Bearings Part 1: Good Mapmaking

Quartermaster Seaman Tom Vest, pictured at right, is carrying out a mission critical function for his ship and crew. He's taking bearings from nearby land features and relaying that information to the folks responsible for steering the ship. With this information, the ship and its crew can navigate the waterway and get to their intended destination safely and on time.

How does this work? Without going into the technical details of the particular device he is using, it works by an ancient mathematical, architectural and nautical skill called triangulation.  If you know any two fixed points and can measure the angles between them and your location, you can determine your location. Measuring changes in those angles over time generates your relative velocity. That in turn and enables you both to predict where you will be at any particular time if you keep your current course and to make whatever small or large corrections in course you may need along the way. Triangulation has been used with stars for navigation at night, with visible landmarks for navigation during the day, and more recently (along with doppler shift calculations) with global positioning satellite technologies (GPS).
Effective triangulation and therefore navigation depends first of all on taking the bearings accurately. You need to know what fixed points you are seeing and the actual distance between them. 

Where does someone like Tom Vest get that kind of information?  From the work of mapmakers, folks who have been where he is now before he got there, and recently enough to have noted any significant changes in the landscape, measured out everything, and laid out an accurate picture of what they saw. To the picture they add a scale that gives his equipment the accurate distance between the landmarks or geographical features he uses for bearings.

The church through its history has created and continually refined good maps to help Christians  take their bearings as they navigate the waters of discipleship and mission in the name of Jesus.

For worshiping communities, perhaps the most important of these maps is the Christian year. The seasons of the Christian year portray the most significant landmarks of the life of Jesus and the church in mission in the world. We can easily take rough bearings from the seasons themselves. Advent is a season of new beginnings and expectation. Christmas is a season of celebrating incarnation. Lent calls us to baptismal disciplines. Holy Week takes us to the execution of Jesus and mourning his death. Easter opens us to the joy and power of the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. 

Rough bearings are helpful along the way, but not as much when you're seeking to hone in on your destination. Only the seasons listed, not the Ordinary times after Epiphany and after Pentecost, give us even rough bearings. So if we're looking for maps for our common worship that will take us somewhere,  we need a more precise scale. 

The church's lectionaries throughout the centuries have been that more precise scale, giving all the seasons a particular context and weekly  anchor in the scriptures. 

Let's take Advent as an example. The rough bearing for the season is about new beginnings and expectation, but beginnings of what  and expectation of what? Sixteen centuries of Christian mapmakers have thought it important for us to begin with the end of all things in mind. The first and primary focus of Advent is expectation of the second coming of Christ, the judgment and end of the kingdoms of this world as we have known them, and the full inauguration of the new creation in him. This remains the focus solidly through the first two, and generally through the first three weeks of Advent in our current lectionary, keeping a tradition going back to the fourth century. Only after such an extended meditation on the second coming do we begin to transition to the first. Why? Because we cannot fully appreciate the significance of the first coming, the birth of Jesus, until we do so through the lenses of the fulfillment his birth begins. 

Taking only the rough bearings for Advent can sometimes take us on a variety of interesting diversions that lead us to miss the deep Christian grounding of the birth of Jesus not only in its historical but its cosmic significance. We may still arrive at the manger on Christmas Eve-- we may even have followed that particular journey to the manger for several weeks-- but we will have arrived there by the equivalent of a tunnel in which we miss all the scenery that puts the significance of the birth of Jesus in its fullest context. Stories immediately surrounding the birth of Jesus are wonderful in their own way. But how more wonderful, how more worthy of honor and glory, majesty and praise is the Incarnation of God, Lord and Judge of heaven and earth, making all things new. Celebrate Advent as the mapmakers have shown us, and we really have something to sing about come Christmas!

Am I saying that we must always use the lectionary to be faithful disciples of Jesus in our worship? Not at all. The readings for a particular Sunday in the Christian year, or even for a whole season, can vary widely, and in some contexts must do so!

We always need new mapmakers to scour the harbors where they actually are, remeasure, find things not seen or perhaps under-appreciated by others who did not know that particular terrain as well. We especially need new mapmakers in places where the terrain has changed.

The issue is not whether we use exactly the readings from the United Methodist version of The Revised Common Lectionary for the Second Sunday in Advent in Year B  on December 4, 2011, or even on any of those Sundays. 

The issue is whether whatever we read or do in worship during Advent helps us get the perspective that Christian mapmakers for this season have been showing us through their selection of texts. If other texts would help your worshiping community explore and become captivated by the return of Christ and the consummation of all things in him as the context for his birth than anything in the lectionary, by all means use them.

Safe navigation requires accurate bearings. And accurate bearings require reliable maps and scales. 

But accurate bearings also require knowing how to measure and move with the angles!

More on that in Part 2: Playing with the Angles

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards