Today, the First Sunday of Advent begins a new liturgical year, the third for the Mormon Lectionary Project. I promise that some devotional content will follow, but in true Mormon fashion, there’s business to attend to first.
From the start we have conceived of the MLP as a cumulative project, rather than an ongoing one: our goal has been to produce a collection of homilies covering major liturgical holy days, plus “feast days” for everyone we are able to honor in that way, and to gather them in a book. During Year One, we figured out how the series would work; Year Two was about filling holes and expanding the feast days. Our ambition last fall was to have completed the project by this Advent, but life intervened, and we feel that our work is not yet finished, so we’re giving ourselves another year.
During Year Two, we sporadically reposted and revised previous content, in addition to writing new posts. This year, instead of reposting, we’re at work on a way to make the Lectionary posts available through a hyperlinked calendar of some kind. The details are still in process, but we’ll make an announcement once we’ve worked something out. In lieu of that, you can find our post for Advent 1 here, and Eric Huntsman’s blog has wonderful advice for celebrating the season.
That said, we recognize that many readers come to BCC for a dose of “mere Christian” Mormonism, and we have every intention of continuing to make Advent, Lent, and Eastertide times of special devotion on the blog. The Christian message seems urgent as ever, and we mean to keep preaching it.
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The traditional theme for the First Sunday of Advent is hope. In a world filled with refugee crises, terrorism, exploitation, poverty, and all kinds of injustice and social ill, hope seems a precious commodity. We know that we ought to place our hopes in Christ, but what does that mean, in practice, amidst so many problems that seem hopeless?
To think about this question, I’m going to focus in on Romans 8. There, after talking about how life in the Spirit makes us heirs of God, Paul begins to reflect on the disconnect between present suffering and future glory:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18-25, NRSV)
“Groaning inwardly” seems an apt description of the way we may feel amidst so much tumult in our world, which does indeed seem “subjected to futility” and in “bondage to decay.” And yet, Paul has something much larger in mind than merely lamenting the evils of “the world” while expressing gratitude for Gospel truth. Our hearts, with all creation, do not groan purely out of sorrow at how things are, but because that sorrow heightens our anticipation of the promised redemption in which the children of God will at long last be revealed.
As Mormons we sing “I am a Child of God,” even though we only imperfectly embody our Lord in the world. Paul is teaching us to sing that song as an expression of hope for the day when will finally make good on our repeated Eucharistic promises to reunite the body symbolized in the broken bread. Then, the children of God will truly be revealed. The key to this redemptive revelation is the Spirit, and the Spirit’s presence among us is what makes us groan, at once opening our eyes to the suffering in the world and sparking in us the hope for something better.
The gateway to hope, according to Paul, is prayer, but because we cannot yet see Jesus fully revealed in the Church, we struggle to know how to pray. Again, the Spirit gives us cause to hope:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27, NRSV)
Through the Spirit, prayer becomes our gateway into the life of God, the mechanism for transforming us both individually and collectively into the instruments of Christ in the world. Prayer, then, is a fundamentally hopeful practice, not because it’s a magic wand that we use to make God give us what we want, but because it’s the only way that we can hope to become as Jesus would have us be: children of God who treat one another as such.
Advent recalls the anticipation of Jesus’ birth and enacts our present anticipation of his Second Coming. If, as Paul’s theology suggests, a central part of that coming will be his becoming manifest in the body of the Church, then let us make it a season of prayer. With every ill that makes the headlines (and the many griefs that don’t), let us return together to our knees and pray that Jesus will reveal himself in us. Most importantly, let us undertake the actions to which that revelation calls us, for they are how the hope awakening in our hearts might spread.
Here is a setting of the most famous of the traditional Advent antiphons, sung by the incomparable King’s Singers. May its call for the coming of Emmanuel ring differently in our ears in light of Paul’s teaching:[youtube https://youtu.be/wE6BzoMt0Ro]