Each year, Advent invites us to enter into the joy of the season through rhythms of remembrance and renewal. But often, our very familiarity with the Advent story can leave us dulled to the miracle and joy of the season.
In her new Advent collection Heaven and Nature Sing, author Hannah Anderson invites readers into a fresh reading of the Christmas story by drawing together 25 meditations on the beauty of creation.
On Friday, December 16th, we held an Online Conversation with Hannah Anderson to discover anew the joy of the long-anticipated Incarnation which calls heaven and nature to sing.
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Kelly and Adrienne Johnston
Chris and Cheryl Bachelde
Online Conversation | Hannah Anderson | December 16, 2022
Cherie Harder: Thanks so much, Molly. And let me just add my own welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with Hannah Anderson on “Renewing the Joy of Advent.” I’ll add my own thanks to our sponsors, Chris and Cheryl Bachelder and Kelly and Adrianne Johnston. We just so appreciate your generosity in making today’s program possible.
And as we wrap up this year, I just want to send a special thank you to all of you who have joined us for this and other programs throughout the year, as well as to give a special shout-out to our first-time attendees and our nearly 100 international guests joining us from at least 14 different countries that we know of, including Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Dominican Republic, France, Greece, Ireland, Jamaica, Japan, South Africa, Spain, and the United Kingdom. So if we missed you, be sure to put your name and where you’re joining us from in the chat box, and just really appreciate you joining us from across the miles and across the time zones.
This is, I believe, our 85th Online Conversation since we began the series during the pandemic in March of 2020. And over the last two and a half years, we have covered a lot of ground, hosting conversations on topics ranging from poetry to pluralism, from doing justice to pursuing humility or healing a divided culture, from dying well to cultivating a life of learning. All of those Online Conversations are available, not surprisingly, online, and many are also available via podcast. And we’re so honored to have had more than 100,000 of you from over 100 different countries register and tune in. We are really grateful for your enthusiasm, your interest, and your support.
If you are one of those folks where this is your first time attending one of our Online Conversations or are otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith and offer programs like this Online Conversation to do so and to come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope today’s Online Conversation will be a small taste of that for you today.
We are now deep into the season of Advent, a time that’s historically been given to reflection and prayer in awaiting the incarnation and is marked by the wonder of God himself taking on mortality. And so we thought it would be a fitting way to end the year with reflecting together on the ways in which heaven and nature sing together about the arrival of joy in the world and the invitation offered to us to join the chorus.
And to help us do that I’m so pleased to introduce our Online Conversation guest today, Hannah Anderson. Hannah is an author, the co-host of the Persuasion podcast, and a cultural commentator whose works include All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment, The Turning of Days: Lessons from Nature, Season, and Spirit, and her most recent work, Heaven and Nature Sing: 25 Advent Reflections to Bring Joy to the World, which we’ve invited her here today to discuss. Hannah, welcome.
Hannah Anderson: Thank you for having me, Cherie.
Cherie Harder: It’s really good to have you here. So we just played a take on that wonderful old carol “Joy to the World,” a song which you said actually inspired your new book on Advent. What about the carol led you to write the book?
Hannah Anderson: Absolutely. Well, I’m sure everyone is familiar where you get a song stuck in your head and it just loops and loops and loops. And for me, last year, “Joy to the World” got stuck in my head, in part because of the line “heaven and nature sing.” And I had just finished up the book you mentioned, Turning of Days, where I was doing some work on essays through the season, kind of giving attention and focus to what the natural world reveals about God and about us. And this line from “Joy to the World” really was shouting at me in ways I had never seen it before. I think I began to hear it a little more literally than it was intended. And I started asking the question, “Well, what if heaven and nature are singing? What if they’re saying something that I haven’t really tuned into? And what would it mean to tune into it?” And as I started just sitting with that and pondering that, I also began to remember the background of the song “Joy to the World,” which, although we sing at Christmas time, has historically been an Advent carol and a carol that was not even just for Advent but for the whole year as it sings and it reminds us of this longing and waiting for the King of creation to come to creation.
So a lot of things came together and opportunity came to be able to write in this direction. And I decided to just start pulling on the elements of the Christmas story that were involved in nature or creation, particularly through the lens of longing. Because Romans 8 tells us that creation is groaning and longing with us, that we’re not the only ones waiting in this Advent season, that the earth itself is groaning under futility, waiting for the children of God to be revealed. So those threads all kind of came together and it felt like just the perfect season to begin to explore what would it mean to join that chorus, as you said earlier?
