Reverend Fleming Rutledge, an eighty-year-old Episcopalian priest, has become an unlikely hero in evangelical circles. She has attracted the admiration and readership of seminary students and faculty nationwide, particularly after the release of her magnum opus, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, which won Christianity Today’s Book of the Year in 2017. The lifelong liturgist is a gifted communicator. Rarely do readers of a theological tome rave about the readability, wit, and eloquence of its author. Her writing skill combined with insightful scholarship makes Rutledge a valuable, if late, addition to evangelical theological learning.
But perhaps she’s only late to me? I often exclaimed, “Where has she been all my life?” after starting The Crucifixion, which took me six months to finish, as I marinated in each section. The answer is that she’s been there my entire life, having been ordained in 1977. Unfortunately, evangelical protestants like me rarely hear about mainline denominational priests, especially when they are women.
The Church Has a Calendar?
All summer, I itched to get my hands on Rutledge’s latest offering, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. As a former Catholic, I grew up practicing the liturgical church calendar. The rhythms of church seasons were formational in my early spiritual life. When I transitioned to a Bible church and eventually to the Baptist tradition, those rhythms ceased. I didn’t miss them, but I still paid closer attention to Lent and Advent than did my lifelong evangelical friends. In recent years, those seasons of church life have enjoyed a renewed focus within evangelicalism and Rutledge has much to offer the church universal with her explanation of Advent’s theology, focus, and relevance today.
Some readers may be tempted to skip Advent’s introduction, but don’t. In it, Rutledge lays out her theology of Advent, providing a scriptural foundation for preachers and teachers to grasp its focus on Jesus’s return. Non-liturgical readers will learn about the significance of Advent’s place in the church calendar, the prophetic biblical passages read weekly to millions of liturgical churchgoers, and how observing the season can rightly position our hearts before Christmas.
The remainder of the book is composed of several papers that Rutledge published over the years, many of them sermons she has preached throughout her time in ministry on each Sunday of Advent. With enviable ease, she weaves together allusions to books, movies, art, history, theology, and human nature. Each chapter is filled with references that reveal the impressive breadth and depth of Rutledge’s knowledge of literature, entertainment, the arts, world religions, and the writings of other Christian theologians.
As she explains, “The sermons and essays, though arranged in a carefully planned sequence, are meant to be mined as needed; each individual contribution stands on its own.” Church leaders, preachers, liturgical planners, and lay people wishing for a deeper spiritual experience will benefit from these works.
The King Is Coming
As her subtitle not-so-subtly suggests, Rutledge challenges readers to approach Advent in its dual role: the announcement of both the first and future comings of Jesus Christ. As a child, I puzzled over why we treated the weeks leading up to Christmas as a time for pretending baby Jesus had not yet arrived only to rejoice on Christmas day as if it were new again. Here, Rutledge demonstrates the advantage of celebrating the church seasons.
Though Advent opens the liturgical calendar, it falls at the end of the year, highlighting our present patience having already met the incarnated Jesus (Christmas), witnessed his death and resurrection (Easter), enjoyed the giving of his Spirit (Pentecost), and experienced daily life as his child (Ordinary Time). Rutledge explains, “In the cycle of seasons and festival days that takes the church through the life of Christ, it is Advent that gives us the final consummation; it is the season of the last things.” During Advent, we look ahead to the return of the king, as we await the second coming of Christ, not merely the first.
For some, that simple thought is revolutionary. We’ve spent a lifetime marking the four Sundays of Advent with “faith, hope, love, peace,” followed by Christmas day’s “He’s here!” All the while, the season intended an anticipation of not just the first advent of Jesus, but also his second—the king of Heaven’s triumphant return to judge evil and redeem the earth for himself. “[Advent] can well be called the Time Between, because the people of God live in the time between the first coming of Christ, incognito in the stable in Bethlehem, and his second coming, in glory, to judge the living and the dead.” “The king is coming” is a cry of hope in the midst of darkness, suffering, and pain.
Today is as good a time as any to yearn for his return. Nations rage against each other, the earth groans as the climate rains chaos on its inhabitants, disease continues to kill, and sin controls humanity. Acknowledging this present darkness roots us in the Advent anchor of hope: a longing for our redeemer to make all things right again and a confident anticipation of that reality. Advent, Rutledge asserts, is primarily an apocalyptic effort. As we grieve the sinfulness and brokenness of our world, we cry out for the end, for the coming of the judgment of our righteous God.
Early on, Rutledge warns, “Advent is not for sissies.” And she’s right. We live in the not-yet window of history: Jesus has come, but he has yet to return. Evil flourishes, the church grieves, and we wait for the ultimate judgment to make all things right. How do we live expectantly? With hope, confident in the character of our God. Or to quote from a recent sermon by Rutledge: “To live in his light: this is what it means to expect his return.” Take heart, for the king is coming soon.