Advent calls us to prepare not just our homes for Christmas, but our lives for the fulfillment of the Reign of God when Christ comes in glory. Trouble is, we often feel rather helpless and passive in the face of that event. Is waiting just standing around until God makes all things new? For Paul, the Christian life is a work in progress: “the one who began a good work in you will not fail to see it through to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6) We are already the beloved of God, and not yet the people God calls us to be.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. The season Advent, however, seems to throw a wet blanket on all the jingling bells and decked halls. Scripture readings (Luke 21) turn to images of the end of the world and collapse of heaven and earth. Not very festive, it seems. That makes the preacher a bit of a buzz kill until we see that Jesus proclaimed a word of great hope in the midst of the destruction and death of this world. The fig tree puts forth leaves declaring summer is at hand and a harvest is on the way. Jesus is that fig tree, and our salvation is at hand.
So, I was thinking about this passage from Isaiah, so central to the Christmas gospel:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)
This hopeful proclamation from the prophet Isaiah is part of the Christmas message. Light overcomes darkness. To tell the truth, things have seemed pretty dark to me since Christmas preparations went into full swing weeks ago – around Halloween, I think. On the surface, people are talking about looking forward to the holiday. Underneath, however, I sense an all too frequent dread or stress. I don’t think it has anything to do with the annual “war on Christmas.” You know – Happy Holidays, instead of Merry Christmas (even though the English origin of the word “holiday” is holy-day”); kicking the crèche out of the town square; banning religious songs at the school choir concert. I don’t really buy this kind of war on Christmas as a real issue.
That said, I do think something dark and destructive has been happening to Christmas. Maybe it is a war of sorts. It has shaped Christmas into a rather hideous creation. It has involved us all in a systematic erasure of the meaning of the birth of Jesus Christ. We still call it Christmas, but maybe it should be called “Consumerist-mas” – the “Feast of the great Consumption.” There is little Christ left in its observance. We go on a binge dedicated to dark excess instead of bowing before the Light of the World. Jesus came bring us the light of freedom, yet the post-holiday credit card debt will shroud us in a kind of slavery for the next two Christmases. Jesus came to give us peace, but we end up doubling our antidepressants because our stress over the perfect holiday has plunged us deeper into a dark hole. The real focus of the season is how much money was spent and made, not how light has entered our darkness.
I don’t mean to be a buzz-kill or the Grinch. But, I’m afraid were missing Jesus in the midst of all the jingle bells. I fear we have lost our minds, our hearts and our souls. We live in a world where benefits are cut to millions who are poor and will have no holiday. At the same time the TV encourages us all to buy diamonds and a Lexus for our loved ones so they know we love them. We force the least powerful and poorest working folks to work all day on Thanksgiving so we can all get an early start on our excess. That just does not sound like it has anything to do with Jesus to me. You see, my fear is that the Grinch didn’t steal Christmas – consumerism did, and we all helped. I fear that the true power of God’s incarnation is completely negated by wrapping the manger in foil paper and selling it for $39.95.
Advent is the first act of resistance against this dark progression of commercialism. The holly jolly world of retail Christmas plays on our desire for instant gratification. Advent makes us wait, a spiritual discipline we may despise, but is essential to our maturation in faith. Faith is about joy, but also about enduring the darkness as we await the real light. The strings of bulbs on our houses only decorate the darkness and since they burn out, don’t bear the true light of Christ.
Amidst all our celebrating, spending, preparation and panic, Christ will come. Of this I have no doubt. Notice however, that the only ones who noticed God breaking into our humanity were shepherds, who had nothing but the silent night. Maybe if we get a grip on our holiday, Christ will get a grip on us. Christ came to a manger, not the mall. May Christ come to you whether a new blender does or not.
So, I was thinking that I hate waiting – for anything. I hate waiting in line, waiting for my food to come, waiting for the car ahead of me to turn. I hate waiting for water to boil and toast to brown. You might think that makes me particularly impatient, but I’m not sure I’m any worse than anybody else. (OK, my family and those who work with me might argue, but just ask them to wait for something and we’ll see who is pot and who is kettle). My resistance to waiting is perhaps partly due to my personality, but I think there are certain cultural pressures as well. It has been drilled into my head that being late for meetings, for dinner, for anything at all is not just unprofessional, but simply bad manners. We live in a fast food, prepackaged, just-add-water world. Messaging is instant, social connections are virtual and constant, phones are in our pocket all the time. We don’t have to wait so we don’t like to wait – for anything.
Some of the most painful waiting I can remember was part of my childhood experience of Christmas. For me, days actually got longer each passing day in December. The days until school let out for the break and the actual dawn of Christmas Day moved by at a glacial pace. Time passed more slowly, the earth seemed to slow its rotation just to torment us all. Christmas Eve was an endless, sleepless affair where I actually believed morning would not come just to taunt me. Each week we went to church and there was that wreath – an assembly of five candles that would mark this slow passage of time. As I boy, I’m not sure I liked that wreath. It kept yelling at me to “Wait!” Each week one more candle would be lit signaling how far away from Christmas we were. What it took me time to notice was that it also marked how much closer we were to the celebration. As I grew up, I came to love that slow march that moved ahead and looked back; that honored both the distance traveled and the road still ahead. I came to enjoy the journey instead of thinking only of the destination.
Maybe that is why not just as a pastor, but as a person who struggles to make my days count and to find peace int he journey of life, I am such a curmudgeon about the cultural rush to Christmas. The anxiety, anxiousness and anticipation of Christmas takes over life before Thanksgiving. It is measured in dollars spent, gifts received, and in capturing some special memory that is often better than the reality it tries to recreate. In all the rush and hustle, we miss the journey, the path, the way we have come and the destination ahead. Waiting is an essential discipline for tending our souls.
The inability to wait and to only live by the goals we set, the schedules we keep, the deadlines that rule us robs us of the peace and contentment that come from experiencing and embracing each moment of the journey. That is why waiting is essential.
Advent is a counter-cultural season. Advent refuses to rush to the carols, it rejects becoming but a prelude to a holiday. Advent will not allow us to speed through the journey just to get to Christmas. Advent forces us to wait, to pause, to look and listen. Advent calls us to look ahead at the road we travel and to look back at where we have been so that we don;t miss any part of the journey. That is a lesson for life, and a lesson for impatient people like me.
Chill out world, Christmas will come. Wait for it. For now, enjoy the journey. Light a candle in the darkness and wait for the light.
Pax Christi, Pastor Tim