Advent through the Ages: Hope
Justo Gonzalez, the brilliant church historian, wrote in his “Story of Christianity” that “The early Christians did not believe that the time and place of the birth of Jesus had been left to chance. On the contrary, they saw the hand of God preparing the advent of Jesus in all events prior to the birth, and in all historical circumstances around it. The same could be said for the birth of the church, which resulted from the work of Jesus.” That’s a powerful claim, isn’t it? Everything that was happening in the world two thousand years ago was part of this great plan of God’s to prepare the world for the coming of the messiah. The world was in such tension then, not unlike today, with a few humans holding great power and wealth and the many suffering under the oppression of Rome and its emperor. Daily life was tough for citizens and slaves alike and it was difficult to understand how a shared future could arrive with such great conflict between peoples. And into this tension arrives a baby who is foretold to be a savior to the people. Powerful stuff. And rich, fertile soil for people to use as they tell and retell this story. And this story had been told in oh so many ways for oh so many years.
This advent season, Robin and I will be looking how this story has been told through the ages, in art and in music primarily, but in other forms as well. Next week, the choir and our guest orchestra bring you a brilliant example of how this story can be told through music with Handel’s Messiah—the Christmas portion and we hope you’ll all be here for that. And today I want to look at one of the very first theatrical representations of the Birth of Jesus—a medieval mystery play called “The Second shepherd’s Play”. Of course there were previous theatrical versions of the Birth of Jesus, we know of a number that are mentioned in various sources, but this play, The Second Shepherd’s play, is unique in that we have existing manuscripts—it’s part of the Wakefield Mystery cycle plays, and we have full copies of this play. I worked my way through the thick language in preparation for this sermon and it’s a surprisingly funny and charming play.
We can learn much from how artists interpret the world—using their unique lens and sharing with us their artistic vision. The medieval mystery plays are an interesting window into the world of that time—circa 1500 about 500 years ago. Now mystery in this context doesn’t’ mean like a modern “whodunit” but instead refers to the great mystery of faith.
The plot of The Second Shepherd’s Play begins with one of the shepherds, Coll, making a complaint about the cold weather. A shepherd must endure the worst weather to guard his flock. Coll’s character creates a rapport with his audience by complaining about the very difficulties that those in this community faced.
Gib, another shepherd, enters the scene and joins in harping about the weather. However, this shepherd’s complaints soon turn to marriage and to his wife. He warns young men to stay away from marriage. During his tirade, Coll interrupts him, and they then discuss a third shepherd named Daw, whom they both agree is lazy and mischievous, perhaps because he is so young. This third shepherd, Daw, enters with his own complaints: Daw complains about being hungry, about employers, and about floods. There was lots of complaining and commiserating to be done in mediaeval entertainments.
The three shepherds’ complaints are interrupted again, this time by Mak, a well-known thief. Mak tries to fool the three shepherds and tells them he is a yeoman—a mid-level servant—sent by his lord, but the three shepherds recognize him for who is really is. Mak threatens to have them whipped and in return the shepherds then threaten Mak–so he makes up a story that he didn’t know who they were, and earns their sympathy by complaining about his own wife. The group of four drink until they fall asleep at the table. While they sleep, Mak casts a spell on them to keep them from waking, and steals a sheep. Because, you know, he’s a thief.
When Mak gets home, his wife berates him, concerned that he will get into trouble for the theft. They decide to hide the sheep in a cradle and then pretend that Mak’s wife is giving birth to the “baby’s” twin. The chaos of the birth will cover any suspicions the shepherds may have. Well, this plan to trick the shepherds works at first–But when the shepherds return to bring gifts to the “baby,” they discover that it is not a baby, but in fact their missing sheep. They punish Mak, but decide against taking his life. At this moment, the play then shifts to a more biblical narrative. An angel tells the shepherds to go and see the baby Jesus, following the story of the Visitation of the Shepherds from the New Testament—the traditional word found in your bulletins. When the shepherds leave again, they are no longer filled with complaint, but instead are singing and rejoicing together.
