Sunday, December 3, 2017
'Twas a Strange Night in Advent
Today the season of Advent begins, and the first candle on our Advent wreath is now lit. Advent is a special season of watching and waiting; of looking for the subtle and surprising signs of God’s presence in the world. I love Advent because it has a spiritual subtlety that is very necessary in the commercialized excess of the holiday season. It reminds me that I could miss the presence of God if I’m not looking carefully for it. Advent is about cleaning your lens and looking at the world and yourself in a new way.
So look around this morning. Take a good look. If you hadn’t noticed, this is the best time of year at Kent. The best. We should have signs put up, so you remember. Instead, our Advent wreath hangs in the chancel, as a gentle reminder to savor the moment as we prepare for Christmas. You may remember keeping an Advent calendar as a child. Those were good times--a time of wonder at new things, but the anticipation and beauty of the season are still here, reaching you in new ways if you stop to look around. A strange thing happened to me earlier this week—something just felt wrong, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. I was out of sorts. And then I realized what I was missing. I was here at Kent, but I wasn’t stressed out. These two weeks and change are quite a few notches less stressful than any other time of the year. It is a time to just be, or as close as we come to mindful relaxation as a community. And this time together doesn’t end with final exams, or the goodbyes of spring, but rather a chapel service, one that is different from the others. People really sing the Christmas carols. Vacation will hang in the air with the Lessons and Carols service, before we go our separate ways and rejoin our families for the holidays.
So today, on this first Sunday of Advent, I will tell you a story from my past, from long ago; a story that is both funny and sad, tragic and comic. And I survived, just barely, to tell you the tale this morning. To make a long story just a little shorter, I once stole a Christmas tree. This event is part of my permanent files. 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 a 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. However, my own controversial ministry to General Seminary was more along the lines of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” And I was the Grinch.
It all began so simply on a December day of cold and wintry Advent gloom. Like today. 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 yearly 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. The children of the neighborhood 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 back then, madly egotistical, and full of brio. Among other things.
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. That’s the proper order of things. The tree should then stand for the twelve days of Christmas (like the song), and then go down at Epiphany on January 6th when the wise men arrive. This is how things should be if you’re going to be technical, which I certainly was for the sake of comedy.
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. We Advent guardians were clad in black cassock; 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 (the color of Advent) in the very spot 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, I chose the Dean of General Seminary as the honorary commander of the Advent Police. So we moved the tree into his office. 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 on top 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. 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 and our heroic actions.
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 divinity school to be a priest. 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.
3) Almost the most important lesson. I’m not as funny as I think I am. 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 very 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. It’s always somebody’s first time. Everywhere, all the 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. 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. Advent is a time to make a home for God. Inside of you. This is a time to reconnect with God’s love, or to experience it for the very first time.
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. May God bless all of you, and your families, in the days and weeks to come.