A column for Advent
Sometimes it shocks me how quickly time goes by: I feel like I was just recovering from Christmas, and yet I’m already thinking about Lent. (In part this is because I’m tired of winter and Lent usually signals the beginning of spring, but still…) To most people, Lent is the buildup to Easter, a season of giving up coffee, chocolate or some other vice, and a time filled with extra church services. Lent is an important season for the church: it’s a time to reflect on our relationship with God and the sacrificial work of Jesus. It’s a time for thinking about spiritual disciplines and our attitude towards God. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, during which Christians reflect on their own mortality. Ash Wednesday has also been a day to think about repentance. “Repentance” is a familiar word, but not very popular. For most people it suggests a sense of guilt and conjures images of street preachers holding signs saying “Repent, for the end is near.” Neither of these images is helpful for us: God doesn’t want us to wallow in guilt, and scare tactics suggest that repentance is something for people who feel like small children caught by their parents in the act of misbehaving. The idea of repentance comes from scripture, and it’s an important part of our relationship with God. It’s less about wallowing in guilt than it is about self-reflection and examination as we honestly assess what we have in our lives that separates us from God.
It’s time for my last column of the year. As people try to recover from Thanksgiving and get ready for Christmas, we’re trying to remember a central event in our faith and at the same time prone to forgetting about it. In the back of our minds, we’re aware that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” and yet between shopping for presents, attending parties, and gathering the family together, we don’t always reflect on what Jesus’s birth means. Sometimes the TV version of the story, with a baby being born in a manger 2000 years ago to the sound of Christmas carols, is as far as we get. What does Jesus mean to us now?
It surprised me to realize, some years ago, that only two of the four Gospels have nativity stories. Mark doesn’t mention Jesus’s birth or childhood, and John begins with a theological reflection on his significance: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” In the baby born in the manger, people encountered the God who created everything. The Greek word translated “Word” in this passage implied more than just a spoken word: it means the rationale or reason that hold everything together. Jesus is the creator and founding principle of our world.
What that organizing principle is becomes clear soon enough. John tells us, “Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.” It’s the nature of the God we find in Jesus to give grace. In Luke’s Gospel, we have Mary’s reaction to being told she would be the mother of the Son of God; she says in part, “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” The Word of God, become flesh in Jesus, is inclusive, giving self-sacrificing love to all, and seeking to build up and redeem everyone. This message is both an encouragement, and a challenge to the ways that we live our lives and celebrate Christmas. Who in our world have been marginalized or oppressed? How has what we buy or how we celebrate contributed to the commercialization that often oppresses those who are different from us? This season, I’d like for all of us to ponder how we can fight the commercialization that separates us all from each other, and from God.
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