Here’s the question that must be asked during Advent: Do the Rules of Advent apply only in Advent?
Or to put the question another way: Do the Advent Rules apply beyond the special period (in the Western church) inclusive of the four Sundays prior to Christmas? Do they apply, in other words, to all of the Christian life?
That has particular significance this year, since Christians constitute a significant majority in both chambers of the U.S. Congress (over 90 percent) and the President is also a Christian (although, yes, some continue to dispute his faith identification).
(In the U.S. population, 78.4 percent identify themselves as Christian, 4.7 percent with other faiths, 16.1 percent as unaffiliated, and 0.8 percent as “don’t know/refuse to answer,” according to a Pew survey.)
It isn’t just the numbers, however, that make the Rules of Advent relevant; it is also the issues.
The issues, that is, of how to deal specifically with the nation’s budget and debt, and more generally with the nation’s economic recovery.
One side – politically, not religiously – clearly holds that the best way to address these issues is to tax the wealthy more, while the other side clearly holds that the solution rests with cutting government spending, especially need-based and entitlement spending.
While both sides are being encouraged to compromise, a recent front-page Wall Street Journal article suggests there are few indications either side is serious about compromise:
“There were fewer signs of movement on Capitol Hill. Democrats say they are waiting for Republicans to agree to raise the tax rate on the highest earning households, and Republicans are waiting for Democrats to agree to cuts in safety-net programs.”
The absence of compromise is already having consequences on the economy: consumer spending, manufacturing, business investment (the same Wall Street Journal article reports) all are headed downward, with only a few economic indicators holding steady or heading slightly upward.
A front-page Chicago Tribune article reports that the indecision in Congress is having an immediate impact on the plight of those who depend on government programs for their livelihood and that future cutbacks on benefits, as the solution or as part of a compromise deal, will likely make their situation a good deal more acute.
If, for example, a compromise were to include more restrictions on who would qualify for food stamps, it is projected that somewhere in the range of 2 million people would then be excluded and that a half-million would see their assistance reduced.
That would come at a time when food pantries are already being stretched beyond their capacities.
(Nationally, there has been a 2.9 percent increase in the number of people receiving food help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over the past year. But with the rise in food prices, those receiving SNAP aid are finding that their food stamps are purchasing less. Increasingly, families have to choose between purchasing food, medicine, telephone service, transportation and so on.)
Critics of governmental assistance programs argue that this kind of aid creates dependency and that entitlement programs are too generous for our economy to sustain.
Many of those same critics contend that taxing the wealthy more will only stunt economic growth, which would impair everyone, including the poor and those in need of governmental assistance.
Under these circumstances – with these issues and alternatives up for grabs – should members of Congress who identify themselves as Christian seek guidance from the Advent Rules?
Should they pay particular attention to the Gospel readings assigned by the lectionary to this season of preparation, in anticipation of the annual celebration of God’s special visitation and revelation to earth and humankind?
What should they make of the Advent Rule (for the first Sunday of Advent this year from Luke 21), that in the midst of distress in and among the nations and “the roaring of the seas” (how timely is that, given Sandy?), with everything being shaken and passing away, only one thing endures – the words of God’s Anointed One?
Or how should they factor in the Advent Rule (for the second Sunday of Advent from the beginning of Luke 3) that the paths are to be made straight, valleys filled, mountains made low, crooked roads straight, and rough ways smooth for the coming of that Anointed One?
Even more pointedly, what weight should be given to the Advent Rule (for the third Sunday in Advent, continuing in Luke 3) that authentic repentance in preparation for the Anointed One allows no special exceptions but demands that everyone be treated equally in terms of food and clothing and economic welfare?
And what standing should be given to the Advent Rule delivered by the mother of the Anointed One (for the fourth and last week of Advent, from Luke 1) that the lowly be lifted up, that the hungry be filled with good things, and that the rich be sent away empty?
There could be no doubt, if the Advent Rules from the Bible for this Advent season were to become operative, how the Christians in Congress would have to vote, given the alternatives.
But those feeling the pinch of those Advent Rules would have a fairly easy way around them if the Advent Rules applied only to Advent.
All the congresspersons would have to do is wait until Dec. 25 or just after and then revert to their political and ideological positions.
They’d have plenty of support for doing just that, insofar as many Christians today and through the ages have staked out the claim that with the coming of the Anointed One the Advent Rules were (and are) to be set aside and a new, more lenient, even grace-filled edition of rules were (and are now) to be put in effect.
It is a point and position worth arguing about.
Still, every Christian, whether a member of Congress, has to contend with those parts of the Gospel of Luke that deal with the post-Advent appearance of the Anointed One – the Anointed One who claimed that, with God’s Spirit upon him, he was assigned the task of bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed.
Still, every Christian, whether a member of Congress, has to contend with the Anointed One who is also recorded (by Luke) as saying that those who are rich and full and happy now will be left wanting, hungry and weeping, while the poor, hungry and mourning will be blessed with what the wealthy once had.
Every Christian, that is, still has to come to a conclusion about which and when the Advent Rules rule.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.