Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Conflicted Advent

Advent and Christmas are my favorite seasons. Growing up, our family observed Advent with a wreath, with candles we lit each night, and prayers and hymns before dinner. We didn’t put up our tree until Christmas Eve, because it wasn’t Christmas yet! It made the actual arrival of Christmas Day even more special. I fondly remember going to the 11:00pm Christmas Eve service at Church, and when the service was over, everyone got to finally say “Merry Christmas!” because it was finally Christmas! 
So, now, as an adult, I keep many of the same traditions. We have an Advent wreath for our dining room table, though we don’t always light the candles, and we don't say any special Advent prayers before dinner. But I use Advent devotionals during my quiet time in the morning, and there is just a kind of warmth in my heart during this time of year. We also don’t put up our tree until the 24th, and we leave it up for the 12 days of Christmas, taking it down on January 6. During the whole month of Advent and the 12 days of Christmas, I love thinking about and meditating on what it means to say, “Emmanuel - God with us!” It’s just the best time of the year for me, what with fond memories, and my own spiritual practices.

But…this year, 2016, it is hard to feel joyful, hard to feel the hope of Emmanuel. In the US, Donald Trump was elected president (despite losing the popular vote by 2.7 million votes) and the fall-out has been an unprecedented rise in hate crimes committed against Jews, Muslims, and people of color - many such crimes being explicitly committed in Trump’s name. Trump’s staff and cabinet picks are full of avowed racists (though they prefer the term “alt-right”) and Islamophobes. His administration is talking about slashing Medicare and Social Security, and gutting the Affordable Care Act. It’s as if all the progress this country made in the last 8 years is going to be undone in 6 months. American Muslims and gays are going to lose their civil rights, and the poor and economically marginalized are going to be thrown to the wolves. And in the face of all this, I’m supposed to sing “Joy to the world”??

Well, yes, exactly. Think about when and where Jesus was born. Israel was an occupied country, ruled over by a puppet of the Roman Empire who was a dictator and a despot. Jews had no rights, and a Roman soldier could demand of them that they carry his load, or that they give him the very coats off their backs. They were taxed without any say in the government. Furthermore, Jesus’ parents were essentially homeless at the time of his birth, having been forced by the occupying government to return to Joseph’s ancestral land in order to be counted in a census. In the midst of this, the angels proclaimed Jesus’ birth, announcing “good news” and “peace on Earth.” Surely the shepherds had to be thinking, “Peace on Earth? Yeah, right!” 

God chose a very dark time and place to send the Messiah and remind us that God is “with us” - that the very presence of God is within us and among us, that God is on our side and not against us. And now, given our political climate, what better time to hope for the coming of one who will bring Light and Life, and a peace that “passes understanding”? And I’m not talking about some kind of second coming, here. And I’m not talking about remembering the physical coming of a baby 2000 years ago. I’m talking about the very real presence of God that is among us, here and now - for we know that wherever two or three are gathered in God’s name, then God is there. (Matt. 18:20) We also know that “whoever loves is born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7) The Good News 2000 years ago, that God is with us and therefore we can know hope and peace, is still the Good News today. So, maybe it’s not really a “conflicted” Advent for me, after all. It’s just Advent, as it was 2000 years ago, so it is today: In Jesus, we can know hope, we can know peace, we can know that God is truly with us!