Saturday, January 17, 2015

While We Wait

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 14, 2003

It has always struck me as something that had to be more than a coincidence—as some kind of great cosmic joke perhaps—more proof of God’s delicious sense of humor—that both hunting season and the busiest retail season of the whole year come at exactly the same time. It’s true: for those who prowl around the forest in search of various forms of wildlife, the season is here; it’s arrived; starting tomorrow, even, you can use your muzzleloader to shoot deer, should you be so inclined. And for those of us who prowl around the mall, in search of that perfect gift for Johnny or Susie or Aunt Millie, the season is upon us now, as well.
As I said, it must be something more than a coincidence that these two choicest “blessings” happen at the same time. They are seasons long anticipated by some. (Most retail businesses, we are told, make between 50 and 75 percent of their money during the fourth quarter of the year. It has been said that if Ebeneezer Scrooge were in business in America today, he’d no longer be saying “Bah humbug!” about Christmas; he’d be saying “Bring it on! Deck them halls! Ring them [cash register] bells!”
This can be a dangerous season, too. Be careful if you’re out walking in the woods at this time of year, and make sure you’re wearing your bright orange clothes. (This was more of an issue for us when we had little children, and lived in Vermont and Maine; but even around here, in this suburban paradise, you’ve got to be careful: Bill Sevrens was telling me the other night that he was out walking in the woods near his home this week, and came upon a couple of hunters in full battle array. And I suggest that you not drive your light brown Volkswagen too close to the woods, either, lest it be mistaken for a moose or bison (that actually happened in Maine a few years back. So be careful.
And I’m sure that there are still a few, poor disoriented souls still wandering around South Shore Plaza from last Christmas. So be careful when you’re out shopping, too.
Here we are at the threshold of Christmas once again. Already. It did it again; it snuck up on us. Most of us, I’m sure, probably approach it with that same complicated mixture of dread, anticipation, joy, and resignation. (Sometimes, it might seem that we attach somewhere between 50 and 75 percent of our lives’ meaning to the Christmas season.)
Here we are already, and most of us aren’t ready. In spite of maybe having bought at least a few gifts ahead of time. In spite of stocking up on Christmas cards and wrapping paper in the after-Christmas sales last January. In spite of vowing that this year would be different, it still feels as though, when December 25th gets here, we won’t be prepared for it. We fear that a great opportunity will once again pass us by, and that the real spirit of Christmas will be lost in the shuffle.
So often, as the days of December drag on, each one a little longer, a little busier than the last, the season feels like a burden, when it ought to be a joy. As Earl Holt has written: “Christmas depresses some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time.”
But still, in spite of everything, the light shines. And love abides. And we cling to the hope that Christmas can still bring.
We live in tough times. Many of our young men and women won’t be home for Christmas, but will be stuck in Iraq instead. There are rumors that the economy is picking up, but I know an awful lot of people who are still out of work. Sometimes, we might look around us and wonder if another year might bring the full defeat of the light, the final trampling of the spirit that is within us. People seem especially tired and weary and fearful and confused in these days in which we live.
But we gather here this morning, and in this season, as a people of faith (people of a peculiar faith, true; but people of faith nonetheless): A faith that the spirit of the divine lives within the heart of every person, waiting, sometime to be born, waiting for its spring, to flower, to be called forth to life.
As it was called forth in the life of the great man of Galilee whose birth we celebrate at this time of year. As it was called forth in the lives of those Maccabean heroes who would not stand oppression any longer. As it has been called forth in the words and deeds of prophetic women and men throughout history—in the thoughts and actions of countless people, famous and unknown, who have—for a brief moment of heroism perhaps, or through a whole lifetime of service—lived that way which, if lived by all of us, would truly save the world.
Perhaps where we stand now, embedded in December, the days can seem all darkness. In the days long before there was a Christmas, long before there was any talk about Jesus as “light of the world”, our ancient pagan forbears lit huge bonfires at this time of year, to seduce the sun back from its steady retreat that culminates in the solstice, the shortest day of the year. Those huge fires were lit to drive the darkness away. Now, through our modern technology, we can banish the outer darkness whenever we choose, with the flick of a switch. But the inner darkness—the emptiness—the hunger that this time of year brings—remains. So, we yearn for the light of Christmas.
