Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. — Matthew 25:46
Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent. You know what that means, right? Time to get out your Advent calendar. You might choose the “Pure Advent Calendar,” appropriate for all the purists out there. It’s available from Amazon for $385. Behind each door, there is, according to the advert, “a mix of beauty necessities from vitamin enriched hand creams, bath fizzers, moisture rich body lotions, cleansing body washes, relaxing foam baths & energizing bath salts.” As an added bonus, it also features “two iconic prints by William Morris, Golden Lily & Strawberry Thief,” if that’s your thing. And if cleanliness really is next to godliness then you’re all set for a most-holy Advent, complete with bath fizzers! Otherwise… Well, otherwise it’s just another commercialization of Jesus’s birth. There are, of course, some more modest options. You choose what’s right for you.
Last week, in an article by Rosalind Hughes, The Episcopal Café reported on the rise of luxury Advent calendars and posed the question, “Does the rise of the luxury Advent calendar help promote Christmas or undermine its message?” I replied that the real message of Christmas was lost a long time ago, long before luxury Advent calendars.
I know that comment sounds a little bit snarky, but I believe it’s true. The message of Christmas… I am having a hard time seeing it, even here in China, the land of perpetual Christmas.
The Church will have an abbreviated Advent this year, only three full weeks. It’s not long, but during that time we will do all the right things, sing the right hymns, and read the right passages of scripture. We will pray the correct prayers and most of us will take on some added devotional practice, or perhaps a work of charity. Beginning next week, we will get out our creches and gradually add the central actors in the nativity narrative until, at last, baby Jesus is placed in the manger.
It seems like the message should be coming through loud and clear. I am reminded, though, of something that happened back in the second century. No, I am not that old, but there is a story about it. Pliny the Younger had just been appointed governor of Bithynia and he wasn’t sure how to deal with the emerging Christian cult so he got two slave women who were said to be leaders in the church and he tortured them until they told all they knew. Apparently, they didn’t know much because he wrote a letter to the emperor saying, “I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.” And Trajan wrote back commending him for all he had done.
“Depraved, excessive superstition” has become a phrase I mutter to myself from time to time. It somehow stuck in my mind and often pops-up to remind me to keep it real when I’m dealing with anything religious. Depraved, excessive superstition is easy to fall into, and I think we often do so during Christmas and Advent. All the religious things we’ll do in these next three weeks are good and right. There’s nothing wrong with them. I wouldn’t dare say there was. But it can be excessively superstitious.
There is one Christmas message, only one, and it is not on Amazon. The one Christmas message is Immanuel. God with us. All other messages, while lovely indeed, though often superstitious too, are secondary to the fact that God has become one of us.
What this means for followers of Jesus is that we too should become one with those who are most in need of salvation. It does not enjoin us to sign petitions on the internet, to write letters, or even to march on the streets, though all that’s good. We are not called on to serve those poor people over there, those other people. If we really follow the Jesus of the nativity then we must become the other.
In the last two weeks, we saw two parables which on first blush appear to be eschatological in nature. Jesus told them in response to his disciple’s question, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” But a lot of Advents have come and gone since then and these parables about the end times now have to be read as parables about the meantime. The question is not about the end of the age, but how to live until it gets here.
In the first parable, the parable about the bridesmaids and their lamps, we learned to be discerning about what things we give our life energy to by only lighting the lamps that have oil in them. In the second parable, the one about the slaves who were entrusted with their owner’s money, we learned that refusing to participate in the instruments of empire will be lonely, but that’s OK because we have stood on the right side of justice when we have stood with the poor. Today, the Sunday before Advent, we will see the real nature of incarnation. In this last parable of the year – that bit about sheep and goats gives it a parabolic feel – we see that salvific incarnation becomes the object of salvation.
In today’s reading, Jesus is seen in his glory and sitting on a kingly throne. He divides people into sheep and goats, but he has the same message for all of them, “I AM the least of all.” Jesus was so identified with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner that for any one of us to serve one of them, the very least of all, would be exactly the same as if we had served Jesus himself.
Following these lovely weeks of Advent and Christmastide, we will begin a march to Jerusalem during which Jesus so identifies with the sacrificial lamb who is a slave to God that he will die a slave’s death on a cross. Christ the King, there he is, up on the cross.
This king has ushered in a new kind of empire. From now on everything is on its head. The rich are sent away and the poor are fed, the lowly are raised up and the haughty are struck down. The result is that valleys of despair are being raised and mountains of racism, classism, and mutual distrust are being moved. It is taking a long time. One wonders if Jesus knew it would take this long.
On this last Sunday of the year, Jesus tells us to become one with those whom he most identified with, just as he became one with humanity. People are so hungry and thirsty for some justice, for some word of truth. They have been stripped of dignity and any hope of privilege. Isn’t there something we can do to give them hope? They are sick and have no insurance, and some of them are just sick of it all. And almost all of us have been in some kind of prison, and probably still are if we are honest about it.
On this last Sunday, Jesus reminds us what it means to reach out with the hand of salvation. It means to become one with the other.
You may be thinking, “Well, that’s why I give money… so somebody can do that,” and that’s good. It takes quite a lot of money sometimes, so that’s very good. Others may be thinking that it is wonderful that Jesus has come to save the world and to offer comfort to all those poor people, and that’s good too. Jesus did save the whole cosmos. None of us could do that. But, in my mind, one of the most important verses in the Bible is Mark 6:37. It says, “You feed them.”
In the Gospel of Mark Jesus had been teaching most of the day and there was a large crowd. When it started getting late the disciples reminded Jesus that they were out in the countryside and that the people would have to travel back to town to get something to eat. But, Jesus said, “You feed them.” This is sometimes called the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 because there were about 5000 men there. But, perhaps the real miracle is that Jesus was able to convince them to share the food they already had. By becoming one of them, and allowing them to become one with one another, there was no reason not to share.
So, it’s up to us. Sure, we should give the money, say the prayers, but we should also do what we can to ally ourselves with those whom Jesus was allied with. In this way, we become one in fulfillment of Jesus’s final prayer that we all be one. It’s up to us to feed them, to give them a good word, to clothe them with dignity. We are the shepherds who bind up their wounds and rescue them from the outer edges of the flock, and we do it all without excessive superstition. Well, mostly.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
The Episcopal Cafe reported on the rise of luxury Advent calendars in an article by Rosalind Hughes, on November 21. You can read it here.
You can read more about The Pure Advent Calendar here. I am not recommending it, just reporting.
I don’t remember where I first read it, but you can read Pliny’s letter to Trajan here.
Matthew 24:3… “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
Mark 6:37… But Jesus said, “You feed them.”
This is a pretty good article about sheep and goats. It’s not related to this essay, but it’s something I read earlier and I found it interesting. It may go well with your study of the passage from Ezekiel.
Image: By Byzantinischer Mosaizist des 9. Jahrhunderts – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, Link