longing for grace

Advent is, first and foremost, the great season of longing. Listen to the first words that the church will hear in this year’s lectionary cycle as the Christian Year begins: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1). Then, a few Sundays later, listen as earth’s longing cry is answered at the Jordan river: “And just as <Jesus> was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10).

Advent is the season when we proclaim the surprising news that the future is not closed, that there is a way out of the quagmire, that earth’s great grief can yet be healed. The Christian Year opens on a world and a people whose prospects are bleak. Before we can sing of hope, peace, joy and love we first name the terrible cycles of despair, conflict, grief and hatred that hold us captive. Jumping too quickly and easily to the promises of God can weaken their power, reducing them to greeting card clichés. If grace is to be named and known as amazing it must surely come in response to the honest, hard truth about the troubles that confront the soul, the neighbourhood and the planet.

Advent mirrors the weekly liturgical turn from the Prayer of Confession to the Declaration of Grace. This is intended to be a dramatic turning point in the liturgy in which our longing prayer for the heavens to be torn open is answered with the astounding news of God’s in-breaking kingdom come. Often the Prayer of Confession is either abandoned as too depressing or tritely rehearses a maudlin litany of misdemeanors. Yet a powerful communal prayer that poetically and truthfully names the deep trouble that we are in – the sin that warps even our best intentions – can set the stage for an equally powerful and daring declaration of the power of God to make new.

At University Hill Congregation the Prayer of Confession is offered on behalf of the congregation by a lay worship elder. With the congregation standing following a hymn of praise and prayer of approach the worship elder confesses the truth about us – that we are caught up in the vast web of brokenness caused by the power of sin and, as a result, that we long for God’s merciful intervention in our lives and in the world’s life. Then, out of its silent confession the congregation sings its longing: “Kyrie Eleison” – “Christ, have mercy.” The sung “Kyrie” changes with the Christian seasons so that, with frequent repetition, children and newcomers learn the refrain of our common longing for God.

Now the presider steps forward to proclaim the gospel of God’s gracious intervention in our lives and world. This task often falls to me and, in the past, I often felt that my texted announcement fell short of the wonder, power and challenge of the gospel. It led me to drop my pre-scripted words and to improvise the Declaration of Grace. Like a jazz musician improvising on a score I testify to the incredible news that it is in facing and naming the places of our deepest trouble that we meet Jesus already present healing, redeeming and reconciling as a sign of God’s intention for all of Creation. In response the congregation bursts into doxology, singing a jubilant “Hallelujah.”

For all who despair at the depth and breadth of the troubles bedeviling the world and who are prepared to confess it, the advent of God's coming in Jesus Christ is an open and daring invitation. It is an invitation to enter a future in which the once closed heavens have been torn open and God’s life-giving grace has been set loose to make new. Hallelujah, indeed.

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