An Advent Service

Here’s an idea for an Advent bible study or discussion group.

If you are a regular reader you know I’ve written a lot about body ambivalence. See my chapter on Body from Freud’s Ghost as well as my post on Feeling Queasy about the Incarnation.

Well, last Sunday night, the first day of Advent, I was in charge of leading the discussion/study for my small church group. Having been reflecting too much, in my own estimation, about body ambivalence, I figured Advent would be a good time to reflect on a positive view of the body and what it means to be human. The Incarnation is God’s profound and mysterious embrace of the body. And I wanted to reflect on that embrace.

So, here’s what I did. I intermingled some theology, some bible, and some poetry.

For theology a pulled from the fantastic list done by Kim Fabricius from the blog Faith and Theology. Kim’s list on 10 Propositions of Being Human is a great mediation on what it means to be human.

For bible, I printed out the Advent passages from Luke, Matthew, and John.

For a poem on the body I used Walt Whitman’s I Sing the Body Electric.

Okay, I then cut up the theology propositions, the bible passages, and parts of the poem (each slip was self-contained and coherent). I then went around the group and asked each person to pull, as from a deck of cards for a magic trick, one of the theological reflections, a part of the bible reading, and a part of the poem.

After selection we when around the room, following the order of Kim’s list (the person who pulled proposition #1 went first and so on). You were to read the theological reflection first, then the poem, and then the bible passage.

My interest in this randomizing of theology, poetry, and text was to see if interesting juxtapositions would emerge as we reflected on Advent, the Incarnation, our bodies, and what it means to be human. After each reading—theology, poem, text—we paused for comments.

Well, it was an amazing time. You should really try this sometime with either these materials or materials of your own devising.

Here were two of my favorite juxtapositions:

First Favorite Juxtaposition:
To be human is to be relational. Again, of course: this is because God, as Trinity, is relational. The perichoretic God makes perichoretic people. God’s being-as-communion overflows in humans’ being-in-community. Jesus was the “man for others” (Bonhoeffer); humans have no being apart from others. Humanity is co-humanity: our very identities are “exocentric” (Pannenberg). Margaret Thatcher notoriously said that there is no such thing as society; on the contrary, there is no such thing as autonomy. Here lies the bankruptcy of all social contract theory. Further, as relational, social beings, we are linguistic beings, modelled on the Deus loquens. Here lies the theological import of Wittgenstein’s observation that there is no such thing as a private language.

I have perceiv'd that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly
round his or her neck for a moment, what is this then?
I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea.

There is something in staying close to men and women and looking
on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well,
All things please the soul, but these please the soul well.

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!"

Second Favorite Juxtaposition:
To be human is to be spiritual. But not, needless to say, spiritual as against physical. Unlike Greek anthropology, Christian anthropology is not dualist, it understands human beings as ensouled bodies and embodied souls. Faith itself, Luther said, “is under the left nipple.” Hence the crypto-gnosticism of any soma sema “withdrawal” spirituality. We may speak of the “inner life”, of “interiority”, but it “is neither a flight from relation, nor the quest for an impossible transparency or immediacy in relation, but that which equips us for knowing and being known humanly, taking time with the human world” (Rowan Williams). The self is not secret, it is social.

The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping,
love-looks, love-perturbations and risings,
The voice, articulation, language, whispering, shouting aloud,
Food, drink, pulse, digestion, sweat, sleep, walking, swimming,
Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening,
The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes,
The skin, the sunburnt shade, freckles, hair,
The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked
meat of the body,
The circling rivers the breath, and breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward
toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the
marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

3 thoughts on “An Advent Service”

  1. Hi Richard.

    Kim Fabricius here, the guy who did the Ten Propositions. Ben Myers alerted me to your blog. I'm really glad that he did. I am overwhelmed that you thought so much of my reflections that you thought them worth putting to liturgy. I can't think of a greater compliment. (And I'm a great fan of Whitman - he lived in my home town, Huntington, New York). So thank you.


  2. Kim,
    Everyone in the group loved your work. There was a theologian in the room who kept muttering, "Who wrote this?" Afterward I directed everyone to your lists. It's just amazing stuff. Thanks for putting it out there. It's made a difference.

Leave a Reply