Tuesday, December 11, 2012
"‘Twas a Strange Night in Advent”
9 December 2012
The Second Sunday of Advent
St. Joseph’s Chapel
If you listen closely to the readings of this Advent season, the results can be strange and jarring. The comfortable expectations of this sentimental season—especially during these last few days before our long awaited vacation--come up against the hard edges of the Advent discipline on this second Sunday. The figure of John the Baptist in today’s gospel is provocative, and unsettling. The tight tension, or seeming contradiction, of Advent warnings or doom and expectations of Christmas cheer, is at its most dramatic in John the Baptist, who comes to us with prophecies of judgment if we don’t wake up to how we are living our lives.
God is coming, John the Baptist warns us, but what will that mean? Will God’s wrath or God’s Love come among us as our guest this year? Unlike the Christmas story itself, the lessons for Advent are edgy and dark. John the Baptist lived in the wilderness, and people came to him, including Jesus, to hear his prophetic voice. The tame moments when we approach the Christ child radically contrast with the Advent voices of our tradition that call us to account, and repentance; we are not ready for, nor are we worthy of, the love of God, so we are told by John.
So, John the Baptist, the voice crying in the wilderness, won’t let us be free, awash in the warm glow of Christmas. It says in today’s gospel from Luke that the word of God came to John, but it’s not a very nice word if we read Luke past the lesson assigned this morning. Here’s John the Baptist just a few verses later in Luke:
“You brood of vipers! (Vipers are snakes by the way). Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance…Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.”
So today, on this last Sunday before the break, I will tell you a story from my past, from long ago; a story that is both funny and sad, tragic and comic. My own prophetic ministry, as a satirical John the Baptist, was a personal failure. But I survived, just barely, to tell you the tale. To make a long story just a little shorter, I once stole a Christmas tree. I will have to take you back to my first year of divinity school at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan, to a time before you were born. At General Seminary, there is always an historic reading of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” with all of the children from the seminary and the neighborhood gathered around the massive fireplace in the common area. A favorite reader of the story was the then Governor of New York Mario Cuomo. His son Andrew is the current governor of New York. However, my own controversial ministry to General Seminary was more along the lines of the morality play “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” I was the Grinch.
It all began so simply on a December day of cold and wintry Advent gloom. It was then that I first noticed the early appearance, the premature arrival that is, of a Christmas tree on the afternoon of December 6th, 1989. Ah, the Christmas tree; this is a tradition which has no scriptural support, or theological justification, or religious meaning whatsoever. The Christmas tree is actually Pagan in its origins. The tree in question was set up in the exact middle of the Oxford style Close of General Seminary in Manhattan. The children had decorated the tree to celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6th. I hadn’t known that last fact when I first began plotting the Pagan tree’s downfall, but it wouldn’t have stopped me. I was young and impetuous, and full of brio. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees,” says John the Baptist, after all.
But here’s the problem; technically, religiously speaking, the tree, which has—let me repeat—no religious meaning, should not make an appearance until December 24th, the beginning of the Christmas season, after Advent is over. The tree should stand for the twelve days of Christmas, and then go down at Epiphany. If you’re going to be technical, which I certainly was. My theft was during finals week, judgment season as the Baptist once warned us; and a plan was instantly hatched in my stressed out, homework-addled brain. I tried, unsuccessfully, to focus on my upcoming Koine Greek exam, but a Grinch, not a scholar, was lurking in the shadows of General Seminary.
I wasn’t planning to steal the tree, not exactly, just to move it, under the veneer of satire and the cover of darkness. Due to the great size of the tree, I needed some help; a few disciples if you will. So I shared my Advent plan for a commando strike with two of my classmates, who are now both priests, here in the Northeast. We went into holy Advent motion in the first hour of 7 December, a day that still lives in infamy at General Seminary. They still tell the story to their children. We Advent guardians were clad in black cassock (robes like the vergers); our visages were darkened with face paint—just three ghosts of the seminary tidying things up to insure a pure Advent. As I said, the season of Christmas begins on December 24th, and not a minute before.
The tree was coming down.
Strange church mischief was in the midnight air.
We three, we merry Advent Police, left a lovely sign in purple calligraphy where the tree had been raised the day before. Our calling card sign boldly read: “Beware you secular n’er do wells! The Advent Police.” Naturally, naturally, I chose the Dean of General Seminary as the honorary commander of the Advent Police. We moved the tree into his office (the next day breaking and entering was among the charges against me). The dean’s office was far too small for the enormous Christmas tree. Even placed at an angle, it was still bent at the top by the ceiling, forming an upside down L shape. The angel was set sideways by our mad midnight work; but the tree still looked very pretty, quite special, when we turned on the Christmas lights in the dark office. Surely we had laid the groundwork for a lovely day at the helm for the veteran dean. Good morning, sir. It is more blessed to give than to receive. A letter of introduction from the mysterious and apocalyptic Advent Police was waiting for the good priest on his desk. What a glorious night it was. We even rang the bell in the seminary tower to celebrate the holy Advent that was upon all the sleeping Whos in Whoville.
Or something like that.
But my Advent adventure, or misadventure, became my very own painful Christmas lesson by the next morning.
I learned, so much, by the very next day.
Here are the lessons I learned:
1) I discovered, very quickly, that one person’s satire is, sometimes, another person’s disciplinary investigation. And it’s not very fun to be the subject of a disciplinary investigation when you’re supposed to be in graduate school. It is also better to confess when everything points to you. The assistant dean came to my dorm room before breakfast to ask me a few questions about my whereabouts on the previous night.
How did they know it was me? How? I ask you.
2) A dean, however stern and foreboding, can be a very kind and compassionate figure of authority at the same time, especially when you’re in trouble. It often doesn’t feel like it at the time—only when you look back years later. The dean put me on probation, even though some members of the faculty wanted the perpetrators expelled. Yes, I was now a perp. Breaking and entering takes you from the school handbook to the police station apparently, even during Advent.
3) I’m not as funny as I think I am. And neither are you. I learned that a good idea in the middle of the night can be a very bad idea by 9 AM the next morning. Let me say this again: a good idea in the middle of the night can be a very bad one by morning.
4) The most important. One person’s familiar holiday can be a small child’s very first Christmas, or the first time decorating a tree. Think of the magic of your first real snowfall, or the first time hearing the story of the birth of Jesus, or hearing the rich beauty of the Lessons and Carols service on Wednesday. It’s always somebody’s first time. Or this year could be the first time a person you know really feels the true spirit of this season, a time of giving not just receiving. And it can also be a loved one’s last Christmas. Near the end of your life, I have no doubt that sharing a Christmas with your family is a foretaste of heaven itself.
It was through my failure as a Christmas Grinch that I learned the important lesson of this season. Though John the Baptist was right about many things, he was also deeply, terribly wrong, in a sense—but an important one--about the most significant thing of all: Ours is not a God of doom, but rather a God of grace, love, forgiveness, and unspeakable beauty. A God who makes each of us a beginner when it comes to experiencing, and sharing, the mystery of Love. To be a child of God is to live in wonder; to find the mystical in the ordinary, and the ordinary in the mystical. In God’s mercy, in those terrifying depths of divine love too bright for our mortal eyes to gaze upon, we were and are not condemned by God.
Something different and unexpected happened.
God instead gave us Jesus Christ; and God gave us each other.
The Christian writer and Oxford professor C.S. Lewis once described the infinite grace of God with these words: “The hardness of God is better than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”
The hardness of God is better than the softness of men.
God gave, and still gives, everything to win our hearts, and to save our souls, that we too may give freely to each other and to our world as we have received God’s love and mercy. Love is not simply what we expected, or what we needed; it is more than we can possibly imagine. The only gift we can give back to God is the very best of who we are: to live again the good life of compassion, forgiveness, and charity to one another, in word and deed; that God may no longer be a stranger in the world, and in our hearts. Have a blessed Advent and a merry Christmas and a happy Hanukkah. May God bless all of you, and your families, in the weeks to come.