A few months ago I stumbled on a book called “A Church Year-Book of Social Justice,” for the year 1919 to 1920. It was compiled by the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, a spiritual community of lay and ordained women in the Episcopal Church.
The book has a short reading for each day of the church year, exploring Christian thinking over the centuries and how it relates to “the great principles of social justice which preoccupy our own time.”
As an Advent practice this year, I started posting the readings for each day on Facebook. That drew me into pondering what our siblings in faith were thinking and talking about, just over a century ago.
1919 was a tough year.
World War I had just ended – a shocking, brutal disruption.
A deadly influenza pandemic closely followed the war, killing many children, healthy young adults and elders.
And then there were the ongoing struggles of poverty and unregulated industrial development.
Upton Sinclair published his expose of the meat industry, The Jungle, in 1906.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which killed 146 garment workers, was in 1911.
The West Virginia Mine Wars, a series of violent clashes as mine workers struggled to organize for safer working conditions, began in 1912.
There were big reasons that social justice was on the hearts and minds of people of faith and conscience in 1919.
As I’ve posted readings from the Yearbook day by day for the past month, I’ve noticed that some don’t resonate – don’t “hold up.” But other passages have given me a vivid sense of standing with these siblings in faith a century ago.
W. E. Orchard wrote: “In the anguish of the hour, when kingdoms are rocking to their base, the social structure of modern civilization is strained to the breaking point, and all hearts are full of fear…”
Who’s felt like that at some moment in the past few years?…
In this era of climate change and the overwhelm of capitalism’s excesses, I feel like this text may be MORE relevant to us than it was when John Ruskin first wrote it in 1917:
“Think you that judgment waits till the doors of the grave are opened? … The insects that we crush are our judges, the moments we fret away are our judges, the elements that feed us judge as they minister, and the pleasures that deceive us judge as they indulge.”
And then there’s this, from the great preacher Phillips Brooks:
“The real question everywhere is whether the world, distracted and confused as everybody sees that it is, is going to be patched up and restored to what it used to be – or whether it is going forward into a quite new and different kind of life, whose exact nature nobody can pretend to foretell, but which is to be distinctly new, unlike the life of any age which the world has seen already… It is impossible that the old conditions, so shaken and broken, can ever be repaired and stand just as they stood before. The time has come when something more than mere repair and restoration of the old is necessary. The old must die and a new must come forth out of its tomb.”
I resonate with every word of that passage.
One day, when I posted some particularly salient snippet to Facebook, I asked: Is it comforting or disconcerting to know that people living a century ago also felt like civilization was strained to the breaking point?
And some wise soul replied: Both.
It’s comforting not to be alone with these feelings, to have the bold and hopeful and urgent words of these siblings in faith to encourage us.
It’s comforting to know that humanity survived another century despite it all, and that some of the great challenges they faced are actually better now, thanks in part to the efforts of bold reformers who worked and fought for change.
But it’s also disconcerting, the resonance of these texts with our present moment.
The 20th century is hardly a consoling tale.
We know some of the costs and struggles to come.
The Depression. Another world war, atomic weapons, the Holocaust.
The bitter social strife, as well as the important legislative strides, of the 1960s.
The recognition of environmental degradation in the 1970s.
The rapid increase in economic inequality and incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s.
Knowing that companions in faith a century ago also felt like their whole way of life was coming apart at the seams is no reassurance that our way of life is not coming apart at the seams.
Dwelling with the 1919 Yearbook has made me think about time.
We tend to think of time as a line that we’re moving along, in one direction.
For example, we would draw the events I just named as tick marks along an arrow from 1900 towards 2000 and beyond.
The Church brings another way of thinking about time alongside linear, historical time.
Church time is all circles and cycles. Turning and returning.
In the church’s time, it isn’t Christmas again; it’s just Christmas.
This Feast of the Incarnation is every Feast of the Incarnation.
[The Eucharist we will celebrate tonight is every Eucharist.]
We’re not recreating or re-enacting something.
We’re returning to something that has always been waiting for us.
These are moments when we step into holy time, and meet the Divine present in our world in immediate and tangible ways.
Thinking about the Yearbook from that perspective: It’s not just that people 100 years ago felt and thought similar things to what we might be feeling and thinking.
It’s that we’re all living Advent together.
Brooks and Ruskin and the others are not just forebears but companions in this season of holy anticipation.
Let me take this one step further.
