A Reflection for Advent 2009
“In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
-- Jeremiah 33:15 (First Lesson for the First Sunday of Advent, Year C)
“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
-- Luke 2:10 (Gospel for Christmas Eve)
This Sunday begins our Advent journey to the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. We could be forgiven for thinking that Christmas has already arrived, after all Santa Claus has. As children, my brother Tim and I enjoyed our childhood ritual of lying on the floor with all three of the Eaton’s, Simpson’s, and Sears’ catalogues and pouring over the toy sections imagining what gifts Santa would leave under the tree. In those days we always had a real tree so it tended to go up later than most artificial trees do today, yet, we began to sense Christmas was in the air sometime in mid-November when those catalogues seemed to arrive. My mother had a wonderful stack of l.p. records (remember them?) that we would place on the record player. The records would drop and we would, in turn, listen to Perry Como, Eddy Arnold, Bing Crosby, Catherine McKinnon, and Percy Faith, amongst others, playing and singing all our favourite carols and popular Christmas songs. By mid-December the tree would be up, the house decorated, and special candles (I remember one in the shape of Santa Claus) would be lit. We would turn the lights down low, listen to those carols, and often host friends and neighbours for Christmas fellowship and cheer. Tidings of comfort and joy were heard from the hi-fi stereo.
I never thought much about justice and righteousness in the land in those days.
We never had much sense of an Advent season, at least in the “liturgical” sense of the word. Sure, there was waiting. The slow unfolding of the season, from the department store catalogues, to the l.p. records, to the mid-December decorating of the tree, and finally the shaking of the presents in the week leading up to Christmas all attest to this reality. The final piece of waiting was attendance at the Christmas Eve service. I later learned that this is the actual celebration of Christmas itself, yet for us, it was one last piece of waiting for the real deal – Christmas morning. Our waiting was a good and joyful thing. Never once do I recall us focusing on the apocalyptic themes that characterize our Advent readings in the Church, and never once did I ever have any sense that the time leading up to Christmas was supposed to be penitential (it was supposed to be just that in the Church in those days – we have since let go of this particular theme). Rather, it was all about waiting joyfully for an even more joyful day. Christmas was a long season that started in November and found its fulfillment on December 25th. In our world, its culmination was a two-day feast, as my maternal grandmother invariably held a special dinner on Boxing Day.
I must say that this season holds such wonderful memories for the three of us Graves boys, and reminds me of all that was good and wonderful about our childhood. To this day, when I walk through a mall and hear one of those Perry Como or Eddy Arnold recordings playing, I know every note and nuance of the recording and it evokes such a joyous remembrance of a wonderful time of my life. I am filled with comfort and joy.
We have a tendency in the Church to berate and condemn the secular celebration of Christmas and its long, commercial lead-up. And while I understand the good reasons for doing so, lest we forget the reason for the season, I must confess that my own experience of Advent and Christmas with the modern secular trappings did nothing to dampen the wonder and awe I experience each year as we enter into this time. Even as a young child, I seemed to somehow instinctively know that the presents, the popular songs, the Santa Claus decorations, were all festivities that celebrated a deeper more profound reality, namely, that God in Christ comes among us. I always knew what it was about. And yes, in spite the fact that catalogues were on the floor in November, and “candles in the window and carols at the spinet” in early December, we were still waiting – oh, the waiting! The interminable waiting! But, oh the joy we knew.
What I have learned as an adult, as a Christian, as priest in the Church, is that the Incarnation of Our Lord is about so much more than my joy and my family’s comfort and joy. I now know that the gift of the Christ Child, so gentle and mild, is also the gift of the Crucified and Risen Lord, who comes to set the prisoners free, give sight to the blind, hope to the fainthearted, and finally burst the bonds of death. I now know that the Incarnation of Our Lord is about justice and peace for an unfair and troubled world. I now know that the tidings of comfort and joy are the announcement and proclamation of the righteousness of God.
As a child, I did not know poverty or sadness. I did not know what injustice was. I did not feel the bleak mid-winter of loneliness known by so many. What my brothers and I knew was comfort and joy.
What I know now is that many do not know these things. What I realize now is that the Church gives us the season of Advent to hold before us the reality that there are those who yet experience injustice, whose hearts are freshly broken, who know not the comfort of a loving family. And to this reality the Church in Advent proclaims words of hope, fierce words of hope, that the order of the cosmos will be upset and justice will come to the oppressed. Waiting was for us, as children, a joy. For many it is a time of tragedy and fear. The Church in Advent proclaims Good News to all people. I understand that now. It is a kingdom in which I want to live and a kingdom I long to see extended to all of God’s children. It is a message I long to proclaim again and again until my dying breath: justice and righteousness in the land!
I do not regret the secular Advents and Christmases of my youth nor do I begrudge them to others. The gift of comfort and joy that I knew and continue to recall each year was a holy gift from God. I learned to wait, I learned to hope, I learned to celebrate. There are many for whom waiting and hoping never give way to celebration. Yet, it need not be so; for again this year a Branch shoots forth from the stump of Jesse. In word and deed we can bring tidings of comfort and joy to those who know it not. May our waiting, longing, praying and hoping, lead us into the action of carrying the Christ child into the darkest corners of this hurting world.
c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves