I am delighted to feature this piece by Steve Bell, a gifted singer, songwriter, musician, and writer. His new album, Keening for the Dawn, is not your typical Christmas album, but is something much better! It’s an Advent album: about waiting in darkness for the light that is to come, about anticipation that flowers into joy. You can buy it here (and you should!). The piece that follows is Steve’s meditation on the theme of the Advent oracles – which led to his song “Oracles”; the complete song from the album is also included here, with permission.
The Shape of Things to Come
by Steve Bell
I recently stumbled upon an online essay reflecting on the four advent Oracles of Isaiah. I was immediately intrigued by the use of the word oracle; first, because it sounds somewhat pagan and new-agey, and second, because it evokes feelings darkly subterranean and mysterious.
Quick research found the word to be disappointingly harmless. An oracle, it turns out, is simply a prophetic utterance. Nevertheless, the word still carries foreboding tones of danger, presumably arising from an unearthed knowledge from the forbidden depths. Oracles are (at least as Hollywood portrays them) “too hot to handle” and are therefore sequestered and reserved for a very chosen few.
But I found the Isaiah oracles themselves to be familiar and safe enough. One of them speaks of a coming age when nations, in search of wisdom, will stream to the mountain of the Lord. Another is confident of a day when warriors will beat their weapons into gardening tools. Yet another predicts the radical safety and relational ease symbolized by a wolf lying peacefully with a lamb. And finally, we are told of a virgin giving birth to a child who will lead us.
At first blush, none of this seems particularly foreboding:
- Nations will stream to the mountain of the Lord?
Yay! We win! (we, meaning Christians)
- Weapons will be turned into gardening tools?
No brainer. Even beauty queens want world peace.
- The wolf will lie down with the lamb?
Oh good. Nobody likes a bully.
- A woman will give birth to a child who will lead us?
Women are generally nice; babies are generally cute — all good!
Nations Will Stream To The Mountain of the Lord.
But take a closer look at the first oracle. There’s a trip-switch hidden in the relationship between the words stream and mountain. The oracle claims that nations (in search of wisdom) will stream to the mountain. I presume the oracle initially assumed the mountain to be a metaphor for the city of Jerusalem with all her grand, nationalistic aspirations. Christians would understand Jerusalem to be a metaphor for the height of Christian truth and God’s sovereign rule.
I’ve been to Jerusalem, and it is, topographically, a high point in the land. Things don’t generally stream to the high points. They generally stream away.
This oracle speaks of a radical, reversal of nature; not only nature out there, but our own inner logic or compass as well. Simply consider humanity’s reasonable fears and need for security. Then, consider the counter-intuitive gospel account of the long-awaited messianic king. He enters history as a vulnerable child under morally dubious circumstances. Shortly after his birth he is fleeing for his life as a political refugee, and after 33 years he was only able to muster a handful of followers who quickly abandon him when things got rough. Eventually he suffered a brutal and humiliating death at the order of an illegitimate tyrant.
This is a hard sell.
They Will Beat Their Weapons into Plowshares
Consider the second oracle, the unlikely prediction of weapons turned into pruning shears. This is all well and good, but consider that the world’s largest economy is based on the assumption of war and the opportunities for wealth-creation it offers. It is hard to imagine that the radical shift in world-view necessary for the abandonment of arms will get much traction – even among Christians who, supposedly, have been gifted with a vision of the last chapter of history so that we can bear witness to it in the present.
We’re simply too invested in fallen-ness to take redemptive witness seriously.
Equally, we (especially in North America) are heavily invested in a theology that equates faithfulness with the right to security and safety, even though it is difficult to imagine such theology can be gleaned from the witness of Christ as portrayed in the gospels.
Again, tough sell.
The Wolf Will Lie Down with the Lamb
Recently I met Amhad, an Arab man, and Dorit, a Jewish woman, who both live in an intentionally mixed community in Israel. The community sees itself as a living witness, counter to the dominant narrative of conflict that beleaguers that storied land. When I met them, I made reference to Isaiah’s wolf/lamb oracle and the unlikelihood of their deep friendship. Amhad’s eyes twinkled as he said, “I’ll leave it to you to decide which one of us is the wolf and which one is the lamb.”
Indeed, one can hardly consider this oracle without making the judgment that one of those two is more innocent than the other. And indeed, much of modern history could be summed up as an overall culture of individuals and groups clamoring for lamb status. Certainly, few clamor for wolf status.
I, for example, am a reasonably nice, Christian, heterosexual man committed to the betterment of my fellows through the exercise of the gifts God has bestowed on me for the sake of the gospel.
Surely, if there is a continuum, I lean toward the lamb side.
