“What does it mean to say ‘God is with us’? It’s harder — and more hopeful — than strands of twinkling lights. When we engage the darkness before God’s arrival, we come closer not only to the first advent but also to each one since. In Advent, we learn that God is always coming to our troubled times.”
Kelley Nikondeha offered that reflection in her book First Advent in Palestine: Reversals, Resistance, and the Ongoing Complexity of Hope. She noted the violence, oppression, suffering, and lamenting that surrounded the arrival of Jesus. And yet, our Advent seasons today often seem so disconnected from the pain and suffering of this world God entered. How can the Incarnation feel so non-incarnational?
So at Word&Way, we’ve tried to address this disconnect with our Unsettling Advent devotionals. The daily emails throughout Advent offer reflections on current issues plaguing our world that connect with the realities of when Jesus arrived that first Christmas.
For Unsettling Advent in 2020, more than 20 writers considered Advent in a time of death/COVID, in a time of racial injustices, and in a time of insurrection. In 2021, more than 20 writers considered Advent in a time of war (in Ukraine), in a time of refugees, and in a time of (gun) violence. Both years the devotionals have won top awards from the Associated Church Press and Religion Communicators Council. And they led to a Lenten devotional book this year.
We’re excited to announce that Unsettling Advent is coming back again with new themes. Once again, we’ve assembled a fantastic group of writers to help us all consider Advent in light of issues from the news this year: state executions, political anxieties, and bloodshed in Israel.
Advent in a time of state executions. Although not often included in our Christmas pageants, the Gospel of Matthew includes King Herod ordering the execution of babies and toddlers just to ensure he could hold onto power. Herod also ordered the executions of many others he feared threatened his rule. He even killed his favorite wife and three of his own sons he thought were plotting against him. It led Caesar Augustus to supposedly quip, “It’s better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”
Two thousand years later, our politicians routinely justify, oversee, and even campaign for capital punishment. Last year, Missouri and Mississippi each executed someone during Advent, and Missouri carried out another execution early in 2023 during the 12 days of Christmas that come right after Advent. This year, the U.S. is having its busiest capital punishment year since 2018. Alabama and Texas are both planning an execution for Thursday, with another set for later this month in Oklahoma. Planned executions during Advent in Ohio and Oklahoma have been called off, with one of the men instead released from death row and awaiting a new trial. And Alabama announced last week that in January it wants to become the first state to kill someone with nitrogen gas. But through it all, the past 13 months have seen several Christian pastors in death chambers, ministering to the condemned individuals. Immanuel, God with us — even during an execution.
Advent in a time of political anxieties. The biblical birth narratives include multiple references to political figures whose decisions impacted the lives of those we include in our nativities. Herod’s paranoia forced the holy family to flee into exile after the taxation and census scheme of other politicians also created burdensome travel. Herod and Augustus plotted against political rivals, built monuments and buildings to bring glory to themselves, and ruled with authoritarian lust. Meanwhile, religious nationalists attempted to overthrow Roman rule while other factions accepted the mixing of church and state to advance their own wealth and influence.
Two millennia later, the U.S. finds itself in a time of political uncertainty with a presidential election, chaos in Congress, and rampant political conspiracies online (and in churches). Questions ring through the news about the health of our leaders and the criminality of a leading contender and his plots if returned to power. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives stabs leaders in the back like it’s the Roman Senate, and lawmakers struggle with how to keep the government open. Not to be outdone, our electorate is awash with QAnon and COVID conspiracies, continuing delusions about fraud in the last presidential election, self-proclaimed “prophets” claiming to speak of God’s chosen candidate, and high levels of cynicism and apathy. Throw in Christian Nationalism, authoritarian calls to restrict democracy, a couple of international conflicts, and economic concerns and it’s a recipe for political upheaval. It’s a messy, anxious climate. More like when Jesus came than the idyllic communities in a Hallmark movie.
Advent in a time of bloodshed in Israel. The government violence against people in Jesus’s time extended far beyond the massacre of the innocents by Herod. As biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan wrote in The First Christmas, “The major event in [Jesus’s] village’s life was the day the Romans came. As he grew up toward Luke’s coming-of-age at twelve, he could not not have heard, again and again and again, about the day of the Romans — who had escaped and who had not, who had lived and who had died.” In that place, the coming of a Prince of Peace would indeed be good news.
Two thousand years later, this has been a particularly bloody year in the so-called “holy land.” On Oct. 7, a deadly terrorist attack killed more than 1,200 people in Israel. People attending a music festival, children, a Holocaust survivor. A tragedy unlike any other in the modern nation’s 75-year history. Now, thousands more are dying in Gaza on land the holy family probably trekked through on the way to Egypt and back. More than 11,200 have been killed in Gaza, including more than 4,600 children. Herod’s bloodletting in Bethlehem pales in comparison. And even before the outbreak of war, it had already been the deadliest year for Palestinians since a war in 2005. Additionally, Christians in Israel earlier this year criticized the increasing attacks on their faith. No ‘peace on earth’ it seems, just like when the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes showed up.
We invite you to journey through Advent with inspiring writers who will prepare your heart and spirit for the miracle of Christmas. Instead of distracting you from the world, they will encourage you to live more faithfully within it. In these unsettling times, our devotions will unsettle the commercialistic, sappy takes on this season that skirt past the hard places where God is still with us.
You can sign up for the free daily devotionals, which will land in your inbox beginning Sunday, Dec. 3, by visiting advent.wordandway.org and entering your email address. (If you signed up previously, you should still be on the list.) We don’t promise the daily devotions will be cheery, but we are sure they will challenge and inspire you during this holy season.
As a public witness,