There’s everyday historical linear time and there’s the church’s cyclical time that returns and returns again.
And then there’s God’s time.
Jesus, the baby we welcome tonight, when he grows up, will talk a lot about time.
He will talk about two Ages, or Aeons, or Epochs, or Dispensations, or whatever fancy word you want to use for something we aren’t really equipped to comprehend.
There’s the present Age, this messy ordinary world with all its problems; and then there’s the Age to Come, the Age of the Kingdom of God.
The Age to Come is mysterious, distant, not yet fulfilled; and yet it’s not so far away that it’s irrelevant.
It is, somehow, already dawning, already unfolding, within reach in small shimmering moments, in hopeful possibilities, in the thin places where grace breaks through.
This kind of time isn’t linear time and it isn’t cyclical time.
It’s more like, I don’t know, the before and after of a really good dream home makeover show: The way things are and the way things could be, transformed towards beauty and joy and wholeness.
In terms of the Present Age and the Age to Come, we are in the exact same Before situation not only as our early 20th century siblings from the Yearbook, but as Jesus’ first followers.
We’re all watching and waiting and working for the coming of the Kingdom of God.
We’re all yearning for God’s great intervention in the confusion, struggle and suffering of our times.
Advent – the four-week church season that ended when the Feast of the Incarnation began at sunset this evening – Advent is a season of double anticipation.
We anticipate Christmas; but we also anticipate the fulfillment of God’s purposes for the world.
That holy After when Christ will return to earth and that new Age we have been taught to hope for will come to fruition.
The theologian Fleming Rutledge writes, “In Advent, we don’t [just] pretend, as I once thought, that we are in the darkness before the birth of Christ. Rather, we take a good hard look at the darkness we are in now, facing and defining it honestly, so that we will understand with utmost clarity that our great and only hope is in Jesus’s final victorious coming.”
In Advent we pray, again and again, for the dawning of that new Age. It’s woven through our liturgies and hymns: our longing for God’s rescue, restoration, renewal.
When we cry Come, Lord Jesus! in Advent we’re not just talking about the baby in the manger, although he is very nice indeed.
We are praying for the end of the world, friends.
At least, the end of the world as it is, and the beginning, in Brooks’ words, of a “quite new and different kind of life.”
For something more than mere repair and restoration;
For the old to die, and the new to rise up from the tomb.
And yet when we arrive at Christmas – when we enter holy time to gather in wonder around the manger, gazing at that surprising, ordinary, luminescent child – when Christmas comes, we tend to let that second layer of our anticipation drop away.
We act like what we were waiting for, has arrived.
And then – even if we have a really good, lovely Christmas – there will be a moment, tomorrow or Tuesday or next week, when we think, “Well, Christmas came, but we still have all the same problems. I guess all that praying and hoping and expecting didn’t really amount to anything.”
Instead of faithful, joyful and triumphant, we may feel uncertain, weary and discouraged.
What I need from Christmas this year, and therefore what I’m offering you – because preachers are always preaching first to themselves, beloveds – is the reminder that God coming among us in love and mercy and fury is not a once-long-ago thing, friends.
It is always and it is already and it is not yet.
It is still and it is someday and it is surrounding us right now.
We live in the world’s time, the relentless onward march of history, dates and events, wars and elections and pandemics, birthdays and graduations and deaths.
We live in the church’s time, holy rhythms that circle and cycle and always bring us back to sacred moments and pivot points.
And we live in God’s time, as people of expectation, who know that things are not as they are meant to be.
As people whose hopes and imaginations reach beyond the satisfactions and struggles of our present moment.
People who believe that another world is not just possible, she is on her way. (Arundhati Roy)
And that our purposeful acts of mercy, courage, justice and generosity can help pave the path for her arrival.
And sometimes our biggest fight is with the powers and principalities of the world as it is, and sometimes our biggest fight is within ourselves: with our own inner resignation to the broken reality around us, our honest skepticism that better is possible.
What I want from Christmas this year as its gift to all of us is a profound sense of sacred incompleteness.
The knowledge that what we’ve been waiting and yearning for is not here yet, and that it’s safe to say that out loud, to name that a lot of stuff still seems real bad, even on Christmas Eve.
And the knowledge, planted deep in our hearts, that the gulf between this Age and the Age to Come, between our long Before and God’s After, is itself a holy space, a space of promise.
A space of darkness and unknowing and possibility.
A space of birth.
May it be so.