December 3, 2007
Still Waiting? Six Reasons why Advent is Important
A funny thing happened on the way to advent this year, the texts chosen to be read during the weeks leading up to Christmas take us on the road to the crucifixion. Today we begin with the text usually associated with Palm Sunday. Donkeys, tree branches and blankets get in our way as we try to think about the Christ child. I might have made an executive decision to shift the texts, but I thought better of it.
I did so because the texts help us move beyond the feel good Christmas story of a babe in the manger no crib for his bed. From the beginning this story is going to end badly and that it begins badly would not be a surprise had we not been fed on memories of “old fashioned Christmases” to deflect our attention. So the first reason Advent is important is that it reminds us that being a follower of Christ is serious, sometimes tragic business. Over the stable there is a cross. We do ourselves no favor when we forget that truth.
Jesus, the heir of David comes to his moment of glory on a donkey. “Look your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey.” Humility is not a seasonal virtue but for many Americans it is a learned virtue. Many of you may have noticed that the virtue of humility seems to be a hallmark of the New England Patriot football team. And it makes people very uncomfortable to be told that the prerequisites for playing for this team are than you be smart and that you be humble. Defeated or undefeated, their coach reminds them to be smart and to be humble giving them recently tee shirts extolling the virtues of “Humble Pie”. The message is simple: do not take your accomplishments too seriously, you are only as good as your last game and another one is coming up.
Many in New England are basking in the reflected glory of successful sports teams; some are ready to declare New York road kill in our on going tussle with the Evil Empire. But our text reminds us of weightier matters. It is not the old Puritan mind set that majored in the dour and self-effacing that warns us not to be deceived. This is not a call for more bah humbug at Christmas, but simply a reminder that at the heart of our Christian affirmation is the notion that it all began in a stable—not a king’s palace or the locale of the power brokers—and that it ended so it seemed on a cross.
Advent is important because it reminds us of these realities. I grew up just a road trip away from a segregated South. Everyone I knew had come from somewhere else—Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee. That was a long time ago but the perspective the experience gave me has stayed with me and came home when we recently caught up with the film Babel. Consciously citing the story of the Tower of Babel and the decision to scatter human kind less they become like Gods, the story however disjointed tells parallel tales of folk scattered and yet connected by a weapon and a foolish act. All of us share the lonliness of loss, the alienation from those we love, the economics that foster and feed conflict. The film offers a rough challenge to embrace our common humanity and care about the other.
At Advent we hear a similar appeal, we hear of a love for us so great that is has been clothed in flesh; it is a love that has made our world its home. When we receive great gifts it is behooves us not to proclaim how rich we are but rather to in gratitude and in humility to celebrate how blessed we are.
Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute