Welcome to advent. A time of slowing in anticipation of something that is to come. Half of that is part of our everyday reality - things to come. The slowing part not so much. But it is also probably what we could learn most from.
I’ve been on this kick lately of wanting to find beauty and meaning in the things I had to deconstruct and walk away from for awhile. I’m sure some of you can relate. I know some of you can because we’ve talked to each other about this process. Reconstruction. So even though awhile back I may have scoffed at the notion of discussing the traditional liturgy of hope, peace, joy, and love that’s associated with advent because that’s what always happens, I became empowered by them again. Here’s why.
When you view the Bible in a light of “this is what happened” you feel detached from it. And for a bit that can be fine. That’s where faith comes in, so they say. You put your faith in what happened. But that sounds a bit too much like the all-league high school pitcher who’s 46 now and still brings up how he had a no hitter going into the 6th inning against Berkeley back in 1989. If you’re so focused on what happened, you become detached from what’s happening. And even though it might not be that coveted no hitter, it could very well be the next thing you can tell people about.
So how’s that relate to advent? I realized, along with the help of an author by the name of Alexander Shaia, that the beauty of advent is not just that it happened. But that it is, was and always has been happening.
Because that’s the truth of anything worth its salt. It points up and out of itself to something of greater transformation and truth. All matter is a conduit to metaphor and story. It’s not the category that holds the truth, but the theme of that category.
Which brings me back to hope, peace, joy and love. Historically, I’ve approached these words as detached from my own story, because they were attached to the historical story of Jesus. Don’t get me wrong, there’s absurd beauty in that story. But the most beautiful aspect of that story, I believe, is that it’s our story too. It’s the story. It’s true because it’s true, if that makes sense.
So how is Christmas happening?
John and his meta-narrative, that’s how. When thinking of the Christmas story we likely go to Luke and Matthew because we are trained to look for the objective. But when we go to John, it’s clear that this isn’t the first time this whole incarnation thing happened.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.
John, referencing Genesis and the creation story here, points to the idea that from the very beginning the incarnation was a reality. God chose to engage God’s self with the cosmos by creating. To create is not to be separate from, but to be intimately tied to. God becoming man in Jesus is a mirror to the reality that’s been true the whole time, just in a way we can relate to that much more.
That light thing John mentions gets a whole new meaning when early Christians meet the Celts. The Celts had a big harvest festival on December 22. Not knowing exactly when Jesus was born, Pope Gregory rolled with that date too. Well not that date exactly, but one three days after. Want to know why? That’s the shortest day of the year. The sun is at its lowest for the Celts in their northern hemisphere life on December 22nd. Christmas was played 3 days after that day because the 25th would have been the first day one would have noticed the light coming again.
Total darkness and three days later, the rising of the sun. Sound familiar? The coming of the light into the world with the sun is when we chose to celebrate the coming of the light in the world through the son. This also just so happens to be the Easter narrative. Darkness… leading to the son rising again. Three days later.
There are many takeaways here… The Christmas season is a reminder that the Christian tradition is not one of indoctrination, but integration. It’s not about taking God places, but discovering how God is already alive in those places.
And another takeaway… nature and the cosmos have been telling the truth from the beginning that the Gospels happen to exemplify. So… don’t be afraid of when aliens make contact. It wont be the end of faith, but the springboard to a new kind of interrogation.
If it’s true in the cosmos, it’s true in the Christ.
So this whole light and Christ and God coming into the world was true the whole time. It happened, sure. But it’s also always been happening. And that whole incarnation thing? It’s happening right now. In wherever you are reading this and out on the street and down in Peru and everywhere else. Because we are now the bearers of that spirt. We are God wearing flesh now, if we are to believe the idea of us being the bearers of Christ. The bearers of the Divine flow of the universe.
The difficult part is learning to believe that.
And that’s where four ingredients tend to help. When you have ingredients you can have a recipe. And in having a recipe, you can have a result. And in paving the way for Christ on earth and in ourselves, what we’ve discovered is there are four elements at play.
