Advent is un-American.
The malls have been decorated for Christmas since the day after Halloween and we are still days away from even beginning to wait for Christ to come. We, as Americans, are not really built to wait. We are accustomed to getting what we want when we want it. But there is more going on during Advent than God saying, “You sit there and wait and Jesus will be born when he’s good and ready.”
Heck, I can’t even wait to start writing about Advent.
There are two qualitative differences between what it felt like to wait before Jesus was born the first time and what it feels like to wait now when we know who’s coming and we capture the story with construction paper donkeys and towel-headed shepherds. The first difference is how long they waited. The four pages in my Bible between the end of Malachi and the beginning of Matthew’s gospel took centuries to turn. The Hebrew people had already been waiting for the Messiah, but by the time John the Baptist showed up, God’s prophets had been silent for three times as long as we have been a country. Generation after generation had come and gone without ever leaving the waiting room. Before there were Cubs and Sox fans waiting for the World Series, before there was a John Mayer, there was century after century of Israelites waiting for the world to change.
The second thing is, despite the grand arc of history, when it came to living their daily lives they didn’t know what or whom they were waiting for. Some might not even have known they were waiting at all. We already know the story. We know we’re waiting for Jesus to enter the world just as all of us have done: as a baby. We know the story so well that we wait, perhaps, mostly to tell it. We are not shocked like the shepherds or Mary or Joseph or Herod. The birth does not surprise us; we are too often participants in a sort of spiritual C-section: we get to schedule when the Child arrives. And he will look just like his pictures.
Since it was my day off, I got to listen to All Things Considered this afternoon. A commentary by philosopher Alain de Botton (who is one brilliant guy) caught not only my attention, but my imagination: “Motives Behind a Mantra: Revise, Revise, Revise.”
He stared off by saying that we often see art as a repository of values and meaning and we don’t expect an artist to take his or her painting off the wall to take home and reconfigure. When the book is finished and published, it stays that way. But, de Botton said,
Artists do have the option to pull a creation back into the workshop and mend and update it and then return it to the public realm . . . It’s a particluarly romantic myth that leads us to suppose that artists could never improve what they previously delivered to the world . . . Artists should through time grow more lucid about their work and infuse it with their lastest and most mature insights.
God is the quintessential artist — every word, every breath, every move intentional and imaginative. God is also quite capable of revision. Every layer of the history of creation speaks to God’s dynamic creativity at work, every layer full of change. And we, created in God’s image, are both art and artists, called to give birth to God’s brilliance right where we are. One of the reasons we keep telling the story and making the journey to Bethlehem is to revise the artwork. As Meister Eckhart said, “What good is it if Mary gave birth to the Child fourteen hundred years ago if I do not give birth to Christ in my time and in my culture?”
We are called to revise the story once again, not as spectators but as participants, birth-givers, incarnations of Love and Grace in our time. We are waiting for our turn.
In Fiddler on the Roof, in the scene where the Russian army comes to evict the Jews from their town, their home, one of the men says to the Rabbi, “Wouldn’t this be a good time for the Messiah to come?”
Isn’t the answer to that question always, “Yes”?
De Botton spent some time in his commentary talking about the risk of revising. Sometimes the Revised Edition is not as good. So it is with the American revision of Christmas as a shopping holiday. What was once about anticipation is now about immediate gratification. The wonder of the Magi as they followed the Star has been replaced by the guy who got shot standing in line to get a PlayStation 3 so he could resell it on eBay. We’ve lost sight of the story.
Jesus was born into a desperate world. It was a time of war, oppression, abject poverty, gluttonous wealth, and religion with all the heart of a department store mannequin. Once he was born, the waiting was not over. It would be thirty years before the expectation of his birthday night ripened. All he could do was wait, just like everyone else. And, as Tom Petty taught us, the waiting is the hardest part.
We wake up daily to stories of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. And those are the stories they tell us. We are not made mindful of much in Darfur, or Congo, or Chad, or any number of countries in dire straits who have no natural resources to make caring for them a part of our national interest. We live in a nation who sees the Great Divide between rich and poor and seems content, overall, to leave things as they are. We live in a country – in a world – of wounded, hurting, and fragile people, all of them children of God.
Wouldn’t this be a good time for the Messiah to come?
God is waiting, in this revision, for us to be willing to go into labor. I’m not sure the world can wait much longer.