By all accounts of the existing evidence, this was an extremely popular mystery play. It was performed often and there are numerous mentions of it in a variety of different sources. Personally, I love imagining the local citizens of this community, weary from their long day’s work, being filled with the anticipation that this entertainment, the mystery play, is going to bring them. They’d be talking about last year’s production and gossiping about the actors and the other theater folk. The anticipation of this entertainment would have sustained them for days, possibly weeks, leading up to the performance. I love the anticipation of a new play or book or movie— I’m thinking of a certain saga that takes place in a galaxy far, far away, that has it’s latest chapter opening soon—in fact it opens in 11 days, 13 hours, 45 minutes and….17 seconds, but I’m not at all excited about it. The delicious anticipation of some event can be just as enjoyable as the actual event. And there is an art and a practice to anticipation. There are ways we use the days and hours and minutes leading up to something to strengthen our souls—to enrich our daily lives—and to help us examine situations with new eyes, from new angles, with a new perspective.
The Second Shepherds play would have offered the citizens of Wakefield and opportunity to experience their lives in a new light…and it would, of course, given them the chance to attain some assuredly well-deserved novelty in their lives. It would be a highly anticipated change to their routines—one that they knew would bring them joy, comfort and, by the end, smug satisfaction as their own faith is validated, bolstered and celebrated. The role of novelty and entertainment is an important element of human life—and if it can be edifying and uplifting as well, then all the better. Now we don’t have any data available on how happy human beings were during the medieval period, but plays such as the “Second Shepherd’s Play” give us some insight in to how similar the human situation is, then and now: complaints about the weather, spouses, employers—it seems these are timely topics in any century. So while we don’t have any scientific data on the “happiness” level of humans living 500 years ago, we do have some tools that allow us insights into the happiness and, conversely, the anxiety of modern humans. Us, who crave entertainments for all of the same reasons our ancestors did.
According to a 2016 survey of more than 21,000 people from 36 countries in all regions of the world, almost 60 percent agree that the world has become worse in the past year, rather than getting better or staying the same. The study’s lead author, Neal Rubin, writes: “”As society is modernized and ways of life change, people have to adapt to the new ways in which society structures life–and socioeconomic status plays into identities,” he goes on: “The loss of cultural roots and traditions and changes in identity can lead to alienation, depression and hopelessness about ways to adapt to future.” I find it important to note that an ability to adapt to our changing circumstances can help us avoid feelings of depression and hopelessness. It seems that flexibility equals hope. And a way in which we can gain more flexibility is through reflection and introspection. A leading economist replied to the findings of this survey by saying: “… a more “inward-looking world” creates opportunities to address the risks at hand and will require responsive and responsible leadership with a deeper commitment to inclusive development and equitable growth, both nationally and globally. It will also require collaboration across multiple interconnected systems, countries, areas of expertise, and stakeholder groups with the aim of having a greater societal impact.”
In other words, we can’t just bury our heads in the sand, pull up the latest “bingable” series on Netflix and lose ourselves in our entertainments. We can’t gather in and lock down and close the doors and lose ourselves in the modern version of “The Second Shepherd’s Play”. We must interact. We must engage in difficult conversations. We can’t avoid looking each other in the eye and saying, I disagree with you, but I love you, and I will always, always, until my dying breath, fight for your right to believe as you do…all I ask is that you offer me the same. The Golden Rule. It seems to me that this reciprocity is being lost today. We’ve gathered ourselves into our corners— we’ve chosen sides–and we’re refusing to come to the middle and shake hands and work together. Now, I believe that those gathered here this morning can stand in the middle of this vast world of polar opposites and offer hands of friendship and reconciliation. That’s what we’re called to do, as Christians, as humans who care about our lives together. We can be the peace-makers. We can be the bridge-builders. Someone must be, because the alternative is too depressing to contemplate. WE must be the peacemakers. We must be the “hope makers”.