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So, you know, in reading your book, in many ways it’s largely about attentiveness and the ways in which paying attention to creation kind of teaches us to better know and to hope in our Creator. And so I’d love to hear you explain what it is that you believe about nature that is such a helpful lens through which to view reality, but also to view our Creator, and what it means to worship with creation.
Hannah Anderson: Right. Well, I don’t think I have to convince anyone that we live in a distracted age. Right? So we live in this moment of intense information and in some ways almost too much information. There’s this overload that we’re experiencing. It also comes as a very deeply disembodied experience. We go from working online—which I love the opportunity to be online here with everyone, but there is this disconnect and this disorientation, I think, that has accompanied this time in history. And so what I believe creation invites us back to is reorienting ourselves not only to God, but to our environment and perhaps even to our own bodies and to ourselves. And so when we are giving our attention to the patterns and rhythms and cycles of creation, it has the potential to be an access point for some deeper truths that maybe we’ve forgotten or we’ve overlooked.
And so when I think of attuning ourselves or giving attention, I really do mean just the language of paying attention, of observing. I’m not inviting folks into this deeply mystical experience or even a lifestyle change. I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, but not everybody is going to live here, and we kind of like it for ourselves. You can come visit, but we like our space. So I don’t want folks to hear me calling toward an attunement to nature to be a change in your lifestyle or to take up a new hobby, but for us just to shift our imaginations and our perspectives ever so slightly that we would start to pay attention to this larger world that we are part of, that we are creatures in, and really begin to listen more than we speak, perhaps.
My husband recently got his hands on a book by journalist Ed Yong about—it’s called [An] Immense World—and it is based on the premise that there are these conversations happening all around us all the time that we aren’t privy to, that trees have their own way of communicating, that different species are communicating in ways that we don’t quite understand. And I think what I’m inviting folks into is very similar to that, is to say, let’s listen for a moment to the fact that there are all kinds of conversations happening around us in nature, some that we can attune to, some that we may just be bystanders in. But by giving attention to what’s happening, what the Creator has done, the witness of creation, we might be able to orient ourselves a little better to our own lives and to the Creator.
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating. You know, one of the things I thought was intriguing about your book is you not only kind of draw that connection between apprehending and attending to creation and the link between that and attending to the Creator, but you also draw a link between caring for creation and caring for others. And at one point you actually say, “How we care for the land often mirrors how we care for those dependent on it, especially women and children.” And so would be curious to hear more about what you see is that link between care for the land or care for creation and care for our fellow creatures.
Hannah Anderson: Yeah. You know, one of the features of our modern life is this deep detachment from the land. And there’s reasons for that. And again, I’m not an idealist where I think we all need to take up hobby farming, but there is a disorientation to the role we play in this larger ecology that we exist in. And so in attuning ourselves to creation and what God is doing in the natural world, it’s actually an invitation to perhaps unlearn some of the ways that we think of ourselves as detached from the earth. So sometimes within this moment, we can think of ourselves as human beings as over the earth, perhaps. You know, I think sometimes we see the “dominion” language in Scripture and we envision that as being over the earth rather than within it or inside of it or as part of this creation. I do believe that as God’s image bearers humans play a specific role in stewarding the creation, that there is a unique call on human creatures within the scope of the natural world. But it’s less about us dominating or being over it as it is about cultivating it. And so when I think of this link between how we view ourselves in relationship to other creatures, to the earth, it inevitably spills over into how we view each other as human beings because so much of our lives and our livelihoods have come from the cultivation of the earth.
Now, in our modern experience, we may be detached from that. We may go to the grocery store to buy our lettuce and to buy our meat or whatever it is that sustains our life. But when you get closer to the sources of that sustenance, if you hunt or you cultivate a garden or you handle livestock, you begin to realize the degree to which you yourself are dependent on what’s happening in this larger ecology. And one of the ways that we can miss that is we do get a very mechanistic view, not just of our own lives, but of human community. And we become more cogs in a machine than this kind of living organism of creatures relating rightly to each other, including relating rightly to each other as human beings. And in particular that quote that you referenced about the way we relate to women and to children in particular, one of the key features of the earth is its fertility and its capacity to produce life despite everything. And within our human communities, children in particular represent that future and that capacity for life. And whether we’re stewarding and honoring that capacity within the earth probably is going to be paralleled by the way we steward and honor that capacity within human community as well.
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating. Long before Christmas, pagan religions worshiped nature. And so there’s a big shift between worshiping nature, which was what most religions kind of did for a very long time—of course, some still do—and worshiping with nature, which is what your book talks about a lot. And you told this wonderful story about the legend of the first Christmas tree, which kind of arose from that tension between worshiping and worshiping with and would love to hear you talk a little bit about how the Christmas trees we enjoy reflect and emerge from that tension while ultimately reflecting a new way of understanding who God is.
