Christmas and Cash Registers
December 7, 2003
It seems to happen earlier each year. No sooner is Halloween over and the stores are filled with Christmas music and decorations. In a way you can’t blame the merchants of our country, seeing that 80% of their annual sales take place during the last two months of the year. They refuse to pass by any opportunity to tell us what they have, what we want and what we really need to buy. There are Christmas sales, Christmas hours, Christmas specials. We are besieged by opportunities to expand our Christmas shopping list. What began as a simple feast to celebrate the birth of Jesus has become a consumer engine that drives our economy. It is no wonder that the spiritual meaning of Christmas, the voice of John the Baptist crying “Prepare the way of the Lord,” is drowned out by the noise of commercial jingles and the ring of well-oiled cash registers.
What is a believing Christian to do? How can we celebrate the spiritual meaning of Christmas in this consumer society? There are two possible options. As the old saying goes, “You can either fight them or join them.” One can try to eliminate the consumerism of Christmas or choose to infiltrate it and shift its focus.
Eliminating the consumerism of Christmas seems doomed to failure. Gift giving is too pervasive within our society. Besides, exchanging gifts with people we love is a beautiful part of this season. Instead of trying to eliminate the consumerism of Christmas, it might be more productive to infiltrate it—to redirect the basic impulse to buy and to give. Rather than reducing your Christmas shopping list, why not enlarge it? There could be great benefit in adding one name. That name would be Jesus. Yes, I am suggesting you buy a gift for Jesus this Christmas.
Making this suggestion is not some trick or clever homiletic ploy. Think about it. There is something deeply personal about that dynamic of choosing the right gift for the person you love. You need to ask, “Who is this person to me? How close? How important? What would he or she like for Christmas?” Why not direct that personal dynamic to our relationship with the Lord? After all, it is a very religious question to ask. Who is Christ to me? What would Jesus want to receive from me?
What would Jesus want for Christmas? Not a new Lexus. Not the latest computer game. He does not go out for dinner; so a gift certificate wouldn’t do. He does not need a new cashmere coat or a Barbie doll. Cologne and jewelry would not be his style. Now we all know he would be delighted with world peace or the elimination of hunger or disease. But those gifts might be out of our price range. After all, the question is, what would Jesus want that I could give?
Perhaps, he would want a bit more patience on my part with my spouse or the willingness to reach out to estranged members of my family to encourage reconciliation. I know he would be pleased if we could bring some joy into the life of that elderly person that lives alone in my neighborhood or to someone who has recently lost a loved one in death. If I could identify a prejudice in my life against people of a different race, religion or sexual orientation and work against it, that would make Him smile. Whatever I could do to be more just, more generous, more thankful, that would be a big hit on Christmas morning.
You see it is a profoundly religious question to ask what would Jesus want from me this Christmas. In asking it we reveal who we think Jesus is, who we are and what is the relationship that binds us together. I would particularly encourage parents and grandparents to spend some with your children and grandchildren around this question. We are always asking them, “What do you want for Christmas?” In so doing we are encouraging the consumerism of our society. How much more healthy it would be if we could ask them what they plan to give this Christmas, and particularly what they would give to Jesus. Spend some time with them. Come up with a few possibilities, three or four, and then let them choose which one they will give him. I think you will be edified to see how that question reveals who they think Jesus is and what they think he would want from them. The question is not limited to any age level. All of us can ask it and profit from it. For this question has the possibility of infiltrating the commercialism of our culture and refocusing the spiritual meaning of the season.
What does Jesus want from you this Christmas? There is no better question for us to carry through the Advent season than this. I know we are all busy in the upcoming weeks. There are only 17 days left before Christmas. And the last thing any of us want is another name on our shopping list. But I would encourage you not to leave Jesus’ name off. For the gift that you buy for him might truly be the highlight of your holiday season. Whatever else you do, make sure that there is something for him under the tree this year. After all, Christmas is his birthday.
The Softer Voice of Advent
December 10, 2006
Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3: 1-6
John the Baptist is the voice of Advent. We hear him in the gospel today crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. John’s message is cosmic and powerful, and it is a message of hope. But the voice of John is not the only voice of Advent. There are other more quiet strains that echo throughout this season, and I think it would serve us well today to consider one of them.
The voice to which I refer is the voice of Paul it today’s second reading. If John speaks as a prophet, Paul speaks as a pastor. If John challenges his hearers to prepare for the coming of the Lord, Paul encourages his hearers to trust that God will be faithful. The particular line which I have in mind is one of my favorite in all of the scriptures. Paul says to the Philippians, “God who has begun the good work among you will bring it to completion.” Paul is saying is that when God begins something, God finishes it. God does not love us and then decide to abandon us. God does not bless us and then decide to change direction. Both God’s plan and God’s intention for us are constant. How we need to hear this admonish of Paul! How we need to believe that Paul’s words are true. Because if we could believe those words, we could live with greater confidence, we could live in greater peace.
What are the things about which we worry? What are the things that disturb our peace? Are they not fears about what the future might bring, what we will have to deal with in the days ahead? We worry about our children and our grandchildren. Will they find a good job? Will they discover someone who will really love them and with whom they can build a happy life? Will they win the battle against addiction and all the other temptations that are present in society? We cannot see what is coming, we cannot control the future. So we worry, and our heart churns within us. Paul says, “What are you thinking? Who is it that gave you that child or that grandchild? Was not his or her life a creation of God? Is it not a gift from God? Why would God create a life and then walk away from it? Why would God give you that sign of love and then abandon it? No,” Paul says, “that is not the way God is. God who has begun the good work among you will bring it to completion.”
We worry about what we will become. What we will do when we get out of school? Will we find a job which we enjoy? Will we find someone with whom we can share our life? Will we be able to be a good mother or father? We do not know how the future will play out. Wee cannot control it. So we worry. Paul says, “Don’t go there. Where do you think your life comes from? Where do you think your dreams and desires originate? What is the origin of your health and your energy? Do not all these things come from a God who has made you and loves you? Would God so bless you with life and all of these dreams and aspirations and then decide it is a mistake? Will God who has shown you such love forget you when you have to face the future? No,” says Paul, “God who has begun the good work within you will bring it to completion.”
We worry about growing old; we worry about losing our energy, losing our memory facing the inevitable battles with sickness, watching our senses deteriorate. We dread the upcoming struggle with death, a struggle none of us can win. Because we cannot control the future, because we do not know the particular twists and turns by which this aging process will unfold, we worry. Gradually we can lose enthusiasm for life and the hope of the future. Paul says, “What are you thinking? Where do you think your life came from? The blessings you have in your life—your family, your friends, your achievements, all the opportunities you never thought would be yours—where do you think those came from? Are all these things the result of your own cleverness and industry? Could all these blessings that so surround you be the result of your own wisdom and effectiveness? All of these things come from a God who has blessed you time and again. Now why would God who so loves you forget you? Why would God who gave you so much leave you out in the desert to die? No,” says Paul, “God who has begun the good work within you will bring it to completion.”
John calls out in the wilderness, “The kingdom of God is coming!” Paul whispers in our hearts, “God will always be faithful.” If we can hear the voice of John, we must also believe the words of Paul. God does not begin something and then give up. What is begun will be finished. God has made us and God has blessed us. That good work will not be abandoned. It will be brought to completion.
The Way Ducks Fight
December 6, 2009
John the Baptist is our guide for the season of Advent. In today’s gospel John appears preaching a baptism of repentance. That makes repentance a part of this season of Advent. It calls us to practice repentance during these weeks before Christmas. But what is repentance? There are several meanings to the term, but its most foundational sense is a call to change, to change something in our lives. You see, all of us have qualities in our life that keep God out, that make the way of the Lord crooked and rough, that prevent Christ from coming into our hearts.
The season of Advent calls us to repent, to change anything that hinders Christ’s coming. Of all the things that hinder Christ’s coming, perhaps the most detrimental is any resentment that we have in our hearts against others. You see, when someone hurts us, when someone rejects us, when someone demeans us, our hearts fill with anger and pain. That pain makes our hearts hard. Our hearts become ready for battle. They are ready to strike back. When our hearts are hardened, it is difficult for them to open to the grace of Christ. When our hearts are hardened by resentment, we cannot welcome in the Prince of Peace.
Therefore this season of Advent asks us to examine whether we are carrying resentment against others? If we are, Advent asks us to let it go, to repent of it, so that Christ can come in. But how do we let go of resentment? After all, some resentment goes very deep. We might take a lesson from the example of ducks. I don’t know how many of you have ever stopped by the duck pond here in the Metroparks. But if you have, you might have had the opportunity to see ducks fight. Ducks fight in a particular way. Every so often one duck annoys another duck, and the two of them go at it. There is a lot of churning of water and squawking. But the fight does not last very long. After a minute or two, the two ducks swim away. As they move away from the other, each duck takes a moment to flap its wings a couple times. This releases the pent-up energy from the fight. And, once they flap their wings, it’s over. They swim around the pond, at peace with one another.