This darkness—this emptiness—this hunger—is as much a part of Christmas as the shining star, and the singing angels, and the holiday feasting. It was because the inn at Bethlehem was too full that it could not receive the blessed child. If we are too full of ourselves-- if we are convinced that we are self-sufficient—that we can control it all and have it all—that all time is ours to fill up and schedule as we please—that it is we who have made us, and not some Power greater than ourselves—that we are not, spiritually, searching for anything, or hungering for anything—then there is nothing for us to wait for at this Advent season. And the holidays may come, pleasantly and un-challengingly enough. But the true spirit of Christmas will pass us by, and we will not be changed by this time of year.
Which is a tragedy, for Christmas offers us so much.
Christmas is the promise that our emptiness will be filled; our hungers fed; the deep darkness within flooded with light. It is a promise that the sad, the weary, and the hopeless will be comforted—and that means all of us. Those who wander, in a strange land, or in the land of alienation, will find a place to rest. Those who yearn for truth and meaning will find a star to guide them.
Christmas will come—it will truly come—if we prepare a place in our hearts for it. We can not make it come. We can not force it (like the child who tries to make the flower grow faster by tugging at it). It may even come most powerfully when we are most sure it won’t. As the great Czech philosopher Jan Patocka reminds us, “Sometimes, in order to see the stars, one must descend to the bottom of a well.” Oftentimes, it’s away from the tinsel and decorations and the music—even away from church—that the true miracle of Christmas can find a place in our hearts.
If we’re ready for it. If we plant its seeds.
Christmas is a season of delightful paradoxes. The lights amidst the darkest time of the year. A heavenly king born in a humble stable. Wisemen worshipping a tiny baby.
Advent is a paradox, too. For this season of “preparing the Way” calls us away. It calls us away from the busy-ness which the season demands.
Advent is not about “getting stuff ready for Christmas” (or, getting us stuffed already for Christmas).
It’s about getting our hearts ready for the Christmas within. It’s about getting ready to accept the promise which Christmas offers. Ready to hear the real bells of Christmas when they ring. Ready to see the angel-likeness of the poor shepherd boy who has only his crutch to give the heavenly child.
Ready to open our pent up hearts freely and greet as blessed summoners the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Ready to see what the wisemen saw in that little baby: the hope—the promise—that can still be born among us, that might still save humankind.
Advent reminds us that we are spiritual searchers, and not merely way-worn wanderers. Advent calls us back home. Back to the stable. Back to our true birth. Back to our simplest humanity. Back to whom we truly are.
One of my favorite Christmas readings is by one of my predecessors in this pulpit, Gordon McKeeman. He wrote these words in the 1950s; he may even have preached them here in Stoughton; I don’t know for sure; but they are worth repeating:
“It is not Christmas which is unbelievable,” Rev. McKeeman wrote, “but our lives [the rest of the year] which are unbelievable. We are unbelievably ungrateful, so seldom taking the time or the opportunity to express to our fellow creatures… our heartfelt thanks… We wish people a merry Christmas, and we mean it. We wish them a happy new year, and we mean it. But so seldom do we wish them a merry March or April or May. And so seldom live as though we really wished it.”
“This is our task,” wrote the great Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes more than sixty years ago, “to seize and hold and perpetuate the Christmastide. To live a life, and not merely a single season, which is delivered of prejudice and pride, hostility and hate, and committed to understanding, compassion, and good will. Then there will be no more Christian and pagan, Jew and gentile, black and white, native and alien, or any other division, but only one human family, one as God is one, [all] heirs to God’s kingdom.”
Now it seems that Christmas rushes upon us suddenly, before we know it. But remember when we were kids, it used to take so long for Christmas finally to get here, didn’t it? The night of Christmas Eve used to last forever. We’d lie awake in bed, asking, over and over, “Is it Christmas yet? When will it get here? When will it finally be Christmas?”
“I think I know the answer,” Suzanne Meyer has written:
“It will finally be Christmas when every crib is a shrine,
“It will finally be Christmas when every child is received as though he or she were the Messiah.
“It will finally be Christmas when we learn to see that the holy, the sacred, the awe-inspiring is not ‘up there’ or ‘out there’, but ‘in here’ in and through the ordinary word of sight and sound.
“It will finally be Christmas when we learn to value our differences rather than fear them.
“It will finally be Christmas when we recognize that Christmas is not the vague remembrance of a particular day and a particular birth, but rather, it is the anticipation, a foretaste, if you will, of Peace on Earth, for which all our hearts long.
“It will finally be Christmas when the [real] ‘live nativity’, the birthing of a new consciousness, exists in all of us all year long.”
“To live a life, and not merely a single season, which is delivered of prejudice and pride, hostility and hate, and committed to understanding, compassion, and good will. Then there will be no more Christian and pagan, Jew and gentile, black and white, native and alien, or any other division, but only one human family, one as God is one, [all] heirs to God’s kingdom.”
Then it will truly be Christmas, at last. Then all of our waiting will not have been in vain. 

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