Hannah Anderson: Yeah, it’s such a good point because I think within our modern expressions, whether we’re Christian or not, we do tend to look back at premodern engagement with the natural world, and we view it with suspicion at best, and perhaps a little condescension at worst, right? So we do see a different posture toward nature. And to your point, there was a way of worshiping the created world that was deeply linked to paganism, worshiping the elements. And Romans speaks of that, right. You would worship the created thing rather than the Creator. But what’s curious is that throughout Christian history, Christian practice also worshiped with the elements of creation. There wasn’t this divide or the rejection of incorporating creational or natural elements within Christian worship. It was a more reorientation of how those elements served the worship of the Creator.
And in particular, there’s a tradition that’s grown up around the use of the fir as a Christmas tree or the evergreen as Christmas tree that dates back to the legend of Boniface in Germany, who came to evangelize, came as a preacher to pre-Christian tribes there, and found them worshiping creation, found them worshiping particularly the trees. And a particular piece of that story is worshiping under Odin’s oak, was the tradition. And [Boniface] came upon a village where they were going to sacrifice a chieftain’s son underneath this oak in order for the blood to nourish the tree which was being worshiped and representative. And so Boniface comes in as a missionary and he sees this, and he’s portrayed in the traditions as this woodsman creature, this kind of mythic Paul Bunyan missionary type. And he sees this thing that’s about to happen, and he takes his ax and he rushes in and he chops down Odin’s oak, and he proclaims the true son of God that they should be worshiping. And when the oak falls, he then points to a small evergreen tree and says, “Take this up instead.” And the emphasis is on the evergreen eternality of the son of God and also the humbleness, because it was a small tree in comparison to the oak. And then as the tradition goes, that majestic oak was then turned into a cathedral that the people eventually worshiped in.
But that’s the kind of tradition that’s grown up around our use of the Christmas tree, especially evergreens. And it carries with it that kind of spiritual tension between “are we worshiping the creation?” or “are we worshiping with the creation?” And seeing this kind of allegory and imagery built into the natural world, then turns our eyes back to the eternal son of God, who is evergreen and faithful, and this continuity that is expressed even within the nature of the tree itself.
Cherie Harder: Looking at some of the ways in which knowledge of nature give us more insight into the Advent and the Christmas story makes me think of a point that you brought up, which is you talked a lot about habitat in your book and you just sort of explained why conservation efforts focus a lot on habitat, because if you lose the structures and the ecosystem which supports life, you eventually lose life itself. And so a focus on habitat is always important as opposed to just the individual animal or even the flock or herd or what have you. And you posited this gave special insight into something we often gloss over, which is when Jesus was born, there was no room for him. He essentially lacked a habitat. And so I would be interested in hearing more about what you see as the implications of the fact that when Jesus arrived, there was no room for him at the inn upon his arrival.
Hannah Anderson: Well, you use two words and even setting up this question you talked about the environment or the ecology versus kind of an individual space. And one of the things I think that nature corrects for us very quickly, corrects our modern categories, is that nothing is individual, that there is an interplay between all of the elements of an ecosystem. They are dependent on each other. You cannot move one without it affecting the other. And so when we speak about habitat, especially in conservation, we’re not just talking about the place, we’re talking about all of the elements that sustain life. And so when we read in the Gospel of Luke that there was no room or there was no place for the son of God, it goes beyond there wasn’t a place for him to sleep to kind of this larger resistance, this hostility within the environment, that it would not sustain what he was bringing to the world.
And so later on in his ministry, we see Christ say the same thing: “where foxes have dens and the birds they have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” And so even pulling on that thread where a den provides more than a place to sleep for a fox and a nest provides more for a bird than just a place to rest, that it is essential to the entire environment and place in which they exist, the place where they are nourished, the place where they mate. All of these things come into play when we’re talking about habitat.
And so to me, this was also a way that our kind of modern, hermetically sealed understanding of individual existence limits our ability to understand the conditions in which the Son of Man was entering. He was entering a world deeply at odds, not just to him, but to life itself. And he was coming to make room, because that’s the promise that Christ gives us. He is making room for us. He is inhabiting this world and turning it into a place that would sustain life and that there would be a place for us with him, wherever he is. And I think this kind of attunement to the categories in which nature is operating in, that there is no such thing as an individual in this sense—it’s not that we lose our individuality, but we must we become attuned to the fact that everything is interconnected and that the work Christ is doing is reconciling all of these things to bring peace to this world.
