A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Going Ape at Advent
November 27, 2005
Advent 1 1 Cor 1:3-9 Mark 13:24-37
The sombre sanitary season of Advent in our fair land is largely lost and gone forever. The tinsel has been up since mid-November and shops are already serenading us with carols. It's the season to be jolly, or so we are told. Trying to keep some liturgical integrity, to say nothing of sanity, some forward-thinking churches begin Advent in October trying to fit in a sober preparatory season before the Christmas rush. Such attempts, while well meaning, largely fail.
Let's face it; the end of the year is a frantic rush. At work we are rushing to meet deadlines, financial and other, before the holidays. There's usually a party or two thrown in. If you have children it's a busy time of end-of-year concerts, prize-givings, and school holidays starting when no one else is holidaying. At home we are deciding the where's, and what's, and who's of Christmas. Advent-tide has meant staying up late to finish things, worrying about money and how much to spend, trying to find time to join the shopping madness, and thinking about who and which relatives, if any, to spend Christmas with. For some all this is a frenetic yet joyful task. For others it is a rigorous ordeal.
In times past it wasn't like this. Advent was a penitential time. The readings would remind us that the apocalyptic end was nigh, that judgement was coming, and that one needed to get one's life and the life of one's community in order. It was as if big fierce Mama had been away for a month and was returning home to her brood of teenagers who had been rather messy and intemperate during her absence. “Quick guys, sober up, get the beer out of the fridge, clean the dishes, vacuum, scrub, aerate, above all aerate!”
In Advent in times past people would come to confession. They would remember their sins, their shortcomings, ask God's forgiveness, and undertake acts of penance. It was in order to gain, or re-gain, a spiritual cleanliness before the Feast of Christmas. The Feast of Christmas being not about presents and food and family but about, above all, the incarnation of the holy God in our midst. People spiritually cleaned up their act in order to meet in a spiritual sense the holy child of God.
Sin, particularly in Progressive Churches like ours, isn't fashionable. It is a loaded word that implies that people are born bad, become worse, and need the forgiveness even if they are living decent lives. It is a word that has been used by the Church to prop up a system where God is holy and therefore unapproachable, we are sinful and therefore can't approach God, and only the Church and its understanding of Jesus' death can guarantee us access. It is a system that alienated people from God and bolstered the Church's power.
Some of us have tried to re-fashion sin. Instead of individual failings we talked about corporate greed, foreign policy that serves the rich and uses the military for their capital gains, the misuse, nay abuse, of our environment, and the refusal to address the causes of poverty. We talked too about the sins of omission as well as the sins of commission – things we didn't do when we should have, not just what we did do when we shouldn't have. But the stain of the sin word continued and in our society it has irredeemably become a word that Church uses to condemn people it disapproves of. It is so loaded with presumptions, laced with guilt inducement, and likely to support I-know-better-than-you attitudes; that I rarely use it. The word communicates disempowerment not empowerment.
The heart of Christmas is love - in the great words of Christina Rossetti: 'Love came down at Christmas time'. That love, that unique Christian definition of love, was writ large in the baby Jesus. He was born to unmarried, and therefore to 'sinful', parents. He was born into poverty, vulnerable, a refugee, homeless, and pursued by a tyrannical killer. At the heart of Christmas everything is in reverse: the mighty one is weak, the holy one is born out of wedlock, the wealthy one is poor, and the sovereign one is a scantily clothed babe. At Christmas our understandings of God and love and holiness are turned upside down.
How then do we prepare our selves, our homes, and our communities to receive and be receptive to this manifestation of God at Christmas? How do we clean up our lives and make room this Advent for the weak, sinful, poor one who is the incarnation of God?
Here's one recipe, not always guaranteed, but sure to get a rise: When the world around is running fast, stop. Then look and listen. 'Stop, look, and listen' is a child's safety code for crossing a busy road. If you don't want to be spiritually run over at Christmas you may want to put time aside in the midst of your day to stop, breathe deeply, look at the world with a sense of thanksgiving, and listen to your own soul. Imagine a road sign: “ 'Slow down: incarnation ahead”.
Secondly, when the world is telling you to buy, and buy more, think about giving more and getting less. Over-consumption is a disease. Not dissimilar to other addictions. It's though for most not a disease of the bank balance but a disease of the soul. Watch fewer commercials, and less TV, this Advent. Put signs on your letterbox asking that advertising be directed elsewhere. Send a picture of a beautiful Christmas hamper to all your family telling them it would only cost $20 each. Then tell them we're giving the money for this hamper to the City Mission. Yes, the Mission needs money, but more importantly for your own spiritual well-being you need to give.
If you are hosting a Christmas meal in your home think of one non-family member you would like to invite. Then invite him, her, or them. Again this is not about being charitable to someone else, this is about soul survival. When Christmas is reduced to an in-house party it is in danger of ceasing to be the Mass of Christ at all. The stranger or visitor at the table is as traditional to Christmas as lamb and pavlova, and spiritually much more essential.
What I would ideally have liked on St Matthew's tower this Advent was not a Santa climbing it, like on the old Victoria Park furnace, but King Kong. The caption would read, “Guess who's coming for Christmas?” Kong not only represents that which we fear in nature, others and ourselves [the untameable subconscious and all that], but he also represents the holiness of modern creativity. At the St Matthew's table of edgy church and exploratory theology we welcome the creativity of our society, the sacredness of the imagination, and want to party together. There was no secular/sacred division at the first Christmas and there still isn't – save only in religious places which want to keep others out and stay safe.
Lastly, let's prepare for Christmas by thinking political. The arrival of Jesus was a political act. King's don't go and slaughter countless numbers of babies for the hell of it. Jesus was a political threat. The message of peace that the angels sang was making a mockery of Caesar's pretensions. Caesars always use words like 'peace' and 'freedom' when they are invading others' lands, stealing their resources, and killing their citizens. Just listen to how George Bush pollutes our vocabulary. If you believe in the peace of Christ it will lead you into conflict with those who profit from war, poverty, and the suppression of non-aligned independence. When we cease to think politically and reduce our world to the parameters of our own vision, then we spiritually shrink. Our concerns might become God's concerns but God's concerns don't become ours. We cut ourselves off from the bigger vision of God.
So choose an issue this Advent: like America 's unquenchable thirst for Iraqi oil, dreaming democracy in Burma, or the circus that keeps Tibet caged. Search out two or three good articles on the subject and read them. Then tell me what the issue and articles are so I can recommend them to others. Advent should bring us to our senses. 'Stop', it signals. 'Look both ways before crossing'. Don't be lured by tinsel and piped music into soulless consumerism. Think about giving and hospitality as spiritual exercises. Read some politics rather than Ezibuy catalogues.
There is a saying that the two most important days of our lives are the day we were born and the day we know why. Advent invites us to ask why.