And yet, if I consider my investments, my buying habits, my eating habits, my lifestyle and leisure, my excesses and prejudices, it doesn’t take a great sleuth to uncover where I am woefully complicit in systems of oppression and injustice.
I willfully participate and benefit from systemic injustice everyday. I can justify it to others I suppose, but I don’t think my defenses will stand long before the steely gaze of the “Lamb who is on the throne.”
Part of me longs for Christ. Another dreads the encounter.
A Virgin Will Bear a Son. A Child Will Lead Them.
Finally: A woman will bear a son and name him Emmanuel, God with us. Coupled with “a child will lead them,” this oracle seems the loveliest and most harmless of all. Yet, if we consider the record of adult, male-dominated history, it is hard to believe that the best and wisest of things will be ushered into history through a woman and child. It simply does not stand up to our selective memory of experience. This oracle coming true (along with the others) would require a radical refashioning of every institution and social structure we have known.
It would also require a willingness to relinquish illegitimate wealth, power and prestige. Such relinquishments, and their attendant vulnerabilities, could only be sustained by an ardent love and longing for the community of God, the shape and culture of which these oracles suggest. And yet, these oracles, taken together suggest a reality that we may not realize is already before us.
The Three-fold Coming of Christ
The ancients spoke of a three-fold coming of Christ, whom we ritually anticipate during the advent season.
We remember the Christ who came as a baby 2000 years ago. We anticipate this very lamb returning in our future “high and exalted” on clouds of glory. And we profess his coming to us now in the present.
The first coming is a matter of history.
The final coming is a matter of faith.
It is the present coming that seems shrouded in obscurity. But, perhaps we simply don’t know how to look.
Earlier this spring, I attended a peace conference where several communities from around the world, all in the process of rising above conflict and/or injustice, came to share their stories. My job was to listen, and at the end of the day reflect back briefly what I had heard.
The stories were incredible. Ari, a Sri Lankan man, understands profoundly the fragile nature of human dignity and the degrading dependency that external powers (through aid) can inflict on those they profess to help. He also knows how hard it is to resist that help, which can in the short run relieve present misery. When I listened to his story, I was struck by the incredible and counterintuitive wisdom that has clearly been revealed to him. And I thought of that first oracle.
Dennis from Bougainville (Papua New Guinea), for decades led an armed, revolutionary revolt against colonial Australia whose policies toward Bougainville have been terribly destructive both socially and environmentally. He recounted the horrors of a war in which he lost his wife and son and personally suffered crippling wounds. And he recounted his conversion and commitment to a way of peace, which he now leads and which includes… interestingly…gardening. I thought of the second oracle.
It was at this conference where I met Ahmad and Dorit, the Arab man and Jewish woman living in peaceful community in modern Israel.
And I thought of the third oracle.
A contemplative nun, Sister Pine, led us all on a walk of “mindfulness and attentiveness” where, while walking barefoot, slowly through the grass, I was suddenly gifted with an overwhelming, child-like delight in the very miracle of creation.
I immediately recalled a few weeks earlier when my grandson Luca took me by the hand into an overgrown bramble next to a playground near his house.
I couldn’t interest him in the multi-coloured structure designed to entertain and exercise youngsters. Instead, he wanted to show his Pop-pop the “deep dark woods” where we spent some time with our faces close to the ground inspecting bugs, snails and curious plants.
At one point he yelled, “Look, Pop-pop! It’s beeeaauuutiful!” And I leaned in to see the speck of a miniature spider crawling across a leaf.
And indeed, it was beautiful.
I would have missed it if this boy-priest hadn’t led me into his hallowed sanctuary of sacred mysteries and delights. And I thought of the fourth oracle.
At the end of the day, as I was reflecting on these stories and how, in my mind at least, they corresponded to the Isaiah oracles, there was a distinct whispering in my ear, “See… I am here.”
Music and Lyric by Steve Bell
based on Isaiah 2:1-5, 7:10-16, 11:1-10, 35:1-10
Oh ancient seer, your vision told
Of desert highways leading home
To the mountain of the Lord
Where nations sound a righteous song forever more.
And on that mountain men will forge
From cruel implements of war
The tools to till and garden soil
The rose will bloom and faces shine with gladdening oil
And it will surely come to pass
Justice will reign on earth at last
The wolf will lie down with the lamb
No beast destroy, no serpent strike the child’s hand
And God himself will choose a sign
A frightened woman in her time
Will bear a son and name him well
God with us! O come, o come Emmanuel!
“The Shape of Things to Come” originally appeared in Faith Today Magazine (Nov/Dec 2012). Reprinted here with permission of the author. “Oracles,” from Keening for the Dawn, is included here by permission of the artist.
Visit the Keening for the Dawn website for more details & to purchase the CD.