Cherie Harder: You know, so far we’ve talked about nature mostly in a fairly positive way, some of its beauties and glories and insights. But nature is vicious, too. I had the experience at one point of studying British literature as a graduate student in Australia, and it was so funny to read like Wordsworth or Blake about “nature meek and mild” and walk outside where nature would kill you very quickly. You know, and Tennyson talks about nature “red in tooth and claw,” and for all of the ducklings and flowers and mountains, there’s also a real brutality and a predation order to nature where the strong are literally nourished by devouring the weak. And so I would love to hear from you how those realities versus some of the more sentimentalized ideals of nature complicate the view of the nature of our Creator and the role and place of us, his creatures.
Hannah Anderson: You are absolutely right about the risk that nature poses to us as its inhabitants. So I do want to remind folks when they pick up my books that nature is not domestic. It will kill you if given the chance. And I think particularly folks who do have a detachment from the earth, one of the unexpected consequences of that is that you can end up being very sentimental about it because you don’t actually understand or know or experience its brutality because of that detachment. So if you are working, though, more closely with the earth, you learn very quickly about life and death and about predation, to your point. And you have to reconcile that with a question of is this the way it’s supposed to be? Is this the way it is? And I think there’s a tension in that question that we don’t always know the answer to. We exist in shadows now.
What nature does tell us is the truth, right? So it tells us the truth about life on this earth, even when we would rather not know the truth. It is honest about the beauty and the glory and the goodness, about life prevailing in the most unexpected ways. But it also tells us the truth about pain and death and suffering. And it really doesn’t blink or wink at that at all. As human beings, we can very easily rationalize a lot of the harsher realities of life. But nature won’t do that. And so in this sense, I find nature to be more honest than we are in some respects. And as a conversation partner, I think there is— we’re forced to look at things that we would rather overlook. So I think that’s one unexpected benefit of attuning ourselves to nature is we’ll also have to look realities in the eye that we would otherwise overlook.
And, you know, how we reconcile those realities is another question. There’s lots of different approaches to what things are versus what they should be. What should we be working toward? How much do we as creatures and as human beings exist under these same kind of forces? But at the end of the day, I think there is just a dose of honesty that creation gives us that we need deeply.
Cherie Harder: That is such an interesting point. And whether this is correlation or causation, it’s sort of interesting that as we have become more and more urbanized but also more and more digitized, there’s been a real rise of misinformation and confusion and the like. But we do as a country kind of struggle with the fact that we are more urban, we are more digitized. Most of us are not living on the land or hobby farmers or what have you. And so I’m curious what you see as the implications of the fact that more and more of us live less and less connected to the land and just the implications for how we understand not just creation but the Creator.
Hannah Anderson: Yeah. Well, I’ll just share a bit of my own experience. I did grow up close to the land. I was raised by a family of homesteaders who had kind of gotten in the “back to the earth” movement of the seventies. I grew up reading Mother Earth News. My husband grew up in a similar environment here in Virginia. And so when we met, we had a kind of shorthand and understood each other in ways that we didn’t even realize that was what was connecting us until years later. And so I myself had this obliviousness about how I had been shaped and formed in a positive relationship toward the land.
And we went about our life, you know, started a family, went about our careers. And it wasn’t until a few years ago when I became aware of my own disposition. And even though it was somewhat positive and I’m grateful for choices that my parents made that affected my ability to even think this way, the realization that I was oblivious to a positive dynamic toward the land made me realize that other people are probably oblivious to the lack of attunement to the land.
So I think one of the first things we just have to own is that we have been shaped, that we are not neutral, that there are forces around us that had carried us along and either detached us from the land or, if we had the good grace to grow up close to the land, that these choices were made for us. So I think the first thing we just have to do is kind of take stock and evaluate our own imagination as it relates to this and to acknowledge that this is a very real gap for most people.
As we recognize that gap, I think we have to ask, to your point, what does that mean? I think one thing it means is that, if we are also creatures, that we are probably deeply alienated from ourselves and from our own bodies and from other people. If we do not have this larger logic about how creation operates, then we don’t have that logic about our own bodies and our own selves. And so that could be a place to begin to recover this. And I’m not talking about an approach that just deems anything natural is good. You know, we’ve already talked about the fact that nature will kill you given the chance. So there is a trend that says, “Well, it’s natural, then that means it’s right. That’s what we should do.” I’m just talking about educating ourselves in these kinds of forces and rhythms and patterns that exist that we may not be aware of.
