All this week, my friend Kym and I have had a texting chain going about Advent calendars — those funny calendars with twenty-four numbered doors or drawers that people use to count down to Christmas Eve. It started when Kym sent me a link with the note, “Amazon is a minion of satan.” When I clicked on the link, I found an ad for an Advent calendar entirely filled with high-end beauty products, aptly named “Ritual.” Kym added: “not sure the message of Advent is luxurious comforts.” Then I scrolled down the link and found a calendar which contained a lego Star Wars figurine for each day of Advent, which I secretly wanted, so I sent that back. Kym didn’t think that one was quite “on point” either. And so we were off, sending them back and forth, until I stumbled upon an Advent calendar filled with our favorite perfume. Finally, I sent her my hard-earned wisdom: “We could be having a great Advent if only we did not believe in Jesus.”
We were playing, of course, with the enormous gap between Advent as a time of spiritual preparation and Advent as the lead up to Commercial Christmas. The tension between these two paths — one focused on mercy to the neediest among us, and the other on extreme shopping — is so obvious as not to need comment, even though most of us struggle in vain to balance them well. But that obvious gap conceals a more profound theological one, the gap which leads us to look back toward the sweet scene of the baby in the manger while the Biblical texts are pointing us toward the Second Coming.
At the most basic level, the reasons for this are obvious. Just about anyone who’s ever seen a baby will tell you: that face and those wriggling fingers are the finest proof we have for the existence of God. Infants move our hearts; they stir our sense of wonder and compassion, bring out our kindness and give it strength to win out over anger, exhaustion, and fear. They are everyday miracles, even without stars and angels and frankincense brought to a manger. And the Second Coming…well, it’s scary, weird, beyond our imaginations — and, for some, not even part of our consciousness.
But underneath this substitution is a significant theological danger, because while the Child in the Manger can be sentimentalized until it is far from its original evocation of self-sacrificial love, the Final Judgment is beyond our capacity to tame. That is the point: Advent is about preparing ourselves for an encounter with the living God, who cannot be managed or domesticated, but only served, revered, and adored.
Christ conjures that cosmic God in his apocalyptic evocation of the coming of the Son of Man: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” (Luke 21:25) In past years, I’d have written off such rhetoric as poetic hyperbole; now, the daily news of climate change makes it seem all too jarringly possible. Which ever way you lean, Christ is summoning a God whose mere presence shakes the stars and shatters the waves of the sea.
In response, all we can do is prepare: keep alert, keep our hearts ready and our lives in order — because, and this is the good news in the Gospel — because this cosmic God is on our side. This untamable, uncontrollable God loves us, and in all these frightening portents, God is bringing us redemption, calling us to righteousness, which is God’s image planted in us.
In 1223, the young St. Francis was moved to set up a creche with an ox and an ass, then to invite people from the surrounding towns to come hear him preach about “the babe of Bethlehem.” It was the first nativity scene, and what I find astonishing about it is that there was no Christ. There were no shepherds, no kings, no holy family. There was a just a setting — a setting that pointed toward what was not visible, what never could be visible again, except in the faces of the men and women gathered around it, hungering to hear the Word of God.
I love that. It is so easy, in this season, to become trapped in the lie of our more populated creche sets; to think that we can arrange Jesus, arrange Mary, to suit our needs, our taste, our desires, and even our decor. That’s probably why the Second Commandment forbids graven images: not out of concern that we will worship them, but that they might lead us to see ourselves as the ones who can create and manipulate gods. But the theologian Howard Thurman reminds us that Jesus is a “religious subject rather than [a] religious object.” It is God, not ourselves, who is active in the life of faith. God acts upon us; God forms us; God moves us. God is not our plaything or our puppet.
What is called for is not ingenuity, but humility — the openhearted acceptance of God as God is, which alone allows us to accept ourselves and our world as we are. And in that humility is our salvation, not because God covets a groveling people, but because this world cannot actually be made to serve our raw desires for long. When we try to recreate the world in our own image, it does not take long for us to suffer a jarring collision with reality, which seeks our love, not our control.
By the time Francis created that manger, he was twenty years into a radical commitment to Christ that led him to forsake the wealth into which he was born and embrace a life of of poverty. He and those who followed him labored with their hands alongside the poor, asking no wages, hoping that they might be given bread at days’ end. They traveled from village to village, preaching and teaching and caring for lepers, and they slept in huts and in caves. They sought Christ in the lives of the poor, wrapped their own strength around tending the needs of others. They had prepared themselves to meet with joy the One who born among the poor and fled as an infant to exile in an alien land.
And so, this Advent, let us remember: the love of God comes to us, yes, and it comes with a purpose and a direction. It casts the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. It fills the hungry with good things, and sends the satiated away. It summons us from our preoccupation with self and with family, and urges us to embrace our “responsibility to [those] whose only claim on [us] is the height and depth of their need.” And this is a deeper and more profound spiritual challenge, not only to love the Babe of Bethlehem, who is inherently adorable, but to love those who are not: all the babies in all the mangers who cry out for our compassion and mercy. And so this judgment to which we each go is really gift: in holding us accountable to what is holy and true, it frees us from all that is not love.
In the end, love remains.
Quotes are from Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited.
If you want to see an actual, Kym -approved Advent calendar, click here: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/documents/wol_advent_calendar_2018.pdf