I have recently noticed that I spend a lot of my time preparing for things. Every week, I prepare for our worship services by meeting with clergy and staff members, proof-reading announcements, and studying sacred – and not-so-sacred – texts. I prepare for meetings by writing emails, summarizing information, and answering questions. I believe in preparation. As Max Brooks, author of the important practical text, “The Zombie Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead,” says, ““If you believe you can accomplish everything by “cramming” at the eleventh hour, by all means, don’t lift a finger now. But you may think twice about beginning to build your ark once it has already started raining.” So, fear not, I am certainly ready for any zombies that wander into St. Mary’s.
But I am not ready for Christmas. I know this, because I am worried about it. I’m worried that my mother will get sick because she’s coming from Connecticut to visit me. I’m worried that the printer will break again and we won’t have bulletins on Christmas. I’m worried that our pledge drive will fail and we will have to lay off people. I’m worried about getting Christmas wrong.
As if we could. Any five year-old who has viewed “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” knows that no one individual can ruin Christmas – that Christmas comes “without ribbons! It [comes] without tags! It [comes] without packages, boxes or bags!” It comes without pageants and music and greens. It might even come without Altar Guild teams. Christmas, you see, “doesn’t come from a store.” Christmas, we know, means Jesus- that’s all]. And that is more than enough. But it’s easy to forget that. Because “the church’s traditional Advent practice stands in tension with contemporary culture. [For many people]…preparations for Christmas have been reduced to hanging twinkling Christmas lights, listening to cheery holiday music, and gazing at an abundance of material goods for the buying, all of which we hope will evoke in us a sense of magical, childlike wonder and goodwill…Our own ideals and longings, [rather than] the promises of God, have become the focus” of our “preparations” for Christmas.
And those longings are often about the wrong things; about worrying over when I will put up my Christmas decorations rather than praying for the 25 people missing in the fire in Oakland. Because we want the “Christmas season” to make us feel good. To make us feel the way we did when our lives were simpler. I was accosted by this truth in my own life recently when I stared at the December calendar and realized it was probably going to be impossible to do all of my family’s annual Christmas traditions –cutting our own tree, going to festivals, decorating the house. But my distress rapidly turned into embarrassment when I stopped to consider what was getting in the way of these “important” Christmas preparations – things like a funeral for a beloved parishioner, a thank-you reception for individuals who take part in food delivery ministry and church services. I discovered to my dismay that I was actually resenting “having to” do exactly what is most important in preparing for Christmas – spending time with my community of Christ.
But that’s the power of anxiety – and nostalgia. Our desire to have everything in our lives be perfect is potent. It’s one of the reasons Christmas is such a delicate and terrifying time for many of us. There is an incredible amount of pressure to get things right and potentially terrifying consequences to consider if we don’t. “What,” we think, “if everyone is disappointed? What if I ruin Christmas”? It is a trap, set by our own irrational and self-absorbed minds and aided by a society that has become focused on what we have – or should have- rather than who we are.
That’s why we have Advent – to remind us of what we believe and what we are waiting for. Advent means “coming,” and everything we do in this season is about our expectation that God –Emmanuel -will again come to be “with us.” In fact, according to eleventh century Christian Bernard of Clairvaux, Advent is a season of not one but three comings. [It] prepares us not just for the first coming of Christ to Israel in the humble and vulnerable form of a baby, or even [his] second [coming to judge the world] at the end of time.” It also prepares us for the third coming of Christ – one that happens both in between Jesus’s first and second coming. It is the coming we have to work for, to prepare for. It is the coming of Jesus into our hearts. It is when Jesus fills us with God’s peace.
But that can’t happen if we are not ready to accept it – and to understand that the peace we seek so desperately in the world and in our lives cannot happen until we find God’s peace – in ourselves and in one another. And that peace is not cheap. It is not peace that can be found through yogic breathing or listening to ethereal music. It is not peace that can be found in a bottle or under a blanket. It is peace that is won through action – righteous action. That’s why God’s appointed ruler, the psalmist tells us, shall be judged not on his ability to strike the earth and kill the wicked, but by how he treats the most vulnerable of his people. This “prince of peace,” as Isaiah calls him, will rule a kingdom in which there is no hurt or destruction, but understanding, security, and love.
We have been given the opportunity to live on that holy mountain. God wants us to take what he has to give. Why else, St. Paul writes, would God send her son into the hurting and hurtful human world to live among us if not to show us how to accept that love – and how to share it with others? But God knows this will not be easy- because we are human beings, people obsessed with our own troubled hearts and unwilling to forgive our own sins, let alone those of others. But learning to accept God’s love first requires that we accept ourselves – that we acknowledge all of the hurt – all of the anger – all of the fear we carry in our hearts – and love ourselves anyway – just as God does. That is what John the Baptist means when he calls us to repent – not to bemoan our moral failings, but to accept them – and change.
To repent means “to turn” – to turn around and look at those around us – to turn around and see what kind of footprints we are leaving behind us – to turn ourselves inside out and empty ourselves of the brooding, fearful, thoughtless separateness that is our sin. We are asked to do this not because God wants to punish us, but because God loves us – and because God loves us, God wants us to become our best selves. After all, “if God loves [us] enough to welcome [us] into Christ’s family, then God loves [us] enough to expect something of [us].” We cannot be made whole –as individuals or as a community–by saying it is so. We may not be called to judge one another, but we are called to help one another. That means calling out sin when we see it and seeking to right it. As Christians, we [can give up on judgment, but we cannot give up on responsibility].” We have to try to turn our lives – and our world – around. What our gospel reminds us is that repentance is not…about our… moral worthiness, but rather about God’s desire to [have us live in] accord with Christ’s life [and teachings].
Advent provides us with the time and space to try to do that. It is a time during which we are asked to put away life’s sorrows and look forward to a promised season of grace – to let go of our righteous indignation and “prepare the way of the Lord.” It is an opportunity to cleanse not our consciences, but our souls. Our culture may tell us that acquiring and planning are the milestones on a path to a Happy Christmas, but Matthew’s gospel says something different. It says that in order to receive Christ, we must give of ourselves and to ourselves. Truly preparing to celebrate the birth of our Savior can only occur after we have examined what is inside us and made peace with what we find there.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, you offer rest for our hearts and peace for our souls. Prepare us for the birth of our savior by giving us grace to seek – and accept – your peace in our lives, in this community, and in the world. Amen.
Dr. Seuss, (1957), “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
John P. Burgess, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Proper 29 Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], Kindle location 1692.
Crossroads International, “Three Comings of the Lord: Bernard of Clairvaux,” https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/media/articles/three-comings-of-the-lord-st-bernard/.
David L. Bartlett, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Proper 29 Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], Kindle location 1756, 1769.
John P. Burgess, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Proper 29 Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], Kindle location 1709.