Advent is coming. The season of anticipation of Christ’s arrival is almost here, making this week an Advent of Advent (sort of, not officially liturgically speaking of course). Many of my friends use Thanksgiving as the official cue to start playing Christmas/holiday themed music, but I am a pretty staunch advocate of waiting until the first Sunday of Advent (even though technically actual “Christmas” music should wait until the 25th).
I will be preaching at the Vespers service next Sunday in the basement of Marsh Chapel, in Robinson Chapel. It will be the last Sunday in the Season after Pentecost, and the Gospel reading is Luke 23: 33-43. The passage starts with the crucifixion of Jesus and ends with Jesus telling one of the other criminals on his side that he shall enter Paradise with him. When I was in middle school, my class watched Jesus Christ Superstar to help us understand what the Lenten season, especially Holy Week was about. Pedagogical debates about the efficacy of Andrew Lloyd Webber as a teaching tool aside, the Crucifixion scene was, in a word, dramatic. I’ll never forget how the raising of Jesus on the Cross was repeated from multiple different camera angles, so we could view the dirty, sweaty, emaciated Ted Neely playing Jesus as detailed as possible. The moment that the Cross sort of “clicked” into place was also replayed what seemed like a million times, an image that will be emblazoned in my memory. It was all very drawn out, taking about a minute of screen time, accompanied by ethereal ambient music and stylized laughter.
I say this only because it stands in such stark contrast to the passage from Luke that we will be reading this Sunday. That entire, physical putting-Jesus-on-the-Cross is summed up by Luke like this: “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left” (Luke 23:33). Certainly, a more dramatic and image filled telling of the Crucifixion works for the stage and screen (although I have not seen the Passion of the Christ, I’m sure the scene is quite similar), but there is something incredibly dramatically (from a dramatic stand point, not implying camp or over-the-top-ness) interesting about the simplicity and implied silence of Luke’s verse. Say I am a theatre director (which I am), staging a crucifixion (which I currently am not). Filling the aural and visual space of the theatre with images, pictures, and sounds of pain and suffering would certainly put the audience at unease. However, if I staged this scene in a very minimalist way, the audience would have to deal with their own images and emotions that they associate with Christ’s execution. In the silence, our body-minds fill the space with our own emotions, judgments, presuppositions, and prejudices. In a narrative like Jesus Christ Superstar, our emotional landscape is sort of dictated. Obviously, we each would watch a scene like that and take away different parts of it, but there is a specific choice to control the emotional tone of the scene. Just meditate on the one verse, Luke 23:33 for a second: “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.” That’s it. Our minds fill in the imagery for us, whether it is biased by the art we’ve seen, the movies we have watched, the Easter services we attended as a child, or the academic study of theology that many of my colleagues have engaged in. So to sum all this up, in my grand, theatrical retelling of the Passion, we all now know how I will stage the Crucifixion. Sorry for the spoilers.
So what does this have to do with Advent? Well, I’m not really sure. I was quite puzzled myself when I saw this as the passage I would be preaching on to prepare us for Advent. However, it makes sense if we look at the liturgical year as a cycle. Easter is not the end of the Liturgical year; next Sunday is. But we are revisiting a what would be grouped with other Holy Week texts. This passage opens with the execution of Christ, and next week we start the mystery of Christ’s birth. The juxtaposition of Christ’s death and birth is so reminiscent for me of Shiva, the Hindu God of destruction. Without getting to deep into Hindu theology, Shiva brings about the destruction that always precedes new creation. The juxtaposition of Luke and Advent in this liturgical year certainly harks back to this primal impulse that creation can only come about with destruction. That is one of the things that makes both the narrative of Jesus’ resurrection so potent and the structure of the liturgical year so smart; it taps into a shared desire to understand the mystery of not just creation but creating. Shiva is a patron of Art, which is no surprise.
Many of these themes I am exploring in my journey as an artist-theologian, and it is encouraging that I get the opportunity to explore these themes more fully in the context of preaching. These were just my initial thoughts in my process towards a sermon, and I actually didn’t expect them to formulate like this, which is the outcome of just free writing. This will be expanded for my sermon next Sunday.