A couple of weeks ago I was speaking at our church on the subject of hope in the context of war and violence. As always, I did my best to present a positive and hopeful way forward because I truly believe Jesus provides us with that kind of possibility. As always, I had my own doubts and my own fears that I might be simply naïve and unrealistically optimistic, and that, as a leader, I might be unfairly setting people up for disappointment. But, as always, I fell back (or perhaps forward) into a simple trust in Jesus and his way of non-violence, his love for enemies, and call to be peacemakers.
Meanwhile, pretty much as I was speaking, someone walked into a church in Texas and started killing people with an automatic weapon. A few days later, someone else did the same in a school in California. A few days after that, someone did the same at a mosque in Egypt.
Earlier this week my wife went to BWI to pick up a friend from the airport, and was delayed for several hours because the airport was shut down. Someone had left their bag unattended: at one level an understandable thing to do, but in this day and age a totally crazy thing to do because violence (and the expectation of violence) is our new normal.
It may be Advent—a time of hope, when we wait expectantly for the coming of Christ—but, if I’m honest, I find myself expecting the worst. Hope is in short supply. It’s been another unbelievably painful year. I can talk about hope, but the harsh reality of this world makes me want to run away.
Advent and our Christmas celebrations in some way offer such an escape. During the holidays the lights and music, food and drink, the goodwill, and time with family and friends all provide a welcome and needed respite from the “world out there.” I find myself longing for another world (a heaven perhaps)—and the stories of angels, prophecies, and miraculous stars and births all make me want to escape to such a world.
But the irony of Advent is that the birth of Jesus is anything but an escape. One of the unique aspects of Christianity is that in its most authentic form it validates this broken, dark, difficult, painful physical reality of ours. While most religions offer an escape from this reality, Christianity dares to dream that it can be redeemed. The birth of Jesus is incarnation: God becoming human. That is validation of our humanity as God lovingly embraces us with all our beauty and ugliness. God is not inviting us to escape this world but is entering the world to redeem it. Jesus is born into it; shows us how to love people who don’t love us; loves so much that it costs him his life; and is then resurrected back into this very reality. God has not given up on the world, and God has not given up on us.
People have always found this difficult to believe. The Christian Scriptures attest to the struggle early followers had with a notion that eventually became known as Gnosticism. Some were persuaded that the physical world is bad. Our bodies, our physical needs and desires are all symptom of weakness. The goal of life is to free our spiritual selves, our souls, from this body and escape to heaven. It’s not hard to see how this thinking of escape prevails in religion even today. But the story of Christmas tells us that the truth is just the opposite. The Divine Intention is not escape but redemption, and we are part of the plan. Jesus shows that a new way, a new creation is possible. We are called to partnership in reconciling this world to God. That means never giving up on hope, peace, love and joy. It means striving for justice in the most unfair situations. It means engaging rather than withdrawing in difficult relationships. It means entering and bringing light into darkness wherever we find it, rather than turning away.
This Christmas I want to rest. I want to find solace in the wonder and mystery of incarnation. But I also want to celebrate Immanuel, the Divine “Withness.” God is not going away. God is here. God is with us right now. Perhaps Advent is not really so much about us waiting for God, as God waiting patiently for us; waiting for us to see that God is already at work bringing Heaven to Earth.