We are suckers for Christmas movies around our house and, as a result, last night ended with us all watching Miracle on 34th Street (the John Hughes version) before we went to bed. In the commercial breaks, whatever channel it was kept talking about “The Countdown to the Twenty-five Days before Christmas,” which I could not help making fun of because they were finding a way to add days to their promotion. And then I thought, “At least they are having a countdown.” Marketing scheme or not, they are inviting us to get ready.
For Christians, tomorrow is New Year’s Eve. Our church year draws to a close and begins again anew on the First Sunday of Advent, our season of preparation, of waiting, of telling the story of how our God, the Creator of the Universe and Ultimate Expression of Extravagance, thought the best way to incarnate Love was to come in the person of a baby born to a Palestinian peasant family. We know the story as well as we know the lines a redeemed George Bailey yells as he runs home through the snow in Bedford Falls, or Tiny Tim’s words as the Cratchit family’s dinner table. We have our own countdown to Christmas.
While we wait in the weeks to come, we will hear what our new strategy in Afghanistan will be, how serious our elected officials are about healthcare reform that is serious about taking care of people over profits, who will get Grammy nominations, how bad the economy is, how rich the big banks continue to be, and how divided we are as a nation. We won’t hear much about the wars in the Congo or Darfur, and we’ll see a lot of commercials and holiday specials, which is to say most of what happens in this Advent season will not help us get ready for Jesus to come again into our lives.
Two thousand years of Christmases and the tidings of comfort and joy don’t seem to come any easier. The wars are even in the same places they have been for all those centuries. Mary and Joseph had to go through checkpoints for the census when Quirinius was governor of Syria and Bethlehem is still barricaded tonight. As best I can tell, there has not been in a year in the little over half a century that I have been alive that the world has been without war, much less known much of peace.
So how then, do we interpret our coming back to the story, year after year after year, to speak and sing of the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger?
One of my favorite Bible stories is in Joshua, after the Hebrew people have crossed through the Jordan River following the Ark of the Covenant. When they get to the other side, Joshua tells them to stack up the stones:
Joshua called out the twelve men whom he selected from the People of Israel, one man from each tribe. Joshua directed them, “Cross to the middle of the Jordan and take your place in front of the Chest of God, your God. Each of you heft a stone to your shoulder, a stone for each of the tribes of the People of Israel, so you’ll have something later to mark the occasion. When your children ask you, ‘What are these stones to you?’ you’ll say, ‘The flow of the Jordan was stopped in front of the Chest of the Covenant of God as it crossed the Jordan—stopped in its tracks. These stones are a permanent memorial for the People of Israel.'” (Joshua 4:4-7, The Message)
In the midst of a culture that values popularity over principle, chooses fear over faith, and puts stock in power over peace, I want to find the stack of stones (and add a few new ones) to remember what it means to see ourselves as namesakes of the one who grew up out of that manger and called us to be peacemakers. I want to stand in the eye of the hurricane of hope that is the Incarnation, that caught shepherds in its swirl and made magi change their way and wonder what new things God might birth in us this year.
Some years ago, Bob Bennett wrote a song called “Altar in the Field.” One verse says:
I build an altar in the field
in honor in memory
of the many graces I’ve been shown
and the ones I’ve yet to see
and so I leave this symbol
fashioned by my hand
the marker of a love
that I will never understand
I leave an altar in the field
I am waiting to begin waiting, and gathering some stones of my own.