Advent 2010 Article

Dec 06, 2010

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Light your candles quietly, such candles as you posses, where you are. (Alfred Delp)

Though Advent (literally “arrival”) has been observed for centuries as a time to contemplate Christ’s birth, most people today acknowledge it only with a blank look.  For the vast majority of us, December flies by in a flurry of activities, and what is called “ the holiday season” turns out to be the most stressful time of the year.

It is also a time of contrasting emotions. We are eager, yet frazzled; sentimental, yet indifferent.  One minute we glow at the thought of getting together with our family and friends; the next we feel utterly lonely.  Our hope is mingled with dread, our anticipation with despair.  We sense the deeper meanings of the season but grasp at them in vain; and in the end, all the bustle leaves us frustrated and drained.

Even we who do not experience such tensions–who genuinely love Christmas–often miss its point.  Content with dances and carols and good food, we bask in the warmth of familiar traditions, in reciprocated acts of kindness, and in feelings of general goodwill.  How many of us remember the harsh realities of Christ’s first coming: the dank stable, the cold night, the closed door, of the inn?  How many of us share the longing of the ancient prophets, who awaited the Messiah with such aching intensity that they foresaw his arrival thousand of years before he was born?

Mother Tereasa once noted that the first person to welcome Christ was John the Baptist, who leaped for joy on recognizing him, thought both of them were still within their mothers’ wombs.   We, in stark contrast, are often so dulled by superficial distractions that we are incapable of hearing any voice within, let alone listening to it. Consequently, the feeling we know as Christmas cheer lacks any real connection to the vital spirit that radiated from the manger. That is the main purpose of the Advent Season, to reforge that link, and to encourage the rediscovery of this season as a dynamic journey of inward preparation.

We miss the essence of Christmas unless we become, in the words of Eberhard Arnold, “mindful of how Christ’s birth took place.” Once we do, we will sense immediately that Advent marks something momentous: God’s coming into our midst.  That coming is not just something that happened in the past.  It is a recurring possibility here and now.  And thus Advent is not merely a commemorative event or an anniversary, but a yearly opportunity for us to consider the future, second Advent–the promised coming of God’s kingdom on earth.

Such an understanding of Christmas is possible only insofar as we let go of the false props of convention and seek to unlock its central paradox.  That paradox, to paraphrase the modern martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is the fact that God’s coming is not only a matter of glad tidings but, first of all, “ frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.”
The love that descended to Bethlehem is not the easy sympathy of an avuncular God, but a burning fire whose light chases away every shadow, floods every corner, and turns midnight into noon.  This love reveals sin and overcomes it.  It conquers darkness and such forcefulness and intensity that it scatters the proud, humbles the mighty, feeds the hungry, and sends the rich away empty-handed (Luke 1:51-51).

Because a transformation of this scale can never be achieved by human means, but only by divine intervention, Advent (to quote Bonhoeffer again) might be compared to a prison cell “in which one waits and hopes and does various unessential things… but is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside.”  It is a fitting metaphor.  But dependency does not release us from responsibility.  If the essence of Advent is expectancy, it is also readiness for action: watchfulness for every opening, and willingness to risk everything for freedom and a new beginning.

That is why the imagery of nativity scenes in not sufficient to explain the Christmas message.  Yes, God came into the feeding trough of an animal.  But it was not only as a baby that he lay there.  This child was the same man who was crucified on Golgotha, and who rose again.  Within the manger lies the cross–and the hopes of redemption and resurrection.

To recognize this requires reverence and humility.  It requires faith.  We might ask, “What grounds are there for such hope?” Or we might seek to become like children, and believe.  Mary did.  So did the shepherds and the wise men of the East.  So have men and women of all generations, so can each of us, wherever we are, whoever we are.

Introduction from “ Watch For the Light” by the editors.

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