Beyond that, I think there are very small, subtle ways that we can begin to recover a sense of where even our food comes from. Again, this is not a call for everyone to rush out and become a hobby farmer, but you might get a plant and try to keep it alive. You might get a houseplant. You might pick up one of those potted herbs in the grocery store and take it home and do your best to observe it. And just to begin to make these small reconnections that would attune your own mind and your own thinking in a certain way.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. And so for folks listening who are in urban centers, in a condo complex, you know, spend their life as most of us do staring at a screen, beyond the little hydroponic plant or what have you, what practices of both embodied and attentional do you recommend to kind of undertake to better see and attend to ways that heaven and nature sing?
Hannah Anderson: Well, I think, again, it starts with taking stock of what is: where do you exist, what is possible, where are you detached? And then it’s a question of being intentional with what can be done. So it’s moving in a direction rather than arriving at a certain destination. So maybe it’s, “I’m going to go outside and take a walk in my neighborhood and I’m going to pay attention to the weather in which I’m walking. I’m going to pay attention to the pattern of the clouds or the direction the wind is moving. I’m going to observe what happens in the same neighborhood throughout the seasons.” And so attention and attunement require repeated observation. Sure, we can go outside for that one walk and get some kind of experience of nature that begins to awaken our senses. But because of the way creation is structured, we’re talking about cycles and rhythms, and those cycles and rhythms are only going to be able to be observed and attuned to over time.
And so one of the things that I would recommend is staking out a place, finding a place outside, whether it’s on a walk, whether it’s in a park, whether it’s your backyard, and committing yourself to go out there once a week, maybe pick a certain time, maybe it’s your Sunday afternoon walk, and then do that consistently enough where you begin to slowly notice the changes, but also the cycles that are coming back through again. And so observation requires time. And I think, again, that is a feature of our age, our modern age and our digital age, that we’re not as comfortable with. And yet nature stands there through the generations, consistently cycling through these rhythms in time, and it’s much more comfortable with the amount of time that something takes to learn or to develop or to grow than we are. And so I think there is a patience here that is necessary as well. Observation requires a willingness to commit to the long term and to have ourselves slowly shaped by that.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Hannah, this has been a lot of fun. We’re going to turn to questions from our viewers. And just as a reminder, you can not only ask a question in the Q&A box, but you can also “like” a question and that helps give us a sense of what some of the most popular questions are. And so our first question comes from Jenny Savage. And Jenny asks, “Both learning to recognize and change our perceptions seems to be a thread of your writing. In Heaven and Nature Sing, you write of how the microscope aided in changing our perception of the world, and God revealing the angels to bring his message to the shepherds changed theirs. What postures and practices have helped you foster the desire, as well as the ability, to examine and change your perceptions of God in the world, and from there making the necessary connections between the seen and unseen?” It’s a big question.
Hannah Anderson: It is. But a good one. I think, as I look back, the most enriching or most valuable posture change that a person can make is one from the confidence that you know what’s going on to curiosity. So much of observation is based on “I wonder.” “I wonder what that is.” “I wonder what’s happening.” And so if you think even throughout the history of science, so many of these hypotheses that we now take for granted and all of these theories began with “I wonder.” And for people who don’t have wonder, who don’t have questions, who feel fairly certain that they understand what’s happening in the world around them, you’re not going to learn and creation can’t teach you anything because you’re not in a position to learn. So I think one of the core postures that has to change is the humility to acknowledge that we don’t quite know what’s going on here, but we sure would like to. There’s a conversation happening around us in the natural world that we’re curious about. And I think, however we can cultivate curiosity—and I really do believe that it begins with humility, with a posture that says, “I don’t know. I may live in an information age and I may have a ton of information, but I don’t know. I don’t quite understand.” So for me, learning to attune to creation has come with and maybe perhaps come by a disposition toward curiosity, curiosity toward the trees, to the plants, to my pets to say, “What is it that you know about the world that I don’t?”
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So a question from Jim Luther and Jim asks, “Christmas Day historically was set to stamp out Saturnalia on December 25th. Many think that Jesus’s birth was probably in the spring. I have struggled with the specific time-frames and dates of Advent and Christmas on these non-historical roots. With a huge buildup to Christmas Day and exhaustion and withdrawal afterwards that society has forced upon us, can we find ways to center ourselves in Advent and Christ’s birth that transcends this?”
