For me, Advent is one big paradox. For many (especially the children I live with), Advent “preparation” means accumulation—more shopping, more outings, more calories, more excitement and seasonal stimulation. And the culture woos us with extravagance—even bigger savings, giving your home that extra sparkle, a nice fat Christmas tree groaning with tinsel and gifts, all the while telling us—go figure—to simplify our lives. In the Christian community, of course, we shun such over-commercialization and tell ourselves that we are after an "extravagance" of meaning. Or a wealth of happy times. We are, above all, supposed to be happier this time of year than any other.
But, I’m thinking that childbirth in straw surrounded by barn animals was not happy. Nor was it simple. And I find it helpful, at least for all us "Marthas" out there (sorry, our Martha!), to remember Christ’s annoying tendency to relocate. In our hurried, harried, holiday state to produce less or buy more or make it all mean something to our children, remember that the places we expect our heavenly king to show up are not the places he turns up. The places we prepare are not necessarily the places he will come. The glitter in that tree may not be the glory of the Father. I do not believe he tops our efforts with the satisfaction and affirmation our lonely souls so desire. I believe Christ comes in weakness to weakness, in crisis to crisis, into emptiness and loss—and so, crazy as it sounds, this is where we must go to find him. In your most broken places, in your most depraved moments, be they daily or even every hour (and oh, how we need thee!)— this is where the Lord of love incarnates. This place--too broken, too lonely, too lost, too messed up for Facebook. Go to the Bethlehem that doesn’t glow like the one on Christmas cards and there you will find him.
A child in my Sunday School class once captured the pain and the redemption intertwined in Christmas when he drew our darling baby Jesus, wrapped in the storybook swaddling—and pinned to a Cross. How much that simple stick figure said! The Easter church has an iconographic image, too, of Christ the newborn king, swaddled in his own shroud and standing in a tomb. Theologically speaking, the hard wood of the cross began its life as a manger. Remember St. Paul’s terminology – the whole Creation “groaning” as in childbirth. It is okay to be sad at Christmas. It is okay to feel failure and loss more sharply, to anger more readily or be only arms' length from despair. To be gravely and desperately aware that life is not now how it should be. Because Christmas puts the most perfect love into the crummiest vessels–human hearts and relationships not fit for a king--and we know it. Our spirits know it. And we are ashamed. Again! That's why the song says "fall on your knees." It is not so much the majesty that does me in as the forgiveness-- every time.
Have we nothing we can give, grab at the last minute and pop into a gift bag? Nothing worthy? Nothing. It's a killer, for those of us who like to be in control of the perfect gift and the Kairos of holidays--right meal at the right time wearing the right outfit with meaning and happy memories oozing from the crust and filling the room with that "I called this one right" aroma. But that is not our Lord's table. He went to the Cross to share his flesh and blood with us. Or is it the other way around--he came in flesh and blood so that it would one day be shared? We are called to give the only thing worthy of this infant king--worthy because he has already claimed it, he's already unwrapped the present for heaven's sake and he loves it all the more--and in your surrender of that gift lies the holiest of all moments of Christmas.
Come, let us adore him.
Father Bill Burk†