Advent is an unconventional season, at least in the world’s eyes. Culture encourages us to be busy, busy, busy, baking up myriad cookies, cakes and pies, shopping from morning ‘til night in search of that perfect present for that friend or loved one (or even just something that will do for Uncle Erasmus who is never pleased with anything), writing witty and interesting notes in Christmas cards to people with whom we only exchange greetings once a year, and so on. Advent encourages us to do just the opposite: to slow down rather than speed up and to reflect more than spend. Advent asks us to think about why we are celebrating this season and that which follows it. What is important in life? More “stuff”? A reputation as a perfect hostess for the perfect Christmas party? A beautifully decorated house redolent with the scents of spices and warm baked goods in profusion? No, Advent’s unconventional nature tries to teach us to look to the manger not as a nice little display in the front of the church or even on the mantelpiece or table by the window but as the coming of a light into the world that can, if tended carefully, can set the world on fire in the best possible way. Being unconventional can be very liberating – and very challenging.
In Acts 17:23, Paul recounts walking through Athens and finding an altar marked “To An Unknown God” among the many altars and temples dedicated to specific gods. His comment was “You are ignorant of the very thing which you worship” (17:23c). In a way that still can apply to us today, even those who claim to know and love God. But do we really know God? We certainly know attributes of God: loving, judgmental, protective, punishing, omnipotent, allowing bad things to happen, etc. I can describe my late brother as Caucasian male, 78 years of age at time of death, approximately six feet tall, weighing….” but can I do that with God? No, I can’t. To that extent, God is unknown, just as it was to the Athenians. We knew God as a being beyond our comprehension, we could envision God as a pillar of fire or acting as a mother hen over her chicks but God is neither cloud nor hen. Jesus came along and suddenly we had a glimpse of God we hadn’t had before. Who could imagine the creator of universes lying in a bed of straw, a helpless newborn infant? Jesus later taught, “If you know me, you will know* my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’” (John 14:7). We many not know God completely, but God is no longer as unknown because we have seen Jesus who was God’s son and also a persona, an aspect of God.
There’s a line in the carol “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” that speaks to the mystery of Advent, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity” (Hymnal 1982, #87). The prophets had foretold the coming of a messiah, but the one they seemed to be looking for was a military and civic leader, a king who would lead the people into righteousness and on a Godly path, who would follow the ways of peace rather than war and acquisition, and who would put the welfare of the people above his own desires. Then along comes this newborn infant, born in a stable instead of a palace, with probably a cow or two, perhaps a sheep or two, maybe even a cat or two as witnesses to the birth. No royal fanfare outside a palace and a grand announcement, but there were angels in the sky befuddling some sleepy shepherds, men who were among the poorest of the poor, with news of the birth of a savior, a messiah. That quiet birth, even with its rather spectacular announcement was the unveiling of God in the flesh.
We speak of unity, one-ness, as a goal to be achieved, but what exactly is that goal? For some it is the unity of the church, everybody believing one set of concrete beliefs and following one set of concrete practices. For others it is a singleness of purpose, such as world peace or eradication of malaria or elimination of poverty and want. We want unity, but we want it on our terms, it seems. Advent invites us to consider unity as a means to begin to heal the world and to welcome the Christ child into that healing. Think of our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters who volunteer to work on Christmas so that Christians can take that day off and the Christians who do the same for Jewish and Islamic brothers and sisters on their holy days. None have changed their beliefs, but they make their actions speak for those beliefs, just the way they’re supposed to. Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to convert one another and start just working together. After all, God has many names—including Ha Shem, Allah, and probably many others we don’t know or use ourselves. Unity is like a potluck dinner; everybody brings their own gifts to the table to share with others. Everybody gets fed, nobody goes hungry, and everybody eats together. Think of a whole world like that. I think that’s the unity God is looking for, and Advent is a good time to begin working toward it.
The more I think about Advent, the more I wish we could celebrate it all year long.