There is of course some irony for us in the keeping of Advent. It is after all the season when we await the coming of the one who whose coming already saved us–eternally once and for all–and thus by coming again can not benefit us any further. In being for us the sacrifice for sin, this Jesus for whom we wait, offered himself as our victim, the object of our wrath, our scapegoat once and for all. And by rising from death on the third day, appearing to his disciples in order to announce forgiveness, he makes it clear that there is nothing further by way of salvation that God needs to do in coming again this year or any year.
And yet we being human are incurably taken with the “religion of eternal return.” Our lives are characterized by the circle of time, seasons come and seasons go, and we return to where we have already been bringing back to it all of the memories, the joys and sorrows of past Christmases, approaching over and over again these liminal nodes of celebration and meaning, moments that may become translucent of an eternal light.
We are a sacramental people, we might say, reenacting as mindfully as we can some choreography that invites us to lose ourselves and all our de-centered accretions of a world of profound suffering, and grasp our true selves both within and at the same time beyond this world’s violence, banality, and selfish desperation. Every simple gesture, every word and gift can open to us an inward and spiritual splendor if we can but be arrested in that moment. It is not so much the accomplishment of salvation as its memoriam. It’s the enjoyment of salvation, as reflected in a child’s eyes.
Yet it should be noted that, like that of the Magi, ours is a precarious journey marked by political predictions of earth shattering proportions, chilling threats, discomforts and suspicions of betrayal. It is not as if we can simply saunter up to the stable and lay our gift before the manger and walk away with the Christ child in our heart. The ride through Isaiah with John the Baptist out in the wilderness is more jarring and demanding than that. It requires a recognition of God’s ultimate plan to expose human violence and mendacity (and our own part in it, our own tendency to denial and delusion) in the nostalgic pursuit of making Christmas great again, and the anxiety and fear that that raises in us. God’s plan that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” means facing the truth of our washing-our-hands of the ongoing destruction of the world God so loves, of our part in treating people differently because they come from beyond some imaginary line we call a border, or because they worship God differently than we do. The angel said to the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid!” And yet we stoke fear in one another until it boils up and erupts into violence.
The crisis we face is precisely that of instantaneous communication and global shrinkage. It’s a kind of flattening. The “paths are straight and every valley is filled and the mountains are made flat, the crooked straight and the rough smooth.” Since we can no longer see differences, we recreate them to try to reassert order and structure. It is no fluke that hierarchies of order in our society are falling apart. As much as we may wish to blame the current incumbent, it is a function of the Gospel itself. We as a people can no longer condone outcasts. Nostalgic attempts to reassert traditional order will fail and only distract us from the task of witnessing the salvation of God. Traditionally such crises as we are experiencing have led to sacrificial murder or a warfare. Both twentieth century wars were preceded by such a crisis. Today we can no longer risk such a catastrophe. It would be cataclysmic. But it used to be a matter of course.
A look at a remarkable piece of literature may shed some light on this reality. In the New Yorker Magazine in 1948 there appeared a most astounding short story by Shirley Jackson. It was called “The Lottery.” At first it was met with horror. Since then it has become one of the stories most assigned and read by high school students. When it first appeared the New Yorker received nothing but angry letters and cancelled subscriptions. It was banned in the Union of South Africa. The story, you will remember, is of a small New Englandish type town where the populace is preparing for their annual “lottery.” A widespread and primitive celebration, some towns further north have given it up but, old timers said, it always brought a good harvest.
‘“over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery.“
Old Man Warner snorted. “Pack of crazy fools,” he said. “Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live hat way for a while. Used to be a saying about Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon. ‘ First thing you know, we’d all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There’s always been a lottery,” he added petulantly.’
It’s not until you’ve been snookered into this folksy warm patriotic town that you realize that this lottery involves the stoning to death of a random person–the winner–picked by lot from among the towns people. It is a form of ritual violence, a kind of preventive, homeopathic medicine to fend off discord among the townsfolk. The Hunger Games is a popular contemporary version of it.
If you look carefully at the structure of Luke’s magnum opus, his Gospel and Acts taken together, you notice there are three such episodes of violent ritual sacrifice that shape his story: the beheading of John the Baptist, the crucifixion of Jesus, and the stoning of Stephen, deacon and martyr, in the seventh chapter of Acts. In each it is the crowd that determines the outcome. John the Baptist has his head served on a platter because he’s gone against the law by marrying his brother’s wife, who has her daughter after a lurid dance before his drunk men’s banquet extract a promise to behead him. Nevertheless, there are rumors of his resurrection when Jesus asks his disciples who do the people say he is. “Some,” they reply, “say you’re John risen from the dead.”
In Jesus’s sacrificial death the crisis is the conflict between the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and the Jewish authorities, with Herod at their head. The execution of Jesus brings the two together to become friends, while Jesus at his resurrection promises the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and that all flesh will become witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. That promise is enacted by Stephen whose powerful testimony is brought to a halt by the crowd picking up stones and stoning him to death. Before he expires, Stephen looks up into heaven to see the figure of Christ stand up from his place seated at the right hand of the father. He cries out, imitating Jesus from the cross, “Do not hold this against them,” hence forgiving all religious zealots who think they are doing the will of God by killing those who do not share their view.
The result of these attempts by violence to silence the gospel is just to further spread the message, not the creation of a new religion but the triumph of peace and reconciliation. The risen Lord doesn’t say “go make converts.” Rather he says, whose sins you forgive are forgiven, whose sins you do not our not.” And he always quotes the angel to the shepherds, “Fear not!” However fragile it may seem, wherever people take responsibility for “having produced the harvest of righteousness” we can be confident that “the one who began a good work among us will bring it to completion.” The real work of Christmas is not so much our own ecstatic reception of the Christ child in our hearts; it is the facing rather of the crises that come to us with confidence and calm equanimity, without recourse to violence and threats. It is that whatever we may have felt or experienced we have already received Christ and the Holy Spirit into our lives and we are equipped in every way not so much to bring Christ as to be Christ wherever we are called.
So with Paul, “this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best.” AMEN