Updated: Aug 5
Over the years, my family has developed a variety of Christmas traditions that range from strict (the Christmas tree does not come down until Epiphany) to practical (no buying anything for yourself after Thanksgiving) to ridiculous. (Our annual Christmas tree buying pilgrimage involves first going to a thousand “cut your own tree” lots, where I don’t find any I like, and usually ends up in a dark tree lot a mile from our house. Last year it ended in the clearance section at Walmart). But we have one custom that is both practical and theological – you don’t get new things unless you get rid of some of your old stuff. I think of it as “Advent cleaning.”
The prophet Isaiah had a similar idea, long before “Christmas” even existed. His was more about emotional cleansing though. Our Hebrew scripture from today finds Isaiah speaking on behalf of the post-exilic Israelites, who are once again suffering from adjustment difficulties. Of course they blame God for the mess they’re in, albeit in a pretty passive-aggressive way: “We know that it is our own fault that we are in this fix, but we also know that you can do anything, so can you just come down and fix things”? They sound a lot like us. We know that the horrors of the world are not God’s doing, but we still don’t understand why God does not simply show up and fix them. “Who has not at one time or another wondered [why]….if in biblical times God intervened in history with ‘awesome deeds’ why does God not do so today…Why would God deliver Israel from Egypt but not deliver six million Jews from Hitler’s death camps? We read stories about God’s spectacular interventions, yet we look in vain for such visible signs of God’s involvement in the world today.”
We lament – just as the ancient Israelites did. This is an incredibly human thing to do. In fact, it is so natural to express pain that research has shown that not doing it can make you sick. A good, cleansing cry doesn’t just make you feel better- it may actually help to heal what ails you. God – and God’s people – understood this long before functional MRI studies. Our scriptures offer proof of this long history of lament, this need to express our anger and fear, to bemoan our darkest doubts and deepest hopes. They tell us, in fact, that God and Christian community have long been willing not only to acknowledge human suffering, but to share it. This communal recognition and desire to stop human misery is at the heart of how we pray. It is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the psalms “the prayer book of the Bible.” The long history of lament reminds us that we are not the first people to question God – to wonder how an all-powerful, all-loving deity can allow such horrible suffering to occur and continue in this world. Today’s psalm tells us that “the psalmist recognizes that [often] what [we] believe and what is happening around [us] do not cohere.” In other words, “If you are so good and you love us, make it stop, God,” we cry. “We know you can.”
When God doesn’t seem to hear us, it is easy to fall into despair, and it is even easier when we are feeling pressured not to. That’s one reason that many people do not look forward to “the Christmas season.” For many people, pre-holiday preparations are a source of anxiety instead of anticipation. For them, Christmas is filled with painful memories instead of happy recollections, and depression is more likely to characterize this time of year than delight. No wonder we cry out in anguish for comfort from our God. Advent becomes not a season of expectation, but of longing.
What it should be is a season of hope – because hope is what being part of a community of Christ should give you. “Hope,” Patricia De Jong says, “is what is left when your worst fears have been realized and you are no longer optimistic about the future. Hope is what comes with a broken heart willing to be mended.” Christians understand hope, because, with Jesus, we have gone through the despair of Good Friday to the new life of Easter. Hope is what separates those who celebrate “Christmas” – the orgy of consumption and self-congratulation it has become in popular culture – from those who rejoice in the hope that comes with the advent of the birth of Jesus. That is what we are preparing for – not Christmas dinner, not the presents under the tree, not the trips to the airport. “While the world’s busyness may seem to be pointed toward ‘Christmas,’ it is seldom pointed toward the coming [of the] Christ child,”– but it should be, because the gift that the Christ child brings cannot be found at a table, in a store, or under our tree. The gift that the Christ child brings can be found only in our hearts. It is the gift of hope – a gift we – like the followers of Mark’s gospel writer – desperately need.
You may have noticed that with the new liturgical year we have switched our gospel readings from Matthew to Mark. Mark’s is thought to be the first canonical gospel written, around 70 CE. Today’s reading addresses some kind of future apocalypse, speaking of “days” in which the world as we know it will be radically changed (or destroyed) and God will send angels to save the “elect.” This passage is often cited in apocalyptic literature to support the idea of a “rapture” in which the saved will disappear from the earth, but the original listeners of this gospel probably heard it as “a commentary on the Jewish revolt against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem.” That was their “apocalypse,” but Jesus’s lesson references the even older text apocalyptic text of Daniel, suggesting that over and over again people have thought they were living in the “end times,” that theirs was the final witness to human failure. Yet, here we still are. Given this, instead of preparing ourselves for the rapture, perhaps we should instead use the gospel writer’s warning to “understand how our context today may be similar to ancient contexts, so we may discern how to be faithful people of God in our time.” We are not alone. We are not the first people to despair of the sorrow in our world and to predict the imminent end of humanity. We are not the first to search for love in the midst of depraved and indifferent human behavior. We are not the first to cry out for the end of hatred, intolerance, and violence. We are not the first to seek God.
The question is, “amid the smoke of battle, the fog of politics, the confusion of economic distress, the babble of would-be leaders wearing God masks and claiming divine authority, how shall we know which way to turn”? It is the psalmist who gives us the answer; “show us the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” We are to look for the light – but not passively, but actively, with “wailing and waiting and watching… [with] active anticipation and renewed hope.” We are to look for the light together, sharing both our joys and our sorrows. We are to wait attentively, ignoring the bad news and the fake news and striving to see the Good News, the presence of God that is already among us. We are to look forward, ridding ourselves of our old fears, our old prejudices -our old stuff –and to be awake to the possibilities of “God in the world. [That is an Advent tradition] …that might actually be restful, [that might even] give us peace.” Amen.
Scott Bader-Saye, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 4.
Psychologies, (Nov. 2011), “The link between emotions and health,” https://www.psychologies.co.uk/self/the-link-between-emotions-and-health.html.
Charles M. Wood, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 9.
Patricia E. De Jong, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 4.
Lillian Daniel, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 20.