And so it begins as it does every year. The wonderful magic of Christmas with the scent of evergreen in the air and in our homes. Lights adorning our front doors, or covering our whole house. Cookies, puddings, goodies of all sorts, many homemade in a burst of baking for the one and only time of the year in our hurried mostly urban lives. And if we are exhorted for less than fifteen minutes on Sunday, what we often hear is a cute little baby in a terrible barn. We are swamped by a tidal wave of Hallmark card sentimentality, animated talking reindeer, and a shopping frenzy. Yes, there is a great deal of love and joy even in the secular world this time of year, but in this relatively post-Christian era the meaning and promise of that Incarnation is being lost or was never known. If we, as the struggling community of faith, ignore the challenge to reclaim that promise, not only for ourselves but for the world, we do so at our peril. Yes, this is weeping and gnashing of teeth in a world overflowing with reasons to weep and gnash. Watch the news. The end time is ever with us.
Let’s get some stuff out of the way. If the Holy Family traveled to the family seat, given the rules of hospitality in the Middle East, they were welcomed into the home of some relative. The manger was in the warm stable under the house, and the proper place for a woman heavy with child. And Luke’s version was written long after Christ was born and Christ died, and for very different people. Also, originally the Nativity of the Lord was celebrated in the spring, right around Easter. Mary’s annunciation also got put there, and somebody counted to nine. So Jesus had to have been born in midwinter. And Christmas around the winter solstice wasn’t only because of Saturnalia in Rome. People have been celebrating the return of the sun and the hope of a growing season since before Stonehenge. Why the post-modern deconstruction of one of our most beloved narratives? Stories aren’t necessarily history. They touch us in deeper places. The Nativity narrative begs time to digest its profound meaning. And we need to acknowledge the critics of Christianity.
Advent was a penitential season, just like Lent. Lent brings up spiritual awareness of the Crucifixion, and, more importantly, the Resurrection. Advent should bring up not only the Incarnation, but the parousia, the Second Coming, with its joys and also its judgment. While the current theological trend is to treat Advent as the beginning of the Reign of God, embracing hope, symbolized by the use of blue candles and vestments, that innocent baby who is our Lord and God, also faces a human life, and it is our life, both the joy and the suffering.
No theological moment is alone. Christianity is a package, a multidimensional, time and eternity, quantum package. The vision of the end time, which we have been reading in Revelation from the Daily Office, is not then, but now. We are human, and flawed. Simple messages are needed so that we can find our way. Jesus knew that. As we need to remember the mercy of the Son of God, we need to mind those dire warnings about being cast out, and stay alert, keep those lamps lit, be good servants with the master’s land, flock, crop. The harsh judgment should ever be with us as a signpost of curves ahead, falling rocks, and all the other dangers of the spiritual life.
Most of the world doesn’t pay attention to these signposts, because we no longer believe. We are squeezed in the middle of secular Anything Goes and fundamentalist All is Forbidden. That makes observing Advent (and Lent) far more important to our faith life. Christian life is an exercise in Abraham’s “Here I am,” Jesus’ “Follow me,” and God’s “Listen to him,” and it is hard. A few times a year it doesn’t hurt to focus and practice. Do we have the courage to believe? How can Advent, even in this secular season with its mixed messages of good will and greed, help us?
As we turn to a new liturgical year, Sunday we heard, from Isaiah (64:1-9), ”O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—“
Mark 13:24 begins,
“Jesus said, ‘In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”
If we believe, if we have faith in the Shepherd, the love of the Father, the gentle voice of the Spirit, we should be safe, although it still falls back on Grace and the will of God. But we can stay close to the path which has been laid out for us, with prayer and scripture, and the sacraments of the church, a path that leads to the Holy Child.
But we still live a secular world, where work, exercise, and fun are frenetic. Not much time for prayer, family, quiet. So here is a proposal. Let us treat Advent a little like Lent. Penitence is not about beating ourselves up. It is about honest self-reflection in the Spirit so we can turn to God more clearly and deeply. Have we the courage to seek this? Have we the will for true repentance? It takes work, and God’s help.
Enjoy, but be mindful. Convert that pagan Christmas tree into a gift of Creation. Find an Advent calendar actually about Advent. Display a nativity scene. Light the Advent wreath. Sing carols. Cook and share family recipes. Embrace Advent as a time of new birth in Christ. And don’t speed past those signposts. They are there to keep us safe.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California