As we begin Advent, many of the psalms and Old Testament lessons portray a people in big trouble, surrounded by conquering enemies and evildoers. The first step of the Twelve Step program comes to mind, where the person confronts that he or she has an out of control problem which is beyond their ability to fix. The thought can be lost in the myriad of details, both theological and practical, which form our preparation for the Nativity feast. It is certainly lost on many, in and out of church, that the Church begins her New Year, on November 30, with Advent, a season of penitence and contemplation, looking both inward and forward.
Details abound in all aspects of the Christmas story. Among others, who were the shepherds, how can the phenomenon of the heavenly choir they heard be explained, what was Caesar’s census about, was the manger in a stable or a cave, did Jesus have brothers or sisters, when and from where did the magi come and what were their beliefs, why is Christmas on December 25?
Advent asks instead why Incarnation happened. If you wish to understand that question, you must start in Genesis, not Luke. Creation and Incarnation are in fact inextricably linked in understanding the Christmas event. But you will also be inundated with details here as well. How many days in the creation process, were Adam and Eve “real” people or symbolic representations of mankind in general, where was the Garden located, whose fault was the Fall?
None of this will help you. But what happened is quite clear. God creates as an expression of his love. It was his goal to create a perfect environment for his creatures to share in love, much as earthly parents might want to create a wonderful environment for their children. But a love relationship between God and his people means mankind must be free to accept or reject that love. Forced love is not love at all. The rest of the story is about mankind’s rejection of God’s love which leads to the big trouble humanity found and finds itself in, as mentioned above. We cannot fix it, as human history repeatedly illustrates. God’s consequent choice was whether to abandon or salvage creation. He chose, in his unchanging and perfect love to sacrificially save creation. That is why the Christ came to earth. The details don’t much matter. God’s plan to restore the perfect love relationship intended from the beginning matters.
This is where Advent begins. This is where you and I need to begin, with confronting the very unpleasant fact that we are in big trouble, that all the denial and sweet talk in the world cannot change the reality that each of us, and all of us together, are hopelessly mired in the consequences of our own sin. Despite a lot of brave talk and silly notions of being righteous, we are lost. The Gospels are good news because they report that God has acted, in grace, to restore what we destroy. Otherwise, we are toast. Many people see religion as about being righteous, keeping the rules, dividing into who has been naughty and who has been nice. Wrong. It is about the desperate condition we are in, needing total grace.
Advent exists to review that latter fact, up close and personally, in your life. Confronting your own failings and demons is difficult. No wonder folks prefer to decorate the tree and put on the Christmas program in the middle of Advent. But in so doing, we totally miss the point. No wonder as well, then, that massive mission drift occurs and many simply revert to a celebration of the winter solstice with good feelings thrown in all around. No wonder equally that depression peaks at Christmas time, since avoiding the purpose of Advent means many are still staring at the overwhelming problem of their failing self-salvation, which they cannot fix. The lights, tinsel and false jollity only bring home the contrast between intended perfect love and the reality of a broken humanity.
This would be a good Advent to change all that for yourself. You may not be able to avoid the outer environment of a world frantically seeking impossible fulfillment in the celebration of “Happy Holidays.” But your inner environment can take some time to deal with this. Return to Genesis, as Adam and Eve are 86’d out of Paradise to begin their life as homeless refugee exiles. The rest of history is the ambivalent story of humanity on the one hand resenting God, wanting to be gods, causing manifold wreckage in the attempted rebellion and on the other hand longing to go home to where the loving Father waits patiently for the Prodigal so the celebration can begin. Like the Prodigal, we tend to persevere in rebellion until it becomes untenable. Only then do we truly hear the good news of the Father’s love, even though it has been there all along. Only then do we realize our efforts at making ourselves great lead to self-idolatry, hurtful to God, creation, neighbor and self. Only then do we grasp at grace.
When Adam and Eve realized their attempt to overthrow God, reject his love and become gods had not worked, they hid, as failed revolutionaries do, from the wrath of the authorities. We still do that. These days, it is easy to hide in the hustle and bustle of celebrating the holidays. But Adam and Eve found they could not hide from God. We ultimately find we still can’t.
This could therefore be a good time for a different plan, to turn around on the road and begin the trip back to the Father. Note that the Prodigal didn’t come to his senses by brilliant reasoning and theological genius. It happened when he confronted the reality of his situation “on the ground.” So this Advent, take a look at yourself. Who have I become? Am I fulfilling my God-given vocation? Am I, created as a woman, expressing and rejoicing in my God-given femininity? Am I, created as a man, expressing and rejoicing in my God-given masculinity? Am I, a baptized child of God, basking in the love of the Father, sharing that love with all the brothers and sisters in my immense spiritual family? Am I cognizant that the earth is the Lord’s, not mine? Do I take good care of it, in the little corner given to my dominion? Do I live my Eucharist all the days of the week? These are general and basic. You will have specifics in your life as you look in the inner mirror of your soul. The details of the season, Christmas parties, shopping at the Mall or whatever, will always give you a way to avoid these questions. Yet if you want to start on the road home, you can make it the priority even if you squeeze in some parties and shopping.
The Prodigal began the trip home with trepidation and low expectations. When we are humbled by an honest look at the reality of our situation, that is normal. Keep in mind, though, that you know what the Prodigal did not, that the Father is watching and will be overjoyed to see you on the road. Then there can be a glorious celebration, in the infinite love of the Father and the shared joy of knowing I am his.