Hannah Anderson: Well, you’re naming many true things in terms of how cycles and patterns and celebrations emerge out of human culture. Right. So, so much that we have received about how we practice Christmas is because it was developed over generations. And even Advent itself some sources say that it goes back to the 500s. So we’re talking about 1,500 years of cycles that we are the recipients of. And not only that, but we have multiple hundred years of more modern life that our practices around Christmas have shifted through innovation. And so now we sit at this nexus of competing cultures. We sit at the kind of conflict between a civil calendar that is closing out the year and a Christian calendar that’s opening up the year of the Christian liturgical calendar. We sit at this place where everything around us is telling us to consume in these weeks before Christmas, while Advent is telling us to wait. So I want to name, first of all, the conflict that is larger than us and the place that we find ourselves in. We have inherited both the Christian calendar and more modern practices that are sometimes at odds with that.
And so in that respect, the first thing I think that we have to do is just receive the grace that God is extending to us to recognize that one person in one generation cannot undo all that we have received. But what we might be able to do is to gain a little bit of clarity about the space we inhabit and then begin to ask, “What is it that I want to pass on?” We can’t undo all of these cycles we’ve inherited, but we might be able to cultivate certain practices and meaning that we could pass on to the next generation.
And so within our family that has come with a strong commitment to acknowledging our limits in this season, because regardless of the timeline the chaos of these weeks reminds us of our creatureliness. And so for us, celebrating Advent has been tied to a deep sense of limitation and embrace of the need for a Savior. Beyond that, we’ve also, as a family, kind of accepted the historical invitation of the 12 days of Christmas after Christmas to say, “There is a space here, whether or not this is the actual date of Christ’s birth, this is the time that has been given to us providentially—if only because our children are out of school and because everyone else is taking the time off. This is a space for Sabbath and reflection that is providentially given to us and we will receive it as such.” So there’s lots of things happening in this moment that are outside of us, but they also can be opportunities for taking what is good, testing these things and then passing along what will sustain us.
Cherie Harder: So a question from Greg Christian, and Greg asks, “American media tends to move us away from being cognizant of what’s going on across the Atlantic and Pacific and south of the equator. What are your suggestions for overcoming that as well?”
Hannah Anderson: Well, it’s such a good point because when I began writing this book, I began it with a strong commitment to place. And for me, that place is the mountains of Virginia. And so it’s very centric to the northern hemisphere. It’s very seasonal. But as I was writing, I was also very aware that at one point in my life, my husband and I lived in New Zealand for a year and celebrated Christmas there. And it was a remarkably different experience of the holiday because of the seasonality, because it was summer and we were being invited to barbies on the beach. And there was a whole different expression of joy than what I was experiencing in my traditional North American culture. So I’ve wrestled with the degree to which we are providentially placed where we are, while also maintaining awareness that other people are providentially placed where they are, and their experience, particularly of the season as it relates to creation around them, is going to be shaped and look differently.
For me, living in North America with a season, there is a natural invitation to focus on the kind of waiting of winter along with Advent. I don’t have the natural invitation to celebrate with the joy that might happen in the southern hemisphere. And so I do feel like my brothers and sisters in the South have a capacity to rejoice in the joy of the warmth and the sun at Christ’s birth that isn’t an access point for me. And so I think one of the things is the global church is in conversation with each other. This is essential. It is absolutely true that a lot of the traditions that we passed on emerged from kind of northern hemisphere–centric experiences. But we have this opportunity for others to say, “You know what? This is how my place emerges and helps me worship and celebrate this season,” in a way has its own unique strength, and I would just say we need to give attention to cultivating those conversations and hearing from each other.
Cherie Harder: So a question from Mark Escobar: “Japanese poetry has haiku and tanka, which predominantly depict nature. It’s interesting to know that worshiping with creation reflects an inherent connection between the centralization of our embodied relationship to God. How about the Book of Psalms, where we also find metaphorical meanings of nature that the author uses in prayer? Or how about the feminine images of God that we find in Scripture?”
Hannah Anderson: Well, I will tell you that one of the things that led me in this direction is questioning whether some of the things that we take metaphorically are as metaphorical as we believe them to be. And I know that sounds perhaps a little mystical. But there is a question to me as modern readers, particularly in the West, as we approach the Scripture, we’re more inclined to impose our paradigms onto it and believe we understand what it’s saying than to allow the ancient categories to emerge. And so when we are reading something like the Scripture, we’re dealing with deeply ancient understanding of the world, of fertility, of feminine imagery. And I think our modern eyes are very quick to dismiss that. And if we’re going to allow ourselves to be shaped by the Scripture in particular, that’s going to demand a curiosity that says, “Maybe I don’t quite entirely know what’s going on in this text, and maybe I’m the one who needs to be shaped and formed by it.”