Two thousand years ago, fifteen hundred years before the writing of “The Second Shepherd’s Play” the Roman Empire was the center of the known world. We all know the clichés: All roads lead to Rome, when in Rome do as the Romans do, etc… and if you’ve studied clichés at all you know that there is always truth within the mind-numbing shlock. But we also know certain things about what life was like for the clear majority of Roman citizens, and while there was an extended period of time known as the Pax Romana, where the immense military might of Rome maintained a kind of forced peace, life for the average Joe and Jane was not that pleasant. The work was hard, the living standards just barely provided a means to sustain yourself and your family, and disease and poverty were always palpable threats. The social order was one that ensured that the aristocracy and high-up leaders would maintain their power and that the lower classes, the plebs, would keep the world running and keep wealth flowing into the Empire’s coffers. The imbalance between the haves and the have-nots was great. H.J. Haskell writes in his book The New Deal in Old Rome: “The fortunate classes were corrupted by wealth that largely was unearned. The less fortunate were corrupted by their poverty, poverty which Rome never was able to cure. This situation played a large part in the conquest of the culture by the ignorance of the submerged masses…” Now, we know that one way to keep the masses in a state of ignorance is to supply them with lots of entertainment. And therein lies one of the great tensions for anyone who cares about our shared lives: Balancing the need for recreation and entertainment with a propensity for that entertainment to instead become an opiate: a way to control the masses. Perhaps you know another cliché about Rome: Bread and Circuses? Keep the people fed and entertained and you can do all manner of vile policy changes and tax rip-off schemes…once again, as long as everything looks okay on the surface, all manner of corruption can thrive just under that thin veil of propriety—of normalcy—a veneer of lies. We see it throughout history and it’s replaying all over the world even unto this very moment. As long as people will allow themselves to be fleeced, there is a willing “fleecer” out there waiting to take all we have.
So, where’s our savior? Where’s our shepherd throwing us over her shoulders and fighting off the wolves and the thieves—the “Maks” of our world? In this day of social media and instant gratification by way of Amazon and online shopping, and ample distractions in the form of manufactured chaos and crises, just what do we need to be saved from? I think we need to be saved from our petty, selfish, isolated natures. Modern technology means that we can, in fact, live our lives with very little human interaction—and as someone who had to go to Towne East yesterday and shop, I certainly understand why we may not want any human interaction—but I went anyway, and I ran in to some old friends and we had a lovely chat. And I watched the shoppers and the children, and I allowed myself to get swept up in the spectacle of it all. Mind you, I couldn’t do it often, but I’m glad I did. We need to get outside of ourselves and out into the real world—even the chaotic world of a shopping mall at Christmas frenzy time. We need to stop wasting time arguing over manufactured drama and deal with the world right in front of us.
Are we not all but shepherds ourselves, out in the Flint Hills, doing our best to provide for our little flocks, guarding against all manner of wolves and thieves lurking about us? I always wonder how we would respond if an Angel of the Lord appeared directly before us and told us that our savior was waiting for us in some little Western Kansas town? I know I’d certainly question all that I understand to be true. The ground on which I stand would be just a little less secure, were a “heavenly host” to start singing beautiful music—oh, wait, that happens all of the time, right here in this room…
However you like to hear or read or see this familiar story of the arrival of a savior, whether you like to gather around and read the traditional story from Luke’s gospel, or you like to see a metaphorical version in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (believe me, the story of a savior is in there, just watch Max the dog) or you prefer a more oblique approach as in “Love, Actually” wherein each character, in effect, becomes each other’ (and their own) saviors. Or you enjoy thinking about our medieval ancestors and their enjoyment of “The Second Shepherd’s Play”. In whatever manner you like to experience this timeless story of a savior, it is probably influenced by what you, yourself, need saving from. Your anticipation of the arrival of a savior is a direct reflection of what you need to be saved from. If you need to be saved from sin, then your savior will indeed provide a means by which to do that, but if you instead need to be saved from your own self-centered, me first, ego-driven nature, then the savior you anticipate will be one who can pull you out of your self-centeredness, and into the world-centric life—your savior call pull you our of an ego-driven needs for consumption and shopping and clinging into a life of recognized abundance and a life of plenty and then you can share that life with others.
I believe that our “savior”, that which will save us, is right here. Within this community. We can save each other, because we are worth saving. And we already know what to do. Love each other extravagantly and wholly. Share our resources, our homes, our coats, our dollars, our meals. Our lives. That’s where my hope lies. In us. Collectively living and working and loving together. And figuring our how to live together. And forgiving and giving. And loving. And expecting and anticipating love. That love is, actually, all around us. Paulo Coelho wrote these words in his brilliant novel, The Alchemist: “When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.” That’s us—loving and hoping. Always hoping, anticipating, that tomorrow will be just a little better than today. Hoping that we can leave our children and our children’s children, a world better than we found it. That is my prayer, my hope—it can always be better. May we all make this one of our practices of anticipation this Advent season—a practice of expecting hope—hope in a world that desperately needs our hope.
Amen– Please stand as you are able and sing our choral benediction.