Years ago, when I was the pastor of a small church, I wore a button reading, “Jesus is coming — look busy” all during the Advent season. The congregation loved it, since in a small church, everyone truly is especially busy during Advent. In addition to their own family’s Christmas preparations, they were doing the Christmas pageant, the angel tree, the volunteer appreciation dinner, the extra choir rehearsals for those glorious, gut-busting anthems, and the endless potlucks. During Advent, the Christian community is temporarily widened to include anyone with a 9″ x 12″ baking pan or a Jell-o mold.
But all that gaiety only floats on the surface like ripples on a deep lake of loss and longing, and that bright star in the East only illuminates the topmost shimmering layer. We cannot see what’s beneath, for all our faith, and we dare not look.
Sometimes humbug is the nicest word we can think of to say.
So for pastors, the Advent season is pretty much a busman’s holiday most of the time. And parishioners may have no idea why their minister wants the next few Sundays off. Or maybe, in a dour moment, the next fifty-two Sundays off.
Look busy… doing what?
But I also wore my button ironically, because I wondered whether all these kindly-meant activities were really the best way to get ready for the birth of this Jesus we’ve been wondering about for two thousand years now.
On the face of it, it’s an abiding shame that baby Jesus just got gold, frankincense, and myrrh for his birthday — nothing to play with or keep him warm or fill his infant belly. To me, that just shows that he was misunderstood and unappreciated as much then as he is now.
So maybe that’s why we try so hard — we’re just trying to make it up to the baby Jesus. And that means parties, sequins, glitter, giant inflatable reindeer on the lawns; and cupcakes, and cocktails, and maxed-out credit cards, and nonstop music, and gaudy, flashing, glaring lights as bright as day.
You know — everything babies love.
But if your faith extends beyond the story, and you understand the Christ event as an imperfect telling of the way G*D broke open the world with a miracle of light and love and grace despite our awkward shadowed hopelessness, then a birthday party just seems, well — inadequate. Irrelevant.
Even if there are ponies and a magic act and a bounce house and an open bar.
Truth beyond facts
My way into the Christian community was the second way. My faith and experience assure me that words are more than mere definitions; that facts do not equal truth. The nativity story may not be a factual story, but it is a truthful one. Humans have been inspired to craft and cherish this story as a vessel full of truth about how humanity may become the incarnation of the divine: first in Mary and then in Jesus. It serves as a hyperlink to the real story.
When I was serving a congregation, the business of holiday seasons became wearisome. And when I failed to allow myself stillness and reflection in the waiting darkness, the bright lights were exhausting and harsh and only highlighted my secret frailties.
I grumbled about the stress, and I expected nothing but coal in my stocking. I sort of wanted to put coal in everyone’s stocking.
And I heard this same strained exhaustion in the choked voices of those who confided in me. The faintest waspish overtones never heard any other time. A bit of bitter here; a grudge, a smudge, an old ache.
Forgive, I would tell them. Forgive. Abide in faith. Rest. The light will come back.
Jesus will still come.
I’m a free spirit now, without those pastoral obligations. But dear friends of mine do work in the twin crucibles of religion and retail, so this shout out goes to them:
Do not give the minister, the retail clerk, the postal worker, or the police officers a hard time during Advent.
If you do, the Rev Dr Sparky is certain that you will go straight to hell.
And I don’t even believe in hell.
We don’t have to be Christians to sense the beauty of this season, or to honor the idea that even the most poor and obscure newborn may one day bring light to the world. And our small attempts to give gifts, to feed the hungry, to please those we love, to be reconciled and renewed — these are not small after all. They are like pinholes in the dark canopy that stands between us and that great light, letting tiny bits of brilliance shine through from that terrible beyond.
Sometimes when I see those tiny lights, I get a crazy jolt of hope that maybe, when I least expect it, the full Light will burst through, in my lifetime: for surely we need it now.
And then it will not matter whether I look busy or not, will it?
It will only matter whether I have been looking.
Originally published at http://revdrsparky.com on December 4, 2019.