December 20, 2015
We can pretend for a moment that we are all perfectly happy. None of us quarreled with our children or our spouse over whether we would come to church this Sunday morning. None is divorced or unhappily married. None are worried about their children. No one has cancer. All are sexually well adjusted and content. No one feels remorse about a past mistake. We all make good money or good grades. Our debts are manageable; all bills are paid. No one has lost a mother or a father since last Christmas. None of us has ever lost a child. We are all pleased with our careers. None of us receives threatening or abusive emails, texts, or calls. No one has the blues. No one drinks too much or uses drugs or lives with someone with those monkeys on their back. We all look back to happy childhoods with loving parents in safe and stable homes. We are lucky at love. None of us thinks he is too short, too tall, too this, too that. “The world is so full of such wonderful things” . . . and here we are, all as happy as kings.
If this were true, there would be no need for Advent. Our church calendar has us out of step with the holiday times. Out there, Christmas decorations have been up since Halloween. In here: still no flowers on the altar. Out there, the world puts on a smile: Santa’s coming Ho Ho Ho! In here, we beat our breasts a bit.
Some say there is a war on Christmas. Leah Libresco (who is my favorite young atheist-turned-catholic blogger) wryly says the war is on Advent. I think they are the same thing and that war is the wrong description of a real occurrence. I think retreat is the better word. We are seeing a retreat to the lowest common holiday denominator. Americans do not all believe in God or Christ but we do all shop; we do like parties; and for the most part we like to get together with our families. We can all appreciate a season of good will, good memories, good feelings. It sounds like an all-inclusive recipe for happy holidays for everyone.
But in truth we are not all happy. In truth, for some the holiday itself is difficult. Advent fits the truth that there is darkness in the world and darkness in our lives that won’t be brightened up by eggnog, jingle bells and mistletoe. In here, it is as those who know what darkness is that we prepare to see the Christmas light. Isaiah said it: The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.
Let’s do some more pretending. We will now pretend that we are always good. We know what the right thing is and do it every time. The people doing bad things are Muslims or right wing fundamentalists. As for ourselves, we are always patient; ever kind; never irritable or rude. We are faithful in performance of our Christian duties. Come Sunday morning we are here to pray because in faith we know we should be. We tithe in faithfulness to scripture. When visitors arrive in church we’re happiest when they are poor, disheveled and out of sorts, because we know the love of God is especially for these. At home, service is our motto. Men stretch to put their families first. If that means fewer mornings in the duck-woods then so be it. We are always faithful to our spouses. As singles we are chaste—because, we reason, what makes sex safe for all concerned is love, what is love without commitment? We never speed or drink and drive. We always love our neighbors as the Lord commands.
If this were true, we would have no need of Advent. Advent paves the way to Christ with confession and repentance—because it says that when he comes, he comes as our Redeemer. From birth through death to resurrection the life of Jesus is a story of God’s love for humans who are good, at best, by fits and starts. Retreat from Christmas means losing sight of human imperfection in the light of divine forgiveness.
Two weeks ago in church I spoke of cure of souls. Now let’s pretend that we are cured completely. We gather today as an assembly of spiritual masters. We have no doubt or fear. In prayer, waters part at our command. We have expert knowledge of the scripture. As St. Paul said, it is no longer we ourselves who live, but Christ whose spirit fills our hearts.
Then Advent is redundant. Advent is a splash of water on the face. Wake up, it says. Get ready. If we are ready now then what’s the point? Being disciplined already, we have no need to try new practices that build our strength. Being filled with peace, we have no need to study scripture with its promises of peace that passes understanding. No one needs to rouse us out to ring a bell or prepare a Christmas basket for a family. We do such things habitually.
That may be you. It isn’t me. Like Scrooge, I still need reminding. He had Marley’s Ghost. We have Advent.
Finally, let’s pretend that none of us will ever die. Death is for losers. We are well-exercised, heart-healthy Episcopalians. We won’t die from cancer—they’ll find a cure. Our airplanes won’t crash—statistically it’s the safest way to travel. No Americans will die in war—that was a twentieth century solution that the world has now outgrown. We baby boomers are immune from aging—no nursing homes for us—Dylan blessed us so we’ll stay forever young.
(Would that it were so! In New York a few years ago I went to an Allman Brothers concert at the Beacon. I looked at the band, then around at the crowd of my fellow, grey-headed hipsters and I thought: “It isn’t working.”)
So let’s drop pretense.
If you are not always happy; if you need Tums and Motrin to make it through a day; if you often wish you had a drink; if you’ve not been chaste or faithful; if you are sometimes impatient, jealous, boastful, arrogant, or rude; if you are haunted by your mistakes and your conscience is afraid of God; if you’ve lost someone you love and don’t believe that you can ever be the same; if you are disappointed with your life; if you think you might have cancer or your memory is slipping; if you feel spiritually inept and don’t know what peace and joy could be for you; if you are not looking forward to a holly, jolly, Christmas . . .
Then you have come to the right place.
This is where regular people with big problems gather to remember the real, bloody birth of the real life Son of God. Here there is no retreat from Christmas. We place our burdens, fears, and sorrows at the feet of the messiah who was well acquainted with the darkness that surrounds us. Rather than dispelling it he shared it.
This is where real sinners who have done shameful, hurtful things are welcome. Is that you? Look around. Look up here. It is everyone. We say the confession every Sunday. Our prayer book doesn’t say join in if you have something to confess. It assumes that we all do. As it assures us of forgiveness it invites us to repent. Paradoxically, it is in the assurance of forgiveness that we find strength to change and the desire to do so. Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved. While still not perfect, we are different people than we used to be because we know our sins do not stand between us and the love of God. Join us.
Are you a doubter? Here is a place where people bring real doubts, and more ignorance than knowledge about God—people of just a widow’s mite of faith—no bigger than a mustard seed, and who in that tiny bit of faith move mountains. Do you know who felt she didn’t have much faith? Mother Teresa of Calcutta—and yet in her little faith she changed the world. She will be a saint before you know it, who had no more faith than we do.
Are you aware of your mortality? So are we. Here is a place where real people come in bringing memories of loved ones we still mourn: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, and children. Dogs and cats are not excepted. We are also mindful of the fact that we’ll die too--our personal Good Friday. We face it hopefully. As we know sin by light of grace, we face death by light of Easter. It was by that light that T. S. Eliot wrote his Four Quartets and penned the line: In my end is my beginning.
That’s the pattern that we learn in Christian faith. We do not pretend and we don’t need to. In faith we find strength to bravely face and overcome the Advent darkness in the glory of the Christmas light.