Each of these have other things that sometimes go along with them. For example
Hope - Prophecy
Peace - Angels
Joy - Shepherds
Love - Magi
Again, this is a literal move. Having characters embody realities is something fine writers have been doing for millennia.
One liturgical tradition tied to this is the advent wreath. The circular nature of it represents eternity. Traditionally, you light one candle at a time on the week that the topic is discussed with the final middle candle that represents Christ being lit on Christmas. Which I tend to think is wrong. That Christ candle should be lit first and lit on every single Sunday.That is, if we are to follow the Christmas according to John. Christ doesn’t show up on Christmas, Christ has been here all along. Christ is embodied throughout he person of Jesus, bit has been active since the beginning. Christ is not a future but a flow. So Christ should be the first and the final flame. The alpha and omega. The thing informing the other candles and resulting from them.
The traditional first ingredient to the way of Christ is hope. Hope is, as I mentioned, represented through the prophets. Which makes sense. It was in there hope that we had the prophetic voice arise. They hoped for something that was to come.
Hope would naturally come first, right? In order to have peace, joy and love, you need to first have a sense of hope.
Growing up I played hockey. I had a phase the summer before I got into high school where shooting pucks in the backyard was all I ever did. I bought a sheet of plastic from a wholesale plastic retailer. Yep. That’s a thing. I taped the plastic sheet that was about 2 feet by 4 feet on my driveway and would shoot hour after hour after hour. I would tie gatorade bottles full of water to each of the two top corners and hit them over and over, watching water explode from them. My shot got so hard that I left dents in the posts and crossbar. And when I missed the net, I dented the garage door. Which caused my Dad to get mad. So then I opened the garage door and shot pucks and when I missed the net they soared through the garage and put holes in the wood wall at the back of there garage. I think at that point my Dad just got impressed. I had this hope of making the high school team as a freshman. High School hockey in Michigan is a big deal. But I didn’t make it. But did learn a simple lesson.
Hope is the result of a process
Hope begs the question “what’s being formed here?”
Hope is less a feeling and more a mode of being
Hope is the understanding that something is always being formed
We’ll be looking at Luke a lot over the course of this series. And there are a few unique qualities to Luke. Luke was written by a guy named Luke. I know, crazy! He was a doctor and a friend of Paul. Luke also was written in the year 80… which, for those doing the math, is 47 or so year after Jesus was around.
Luke was also written to Jews and Gentiles who were hopeless because Jerusalem had fallen and the Romans had taken over like never before. So Luke is not writing to give a history, Luke is writing to give hope to people who are discouraged and burdened and don’t know how to keep going. Most likely, Luke had no idea how Jesus actually came into existence or how he was born. He gathered insight from some people, but more than anything, he wanted to create an origin story for this savior known as Jesus the Christ.
And this origin story is one that Jews and Gentiles living in the reality of persecution could relate to. Because these were the elements it consisted of…
A young family forced to travel long distance from home because of an authoritative government.
A family that had to give birth in a manger.
A family that didn’t have much.
A couple who had high standing, one in the line of David, one in the priestly class, who had to blindly trust this new and less glamorous way of life.
The story Luke was writing about this saviors origin story was the story of those he was writing too in that day. There’s this Messiah who lived the exact same reality you’re living in now. And guess what? That messiah said that you are now his manifestation. Like Mary, you hold Christ within you. How are you going to chose to give birth to that reality in this less-than-ideal situation? It’s one thing to feel sorry for yourself, it’s another to bring life and love into the world.
Hope is solidarity. It’s I’ve been there too. And that’s what Luke is encouraging his readers to see. That there is a King who’s life is just like there’s. That even in the trashiest of situations, light is coming into the world. That they can give birth to Christ in their situations too. Hope isn’t passively expecting something to happen. Hope is living into the process of making it happen. It’s asking the question what is being formed in this dark cave that smells like donkey poop? Hope is a mode of being that says screw the feeling, I’m going to start living. Hope is recognizing that even in the dark, there’s a new sun that’s forming and starting to rise.
Luke is looking to the past, even possible recreating the past a bit, to give hope to the present. That’s the origin of the Christmas story. Maybe you can do the same.
What are the stories of your past that can give you hope for the present?