By Seth Vopat
Advent is a season of tension for me. Not because I struggle to proclaim “Immanuel” — God with us — in a season marred by tragedy and violence. The tension is not the result of Christmas consumerism and silly arguments over a red paper cup. And while the Advent season is often one of the most busy times of year for clergy, the stress of overbooked schedules is not why tension builds inside of me this time of year — and really, every year during the Advent season.
Tension builds inside of me this time of year because living into Advent is risky.
It asks me to question who I am, who I have been, and who I will become.
I am a Kansas native. This Thanksgiving I was fortunate to spend time with my grandparents and extended family who live pretty much in the middle of the state. Each time I make the trip out to see them I breeze by the town of Abilene, Kan., on I-70. Abilene is the hometown of arguably Kansas’ most famous son, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States.
Whenever I make the drive and Abilene comes into view I am reminded of Eisenhower’s words for peace, words which seem especially apt this Advent season. These words come from his speech entitled “The Chance for Peace.” You can read the full speech here, and while I usually avoid long quotes in a blog post, the full gravity of his elegant words is worth the exception. Eisenhower stated on April 16, 1953:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.
It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.
It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.
It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.
We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat.
We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.
This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
The context of this speech was the growing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, but I can’t help feel the description fits well in our contemporary context. Particularly the image and embracing of a “cross of iron.”
An iron cross is power. Iron is often seen as a source of strength, the ability to control the circumstances around me. And it is this cross of iron, which is so easy to embrace in times of fear and uncertainty, which seems to be at odds with the cross Jesus embraced.
The cross has always been a central focus of Christianity, and if it weren’t for the death and resurrection of Jesus, it would be fair to say Advent would look much different. In fact, Advent might not be celebrated at all. Advent exists to celebrate the birth of God coming into the world. The cross informs our understanding of what Jesus’ birth, life and ministry mean for Advent and the embracing of God’s kingdom.
As several theologians have pointed out, there is an offensiveness about the cross which is often overlooked. Theologian Miroslav Volf in his book, Exclusion and Embrace, writes, “Here I want to underline the offense of the cross — and whoever thinks the cross is not an offense has never followed the Crucified to Gethsemane let alone to Golgotha — lies deeper than the theology of the cross.” It’s offensive to our natural human inclinations because Jesus’ response to violence defies our natural inclinations to flee or fight. The offense runs deeper because Volf is drawing upon the thoughts of his mentor, theologian Jürgen Moltmann, who articulates this willful choosing to embrace in the face of violence comes not only from Jesus — but the very heart of the Triune God.
Too often an important, very basic idea, about Jesus’ act upon the cross gets lost in the analyzing of different atonement theories. Before Jesus’ death on the cross was a theory of atonement for my sins, it was an act of love. No longer was love simply an ideal to be celebrated when times are good and everyone is getting along. Jesus wasn’t teaching his disciples two different playbooks. There wasn’t one response for when times were good and a response for when times were bad. Either way, they were called to love. And Jesus showed his disciples what love looked like in the midst of fear. Perhaps the original foreshadowing of Jesus’ death was found in the words of John 15:13.
This is why Advent is risky. This is why, Advent for me, is full of tension.
As a husband and father of two, my natural instincts want to embrace a cross of iron. It might cost a lot. As Eisenhower pointed out, the costs of war go far, far, far beyond the naming of a victor and a loser.
But the cross Jesus embraced challenges my fear. It begs me to ask questions of whether safety which comes at the price of robbing another person of his or her dignity and rights as a fellow human being is too high. The cross Jesus embraced, was an embrace of humanity not limited to when times are good. Jesus love is not something I can simply toss off to the side when people do not respond the way I hope. Or perhaps, it is; perhaps this is the reason I feel a tension in Advent. It is a season to decide which cross, which road as Eisenhower framed it in his speech, will I take as I wrestle with my fears and uncertainties.
Will I embrace and unwrap a cross this Christmas which is only big enough for a few — particularly those I get along with and do not fear?
Or will I continue to push past my fears, to embrace a cross and love which is not limited to when times are good, but so often, makes its presence known in the dark places by its willingness to continue to embrace?
Advent is risky. It is a time to let go of fears, hatred and the all too common response of violence. It is a time to let go of the endless cycle of iron crosses.