So I think there’s an invitation there, particularly for modern readers, to come back to the ancient text. And rather than assume we know what it’s saying or to dismiss it as outdated, to perhaps open our imagination a little bit and say, maybe there’s something I’m missing.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So a question from Joshua Land who asks, “Growing up, I was taught the idea of stewardship of the earth, but it took its form as God providing the earth for our use as we see fit. How could we encourage fellow believers that stewardship means more than simply using the earth God has given us, but not fall into a worship of the earth over the Creator?”
Hannah Anderson: Yeah, and it’s a very common understanding of stewardship. And I would perhaps say the tweak or the correction that we need is that we are to steward the earth the way God sees fit. So the stewardship of the earth may be the unique responsibility of us as his image bearers, but we don’t get to determine what that looks like. We have a responsibility to understand God’s dreams and God’s vision for the earth, and then to fulfill that in a way that is holistic and reflects our submission to him as Creator.
One way that our understanding of human stewardship can sometimes go awry is we begin to see ourselves as the mediator between the earth and God. And so there’s kind of an elevation that can happen where we as human beings see ourselves as over the earth, cultivating it, and handing it back to God. Or that we are somehow mediating it. The theology of the Incarnation teaches us that Jesus Christ is the mediator between the creation and the transcendent, that Jesus Christ is the one who is both God and both man, and he is the second Adam that is restoring and reconciling the creation to what it should be, including us. And so if there is a theological access point here, I think it’s that we need to correct our understanding of the role we play as human beings. It’s not that image bearers don’t play a specific role within the creation, but we are not elevated as the mediators, that Jesus Christ as the second Adam is the one we submit to as well.
Cherie Harder: Yes. So we have a question from an anonymous viewer who asked, “Do you personally have a Christmas tree?” And they go on to say, “My pastor, who is deceased now for three years, taught that they were pagan. There’s a Scripture that says not to worship a tree. I’ve not had a Christmas tree for the last 30 years since I became a Christian.” So they’re curious about whether you do.
Hannah Anderson: Well, the honest, brutal truth is I do not have one right now because I have not yet decorated for Christmas because I am waiting. But yes, typically I do have a Christmas tree, and I have heard similar kind of concerns about adopting kind of pagan symbolism. But “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” And I think that extends to Christmas trees, that these trees were God’s trees first. And the misuse by human beings or by pagan practices does not— they are not owned by pagan practices. They are owned by their Creator. And I do think there is an invitation to reclaim the creation for the purposes which God has made it. At the same time, you know, go with God, act in faith and in your conscience.
Cherie Harder: Yes. So a question from an anonymous viewer: “What are some of your daily habits that you practice during Advent in order to better experience the joy of the season?”
Hannah Anderson: Hmm. Well, we did inherit—one practice we did inherit of the few we did inherit—was an Advent calendar that we’ve been doing with our children since they were young. My husband actually grew up with this calendar. It was a handmade kind of wall calendar with small felt ornaments, and each day we would take one out, and through the course of the weeks of Advent, you would work through creation and to redemption. So it’s the story of salvation from the beginning of Advent to the end. So that’s one thing that has been consistent for our family.
When I think back of the practices we inherited, that is perhaps the only one that we knew by heart, and we were able to continue through. The difficulty with establishing traditions in a new generation is that traditions are by definition, generational. And so as we try to incorporate things within our own nuclear family, we found it to be very difficult. It is very hard to establish things that you did not grow up learning. So because of that, we have tried a lot of different things. It’s been kind of the trial and error of what works and what doesn’t, what sticks and what doesn’t.
One thing we have noticed over the years, however, is the season can be very chaotic. And so it’s very important to find those points of the day that are not going to move, that are not affected by the disruption of these weeks before Christmas. And those include sleeping and eating. And so for us, those have become anchor points to whatever celebrations we’re trying to maintain in Advent, whether it’s reading, reading at dinnertime, or prayers. We have found over the years, even as our traditions have fluctuated, that those points of sleeping and eating are the things that don’t fluctuate. So if you can gather your family once a day for a meal or gather with your housemates or whoever you live with, that becomes a very natural rhythm and practice where you might read or pray.
Cherie Harder: So I’m going to combine two different questions that are somewhat related, both from anonymous viewers. And the first one asks, “We can often become dull to the wonder of Advent because of the routine and business of the season. How do we awaken ourselves to the wonder of Advent season?” And somewhat relatedly, another anonymous viewer asks, “Many of us are consumed by the busyness of our daily lives and the busyness that’s become a point of pride in society. Are there ways we can honor the reality of our daily lives, but also orient ourselves in a way that recognizes the holiness of the season?” So wonder and holiness.
