I've been doing some thinking about the Advent season--partly because it's my job, putting Christmas Eve services together, writing the weekly Advent readings for Sunday morning worship, putting up Advent resources on the church Web site; and partly because we're in the thick of planning for Christmas gatherings and celebrations in our family. Each year I face the same challenge: how can I keep my focus on the things that really matter about this season, especially when I'm so busy (pretty much everyone who works on a church staff experiences this to some extent). There have been some years when I've found myself sinking into cynicism about the season, even wishing it would just be over quickly so that I could have a day or two of rest before diving into a new year.
But this year there's something different going on in the way that I'm approaching Christmas, and I can't put my finger on it. But I have a theory: having just come through a long election season--one of the ugliest and most bitterly-fought campaign seasons I have witnessed in my lifetime, and in a time when it seems the world is exploding in war, terrorism, hatred, and other kinds of calamity, the Advent season comes as a reminder that in spite of what may be happening in the world around us, God is at work on the most important business in the universe, in the quiet places, in unexpected ways, among people who would seem to be the most unlikely participants in his plan.
The birth of Jesus happened in the most unlikely way: in obscurity, amid a family scandal, and as in fulfillment of a promise made so long ago that few were still looking for it. The chosen people of God were living under the strong hand of the Roman empire, occupied and oppressed, with little prospect for change any time soon. The emperor's decision to count (and tax) his subjects meant a long trip for Joseph and his pregnant wife, at a most inconvenient time. The young couple left Nazareth amid what was surely a cloud of whispering and gossip, and headed for Joseph's home town, a difficult trip made even more so because of Mary's advanced pregnancy. And to cap it off, they couldn't find a decent place to stay, so a stable became the birthing room for their son, and a feeding trough became his cradle, and the first smells in his nostrils were those associated with livestock.
It was a strange way to bring a child into the world, but there had already been so many strange things going on in their lives--Zechariah's angel visit, which had made him mute until his wife (and Mary's relative) Elizabeth gave birth to a son, John; and Mary's encounter with an angel, as well, and Joseph's dream--could things have been any stranger than this? And yet in the midst of what surely seemed like a life gone completely out of control, we are assured that God was working his plan exactly as he planned it.
And that might be part of why the Advent season feels a little different to me this year. It seems the world has gone out of control in many ways--political upheaval here and abroad, a burgeoning global refugee crisis, war, terrorism, disease and disasters...and in spite of the apparent lack of evidence, we are assured in Scripture that our God is still sovereign, still on his throne, still working his plan, still calling us to trust him. Advent reminds me that there is a reality that is greater than anything I can presently see--that somewhere beyond the frame frame formed by the limitations of my brain and my experience, God is alive and well and actively working all things for the good of those who trust him.
I was recently reminded of one of my favorite Christmas songs, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"--an adaptation of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote out of a kind of pain that was common to many families during the Civil War--his son had run off to join the Union Army and been seriously wounded, just two years after the tragic accidental death of Longfellow's wife, in a fire. He wrote of hearing the bells on Christmas Day, and thinking about the words, "Peace on earth, good-will to men," and how those words had become a mockery of his pain:
And in despair, I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
and mocks the song,
of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
But even in the middle of his pain, and against all indications to the contrary, Longfellow knew that God was still at work:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."
Like Longfellow, I believe this, and it is a hope that I cling to. No, I don't know why hundreds of thousands of people in Aleppo are being shelled daily by their own government, starving and without medical supplies; I don't know why children are still being kidnapped and forced into sex slavery and military service in Africa; and there are many things I don't understand about how the church in the U.S. is (and isn't) working--but I believe that Christmas signals to each one of us that God is not dead, God is not sleeping, God is not uninterested, but rather he is actively pursuing his plan for redemption, and he is inviting us to participate in his plan.
This puts the whole thing in a different light for me. My work load is no lighter, and I will still be spent by the time Christmas Day arrives, but the cynicism that has marked this season for me at times is cracking, and I am realizing that God shows up in the most unlikely ways, in the most unlikely places, and at the most unlikely times.
I'm keeping my eyes open, because I don't want to miss a thing.