Delores Williams is associate professor of theology and culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a contributing editor of Christianity and Crisis. She is known especially for her articulation of womanist theology, a perspective defined in relationship with but differently from feminist and black theologies.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 5, 1990, p. 1130, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Generations of believers have found hope in the notion that someone (or something) is coming to relieve them of their burden.
One of the most important motifs of the Advent season is that of "the sent" and "the sender." Generations of believers have found hope in the notion that someone (or something) is coming to relieve them of their burden. This someone will be sent by a higher, divine power who has seen the people’s affliction and has decided to instigate some kind of relief action. The African-American spiritual songs contain imagery reflecting this notion of the sent and the sender: "Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home; a band of angels Comin’ after me, comin’ for to carry me home"; or "Oh Lord, I want some valiant soldier to help me bear the cross."
In Hebrew literature the sent often comes as the prophet, who brings words of consolation to the oppressed and promises of better times from the sender. Isaiah, the prophet, was the sent. When the Israelites were released from captivity in another land, he proclaimed that the Lord had anointed him to bring good tidings to the afflicted: "The Lord has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn."
And the Divine One who sent the prophet will do even more for the community. This One will "create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind . . . no more shall be heard in [Jerusalem] the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or aged folk who do not fill out their days . . . They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat . . . They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord, and their children with them. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear."
The Christian testament also contains the motif of the sent and the sender. In Paul’s letters the early Christian communities are advised to affirm the sent in the life and work of Jesus Christ. Paul advises them to accept the Spirit and prophecy as forces sent to work on their behalf. Paul blesses them in the name of the sender and the sent: "May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."
In the Gospel of John we see the divine sender and earthly senders working at cross-purposes. The divine sender is not bound to express divine reality in the way that the people are accustomed to identifying it. Therefore the Gospel of John records: "There was sent by God a person named John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light." Then the earthly senders ("the Jewish people") sent priests and Levites to ask John to identify himself.
Since the divine sender usually sent a prophet to bear witness, the priests and Levites asked John if he was a prophet, if he was Elijah. John said No, but the inquirers persisted: "Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" John answered that he had come to witness to the truth of Isaiah’s prophecy: "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said." Those sent by the earthly sender were befuddled. John was baptizing people, and the priests and Levites understood John’s words and actions as belonging to the tradition of the prophet Elijah; yet John did not confess to being a prophet. He merely performed the original task assigned him by the divine sender. He was a messenger whose final word is an announcement: "I baptize with water; but among you stands one whom you do not know, even the one who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie."
Like the priests and the Levites, people want the sent to come in accord with the traditional ways. And like the priests and Levites, moderns often reject the messenger. If the messenger happens to be black, female, Hispanic or Asian, many will reject the message and the messenger. It is no wonder that when theologian James Cone identified Jesus Christ as the oppressed black One, much of the white Christian world was shocked.
During Advent we remember that the One sent by the divine sender defied his people’s expectations when he came poor, humble and lying in a manger.