Hannah Anderson: Wonder and holiness—because this is a specific time that has been set aside. I think we feel the pinch of Advent all year round, right? We feel the groaning and the longing and the loss of what the world should be. But here at Advent, we are setting aside a couple of weeks to be able to voice and to name that longing. And curiously enough, because of the conflict between how Advent has been historically celebrated and the way we celebrate these weeks before Christmas, there is an unique invitation, I think. In my own experience of these weeks before Christmas, they are deeply disruptive, chaotic, painful in ways that we don’t want to acknowledge, all while we’re supposed to be in the happiest time of the year and have our act together.
And so for me, this tension has been the access point for the wonder and the holiness of these weeks. It sounds counterintuitive because when we think of honoring or celebrating a season, we think of ourselves setting aside and in doing it with its particularity or with sacramental overtones. What I have discovered is that the invitation comes. I don’t have to create it. To the unique invitation of Advent is, in the midst of the chaos, what am I going to do with that? In the midst of the wheels coming off a week and a half before Christmas, when things haven’t worked out the way that I hope they would, that all my best-laid plans have gone out the door, where I’m off my cycles and off my rhythms that I had hoped would carry through—how am I going to respond to that?
Well, the invitation of Advent is to acknowledge it, to confess it. And I use that word in both its connotative and denotative way. To state, to acknowledge, to name the fact that we are not enough, that we cannot even celebrate Advent the way we want to, and also to confess the deep need we have, the deep brokenness we experience, and to long for the redemption that is promised, to long for God to pierce this material realm, to come in through the incarnation, to save us from all the things that we cannot save ourselves.
So for me, the wonder and holiness of Advent is deeply linked to the materiality of it and to our experience of it as a disappointing time sometimes, as a painful time. And so I suppose I would just leave viewers with the recognition that if this is difficult, that may be the best way to prepare yourself for the coming of the Christ.
Cherie Harder: Well, Hannah, this has been fascinating. Thank you. And in just a moment, I’m going to give you the last word. But before that, a few things just to share with you. Immediately after we conclude, we’ll be sending around a feedback form. We really welcome your thoughts. I say this every time, but it’s always true. We read every single one. We try to incorporate your suggestions to make these programs ever more valuable. And as a small token of our appreciation for your filling out that feedback form, we will send you a code for a free Trinity Forum Reading download of your choice. There are several that we would recommend that pertain to our conversation today, particularly “Bright Morning Star” and “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” There are several others we’d recommend as well, but want to make you aware of that and encourage you to do that.
In addition, tomorrow we’ll be sending around an email to everybody who registered for today’s Online Conversation with a lightly edited video of today’s online dialogue, as well as different recommendations on readings and resources if you want to go further into the topic. So be on the lookout for that. Should be arriving by around noon tomorrow.
In addition, we’d like to invite all of you who are watching us today to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who help make the Trinity Forum’s mission of cultivating, curating, and disseminating the best of Christian thought possible. There are many benefits to being a Trinity Forum Society member, including a subscription to our quarterly Readings, where you can get Readings like “A Christmas Carol” with an introduction by Karen Swallow Prior—they come out four times a year—our daily “What We’re Reading” list of curated reading recommendations, and as a special incentive for all of you watching today with your membership or gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Hannah Anderson’s book, Heaven and Nature Sing. So I hope you will take advantage of that, particularly those of you who’ve joined us multiple times. We would love to have you as part of the Trinity Forum community.
This is actually, as I mentioned before, our last Online Conversation of the year. We’ll be releasing a new schedule soon for January and hope that you will join us for future programing. We’ll also be sending out our last podcast of the year on Tuesday. So be on the lookout for that. And as we wrap up things for the year, I’d like to thank all of my colleagues at the Trinity Forum for their good work on these Online Conversations throughout the year, particularly Nikki Sheffield, our events Coordinator who serves as our producer, as well as Molly Wicker, Brian Dascom, and Izzy Lehosit.
Finally, I just want to thank all of you. It’s been quite a year and we are just really grateful for your interest, your support, your feedback, and your encouragement. Thank you for being on this journey with us. Finally, as promised, Hannah, the last word is yours.
Hannah Anderson: I just want to share a poem that I’m sure many are familiar with, and you’ll forgive me for reading it from a screen, but it’s Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” that captures both the glory and the tension of futility that hangs over the earth and our presence in it.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out like shining from shook foil.
It gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared; smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: The soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel being shod.
And for all this nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Cherie Harder: Thank you, Hannah. Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a happy Advent and a very merry Christmas.