As a rule, Americans don’t like to wait for things. For anything, really. We want it now. Some people can’t even wait to be president. Christmas decorations are up and Light Fights are raging even before Advent begins. Wreathes and festively ornamented trees appear even before Thanksgiving. Holiday greeting cards are in the mail or, increasingly, in our inboxes. But Advent is primarily a time for waiting. That may be why it is no longer popular. We want Christmas now. I suppose a lot of it has to do with the stuff under the so-called “holiday tree.” From the time we are children, our longing and yearning at this time of year especially has more to do with Santa Claus than with Jesus. And the fat guy in the Santa suit (once known as St. Nick) arrives at the end of the Thanksgiving Day parade. Given how many boys and girls he has to visit by Christmas Eve, that may be a good thing for the reindeer and elves.
When the Puritans first came to America, they abolished Christmas because they felt it had become a pagan holiday. They were wrong. But, you might say, by only three hundred years or so. Today, as the Chicago Tribune remarked approvingly a few years ago, the holiday season is all about buying and selling. Christmas sales have become our leading economic indicator.
The readings from Scripture, on the other hand, are all about waiting and yearning and longing. Ad-venire means that – “coming towards.” And Isaiah and Paul and Matthew look ahead to the coming of the Kingdom of God — an era of peace, yes and prosperity, but above all, of justice. In this country, we tend to take peace and justice more or less for granted, or used to, especially if we are rich, comfortable, and white. It’s hard for people of privilege to imagine what it is like to long for an end to violence, oppression, prejudice, hatred, and systemic injustice. Being poor, homeless, and a person of color might give us a clue. But for those of us who are not, there is another possibility.
Imagine that you are a Christian, perhaps a Catholic like so many of the people I met in northern Iraq, who are living 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 or bombs or rockets will completely disrupt your life, perhaps killing your family and yourself. 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 just being unable to find a Christmas tree or gifts for your parents or children.
Matters are even worse for the Christians and Muslims of Syria. And now imagine what Advent means to these people, people just like us. Imagine what longing for peace and justice and prosperity means after twenty-five years of war, sanctions, and civil discord. If you have a pretty good imagination, you have an inkling of what Isaiah and John the Baptist were talking about. That yearning is the ground of our hope for a redeemer, a savior.
In today’s first reading, Isaiah describes the character of 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 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 even ecological harmony among brute animals and between animals and humans, not least among them defenseless and trusting children. He is describing a transcendent peace that St. Paul alludes to in his Letter to the Romans: “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 a response to Isaiah. “He’s coming!” John preaches. “Make ready the way of the Lord!” Metanoia, the gospels call it. But metanoia doesn’t really mean repent. It means, as Jesus also proclaims, “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]. See the world as God sees it and it will start becoming 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.
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. It’s a matter of priorities.
Commercially, there are twenty-one shopping days left before Christmas, counting Sundays. But liturgically and spiritually, Advent is really a time for spiritual preparation, for 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.
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. Helping to close the terrible gap between the very rich and the very poor will foster the surpassing 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 redeem the economy, but to express the joy of salvation.