December 22, 2021
Week of Advent 4
Dear ULS Community:
I’m a few days behind my usual schedule for these “Reflections”—and the main reason is that the last week has been so intensely busy—but I think it is a good thing that I can reach out to you one last time before Christmas and the end of the year, just as ULS shuts down for the holiday break tomorrow. It seems appropriate at this moment to both wish you joy in the Christmas celebrations that lie ahead and at the same time give a kind of benediction on the fall semester which is now, like Advent, drawing to its end.
Our strong hope that this past semester would be more “normal” than any since the pandemic lockdown began, was in fact both fulfilled and thwarted at the same time. Indeed, we were able to do more in person than at any time since my arrival at ULS in August 2020, but it wasn’t as much, or as complete, as we had wished. We did what we could, but we’re not there yet.
Now we face a second wave of infection that (though we hope milder in most instances) seems far more infectious than before. Because of that, for the January intensives, we will be returning to the higher level of vigilance that we maintained last year, with the intensive classes meeting on Zoom, the libraries closed, and most staff working from home. This is at present only for the first three weeks in January, but we’ll make a further determination as early in the new year as we can, about what will happen next. It is my strong hope that the omicron variant will burn itself out quickly and allow us to return to a greater level of togetherness. But the safety of our community will be our priority as before.
Somehow this year, even more than last, I feel very strongly the length and the challenge of the Advent season of waiting and watching for Jesus’ birth. Advent this year has seemed longer than normal, and darker, and perhaps the pandemic, our ongoing uncertainties about the future, and the higher incidence of natural disasters around the world this fall have all made this period of vigilance and anticipation more intense. At least I have felt it that way.
But there have been some beautiful bright spots, even in the last few days, that have given me new hope and some relief amid the tensions of an uncertain future: the wonderful Advent services we celebrated on both our campuses; the Christmas fellowship enjoyed with students, faculty, staff, and our wider circle of ULS friends at a whole array of social events we were able to hold just before the pandemic intensified; and—as always—the surprising and always powerful message each Sunday’s lessons give us of God’s great love for us, made flesh in the infant Jesus.
For me, it was last Sunday’s gospel lesson that was the highlight of the season: the song of Mary from Luke 1, in which Mary praises God for the favor God has shown her (and all of us) in choosing her as the one through whom the Incarnation would occur. In simple but powerful words, Mary praises the “great things” God has done for her (and for us) and sets forth a vision of a new relationship between God and God’s creation. In this new paradigm, in mercy and power God will overcome all the barriers humans have built between each other and between themselves and God, and the perfect relationships for which we were created will finally become reality for all—fulfilling completely and at last God’s ancient promises and revealing God to us fully in both strength and mercy.
Somehow Mary’s words hit me more strongly than ever this year, that the Mighty One whose strength and mercy she praises is also with us now; whose creative and restoring power is among us yet—even in the troubles and challenges of the present moment—to point us toward a better and more just future. Strength and mercy—these are the qualities God shows so paradoxically in the birth of Jesus, infant and Savior, helpless and wordless yet the Promised One, showing us simply in flesh and blood our connectedness with God and our kinship with one another.
Of all the things that have convinced me that I am a Lutheran, the greatest has been the powerful way my heart has responded to all the many things in Lutheran theology, tradition, preaching, and music that point toward that reality both basic and ultimate: that God became human to be with us, among us, and to show us what strength and mercy really mean—and to do this in terms we humans can understand. This Advent and Christmas season of waiting and expecting, and the remarkable birth of Jesus—God with us—is the most vivid possible way the church expresses its hope and joy in the great things God has done for us.
I hope that some of that powerful feeling of God’s presence accompanies you through these holidays and strengthens you in your doubt and uncertainty and brings you joy and hope. I end this semester with a strong sense of God’s providence working in our ULS community, scattered but still united, using our resources to be strong in the face of all that holds us apart. Wherever you are this Christmas Eve, please remember us here in Philadelphia and Gettysburg and a hundred other places, working together to advance God’s message of love in a world full of fear, and shape leaders brave and skilled who keep that message clear and strong for years to come.
I believe have so much to be thankful for at United Lutheran Seminary, and I rejoice in the manifold blessings of God, among which you—our community—are the central one. I hope you have a safe and joyous Christmas with those you love.
May God bless you now and keep you in the year ahead!
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary