By Dr. Justin Heinzekehr, director of institutional research and assessment and assistant professor of Bible and religion
Scripture: Psalm 122 (NRSV)
Psalm 122 is a joyful psalm. The singers are pilgrims who have traveled back to Jerusalem to be reunited with family and friends during a festival. They have arrived at the city gates, flush with gratitude and ready to wish everyone peace and prosperity. It’s likely that these pilgrims were coming to Jerusalem for Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, which occurs every year at the end of autumn. This was a harvest festival celebrating the abundance of the fields and the prosperity of the community. It was a time for sharing with family, certainly, but also a time when all in the city would be invited to feast and rejoice – slaves, Levites, strangers, orphans and widows (Deut. 16:13).
As we enter the Thanksgiving weekend, I can appreciate the joy that the pilgrims express. I too am looking forward to the feelings of security and prosperity that come with rest, family and feasting. But what does this have to do with Advent, the season of waiting? What does it mean that Advent begins with a holiday of abundance? Is this just a calendric coincidence?
I realized as I read this psalm again that I often think of waiting in terms of lack. When I wait, I am missing something that I hope to receive later. Often I think of Advent in terms of waiting for peace or justice or abundance. It feels easier to interpret Advent that way – there is plenty of evidence that the world is lacking in justice and peace. I can put those things in the category of the hoped-for-but-distant future.
But this psalm, and the structure of the U.S. holiday season, might invite us to think differently about how we wait and what we wait for. If Advent begins with a feast, then our baseline is not lack but plenty. According to Deuteronomy’s instructions for feasting, we already have in hand all the resources we need to eat together, and eat well. Justice and prosperity are not meant to be future states, but rather the conditions in which we wait.
This raises a question. If we practiced Sukkot correctly, we would already be operating out of a community that shares its wealth among those most in need, that celebrates the bounty of nature with gratitude rather than greed, and that enjoys each other’s fellowship. What more is there to wait for?
Perhaps Thanksgiving, as the beginning of Advent, is the time when we set ourselves up for the coming of something even greater than abundance, something more mysterious. I would describe this mysterious something as the underlying purpose or spirit of abundance. One of my favorite philosophers, Alfred North Whitehead, calls it “Peace” (with a capital “P”):
“[Peace] is a positive feeling which crowns the ‘life and motion’ of the soul. It is hard to define and difficult to speak of. It is not a hope for the future, nor is it an interest in present details. It is a broadening of feeling due to the emergence of some deep metaphysical insight, unverbalized and yet momentous in its coordination of values. …Its first effect is the removal of the stress of acquisitive feeling arising from the soul’s preoccupation with itself. …It is primarily a trust in the efficacy of Beauty.” – Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Free Press, 1967), 285.
One can have abundance, even equitable abundance, and still miss the spiritual purpose that animates it and gives it meaning. And to some extent, we wait for this crowning experience as a divine gift.
But there can be no Advent without first tending to the tasks of Thanksgiving. So, as we wait, let us all come to the feast, remembering with gratitude the plenty around us, remembering with compassion the need, and all the while expecting the transfiguration of abundance into beauty.
Scripture: Psalm 122 (NRSV)
I was glad when they said to me, Let us go to the house of the Lord!
2Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
3Jerusalembuilt as a city that is bound firmly together.
4To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
5For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David.
6Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May they prosper who love you.
7Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.
8For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, Peace be within you.
9For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.