7 Dec. 2013
As a rule, Americans don’t like to wait for things. For anything, really. We want it now. But Advent is primarily a time for waiting. That may be why it is not popular today. Many of my college students have no idea what it means. Like everything else, cell-phones and tablets, we want Christmas now. At the university we had our Christmas party a week ago followed by a celebration of Lessons and Carols, which was originally an Anglican invention to replace Christmas Midnight Mass. That used to be at midnight, believe it or not.
It would be wonderful if our longing for Christmas was like the longing of the early Christians for the coming of Christ in glory — “Come, Lord Jesus,” they sang. “Marána, tha!” [1 Cor. 16:22] “Come soon!” [See Rev. 22:20] The word “Advent” itself means “The Coming.”
In colonial America, the Puritains abolished Christmas because they felt it had become a pagan holiday. They were wrong, but only by three hundred years. Today, thanks to Wall Street, the holiday season is all about buying and selling. Christmas sales are our leading economic indicator. And where Advent calendars used to reveal a spiritual blessing or task for each day of Advent, now most seem to have merchandise behind those little windows.
The readings from Scripture, on the other hand, describe a different kind of waiting and yearning. Isaiah and Paul and Matthew look ahead to the coming of the Kingdom of God — an era of peace and even prosperity, but above all, justice. Here in this country, we tend to take peace and justice more or less for granted, especially if we are young, rich, comfortable, and white. It’s hard for us to imagine what it is like to long for an end to violence, oppression, prejudice, hatred, and systemic injustice. Being poor, old, homeless, and a person of color might give us a clue. But for those of us who are not, there is another possibility. It was a possibility that inspired the life work of Nelson Mandela.
Not many of the multitude of tributes and programs about this great man bothered to mention his faith. When I polled my students, they weren’t even aware he was a Christian. But he was a deeply committed Christian, right from his mother’s knee, a Methodist, by the way. But his faith reached out and embraced everyone. And he changed the world.
Imagine that you are a Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox Christian in Syria, Pakistan, Nigeria, or parts of India, who, like so many Christians I met in Iraq a decade ago, live each day in fear of their lives, unable even to go out shopping for food and other necessities. Imagine not knowing when insurgents or loyalist soldiers will completely disrupt your life, perhaps killing your family and neighbors. Imagine wondering if the church where you have worshipped all your life, and where your ancestors worshipped for many hundreds of years, will collapse from a terrorist bomb before Christmas. Imagine being unable to find a Christmas tree or gifts for your parents or children.
And now imagine what Advent means to these people, fellow Christians just like us. Imagine what longing for peace and justice and prosperity means after years of war and civil discord. If you have a pretty good imagination, you have an inkling of what Isaiah and John the Baptist were talking about, and Nelson Mandela as well. That yearning is the ground of our hope for a redeemer, a savior.
In today’s first reading, Isaiah describes the redeemer and the signs of his coming. The seven-fold Spirit of God would rest on him. He would be wiser than Solomon, more courageous than David, and more just than all of the Kings of Israel and Judah put together. He would appear out of nowhere, literally out of the sticks, but there would be no mistaking his divine calling and rule.
But then Isaiah seems to veer off course and begins to speak in poetic terms about timid and ferocious animals grazing side-by-side, the child and the cobra somehow getting along playfully. What he is saying is that God’s rule brings peace, wholeness, and harmony, even among brute animals and between animals and humans, not least among them defenseless and trusting children. He is describing the transcendent peace St. Paul alludes to: “May God, the source of all patience and encouragement, enable you to live in perfect harmony with one another according to the Spirit of Jesus Christ.” Transcendent, but not beyond our grasp.
John the Baptist’s cry in the wilderness is an answer to Isaiah. “He’s coming!” John preaches. “Make ready the way of the Lord!” “Repent.” Metanoia, the gospels call it. But metanoia doesn’t really mean repentance. It means, as Jesus also preaches, “Change your way of thinking!” “Change your heart!” Do not think like the world thinks. Put on the mind of Christ, as St. Paul will later say [1 Cor. 2:16], and act accordingly. See the world as God sees it and it will become a Realm of Harmony and Peace. Justice will flourish, and, as the psalm has it, God will rescue the poor when they cry out, and the afflicted where there is no one to help. It was the cry that Nelson Mandela heard and responded to.
John foresaw the terrible consequences of rejecting God’s offer of forgiveness and regeneration. But the picture he paints of division and judgment is only the other side of the peaceable kingdom Isaiah describes, the divine harmony held open to those who chose love and mercy over selfishness, greed, and oppression. The choice is ours. It is always ours.
Commercially, there are still sixteen shopping days left before Christmas, counting Sundays. But liturgically and spiritually, Advent is still a time for spiritual preparation, of mind-changing and stock-taking, a time to remind ourselves why we have cause to celebrate and give gifts. It is the fast before the feast. It is a time for quiet, joyful reflection on our deep need for salvation, the longing of the human heart for redemption, not bargains.
Advent is also a time for decision. Christ asks us to put our money where our hearts should be — to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, heal the sick, support peacemakers, assist the poor, especially those who are aged and ill. As Pope Francis and President Obama have recently reminded us, closing the terrible gap between the very rich and the very poor will foster the great harmony Isaiah and Paul long for. That kind of generosity and care will make Christmas matter. And then we can give gifts with a full heart and receive them with grace, not to improve the economy, but to express the joy of salvation.