as our Kellogg Fellow Zack Guiliano emphasized in his sermon at the divinity school on Friday, this same messianic figure balances the scales in favor of the "poor" and the "meek," judging and deciding "with equity," even "strik[ing] the earth with the rod of his mouth," and finally "kill[ing] the wicked" with "the breath of his lips." Isaiah envisions a series of harsh judgments, a righting of injustices that create a world in which enmity and danger are subject to radical reconciliation.

When Paul takes up this image (Romans 15:4-13), he goes right to the bottom line: hope. The shoot improbably growing out of the stump of Jesse is to him a sign of "the one who rises to rule the Gentiles," in whom "the Gentiles shall hope." Hope on the heels of chaos, hope that brings with it "all joy and peace in believing." This is the hope that gathers momentum, growing from a mere spark in the night to the full glow candle, that it may yet grow to full firey stature.

This is the hope that accompanies us this week, as we all dig in, making our way into the final stage of the semester, and into the rest and joy coming to us at Christmas.

Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge

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