So that’s how ducks fight. They fight, they flap, and it’s over. Ducks fight differently from us. When humans fight, we turn it into a story. If a duck were to fight the way we fight, it would go something like this: I can’t believe what just happened. Did you see what that other duck just did? He was a few inches from my face. You know, he thinks that he owns the pond. He never gives me any space for myself. No question–that duck cannot be trusted. I will remember him. This is not the end of it. I know who he is. This is not over.
Now, of course, ducks do not think that way. But we do. When someone hurts us, we prolong that pain by making it into a story and then telling and retelling that story over and over again. We make the pain permanent by giving it a narration, by repeating over and again what happened, what someone said, how we felt. As we tell that story over and over again, we continue to give life to the hurt and to the pain.
The season of Advent calls us to let go of the stories of our hurt so that our hearts can heal. Yes, we have been hurt. Yes, we have been treated badly. But the only thing we accomplish by telling that story over and over again is to keep the pain alive. It is time to stop the story. It is time to flap our wings and let the hurt go. Resentment builds a roughness into our lives. It twists our hearts. If Christ is coming to us, he needs a way that is straight and smooth.
Now, of course, we can never forgive or let go without God’s help. But Advent is a time of grace. So this is the time to ask for that help, to let go of the story, to let go of the hurt, and prepare the way of the Lord.
What to Wear?
December 9, 2012
Anyone who has ever watched the Academy Awards ceremony from Los Angeles knows that the first phase begins on the red carpet. There, bevies of media reporters try to stop the stars for an interview as they walk towards the auditorium. In the few minutes that they are able to detain the celebrities before they invariably move away, they always ask one question: “Who are you wearing?” The reporters want to know the name of the designer who fashioned the dress or tuxedo that the movie star has chosen. Knowing the name is important because the person who fashioned your clothing indicates your star power and reveals in an intimate way something about your person.
The prophet, Baruch, in today’s first reading knows of this association. Baruch is writing to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. Their condition is dismal. And it is in that miserable situation that Baruch tells them to change their clothing. He directs them to put off their robe of mourning and misery and to be clothed in the splendor of God. He tells them to wear on their heads a miter which bears the eternal name of God. So, if someone were to ask the Jewish exiles “Who are you wearing?” Baruch would want them to answer, “We are wearing God.”
Our Christian faith is rooted in the faith of Israel. We share with Israel the conviction that when we wrap ourselves in God’s promises, when we clothe ourselves with God’s power, we will have the strength to face whatever trial or burden comes to us. Whether that burden is exile, rejection, or sickness, whether it is financial hardship or personal misunderstanding, when we dress ourselves in God’s glory, we can face the future, we can find strength for living.
It is not, however, always easy to dress ourselves in God’s splendor. Many times we doubt whether the clothes God has given us to wear will be sufficient. Will I have the patience and wisdom to help heal the divisions I find in my family? Will I be able to protect my children and grandchildren from negative relationships and influences that can harm them? Will I find the strength to carry my grief or to work through my depression, so I can live again? When we look at the hardships and challenges of life, we can often question whether the clothes that God wants us to put on will be enough. We wonder whether God is really serious about saving us.
Here is where the Christian dimension of our faith can make a difference. The fourteenth century mystic, Julian of Norwich, has written a reflection on the mystery of God becoming human—the truth which we know as “the incarnation.” She describes this mystery in a dramatic way. She says that Jesus took up our flesh and blood and put on our human nature “like a tunic, close-fitting and threadbare.” By means of this image, Julian of Norwich suggests that before we are invited to put on God, God has first put on us. In taking up our human nature, Jesus demonstrated God’s commitment and love for us in the most personal and intimate way.
The incarnation should give us confidence that God will provide for us whatever wisdom, courage, or strength we need. A God who has become one of us will not abandon us. A Christ who has taken up our human nature will not forget us. This truth should give us the confidence to robe ourselves in God’s glory, so that when people ask us “Who are you wearing”? we can proudly say, “We are wearing God.” And when they question, “What gives you the right to be attired with such hope and splendor?” we can simply say, “We are wearing God, because God first chose to wear us.”
God Will Come
December 6, 2015
All four of the gospels mention John the Baptist, but only Luke situates him in the political context of his time. We see Luke doing this at the beginning of today’s gospel. He mentions important political figures of the first century: Tiberius who was the Emperor of Rome, Herod who was son of Herod the Great, his brother Philip who ruled the region northeast of Galilee. To Luke’s original hearers these political figures would be as easily recognized as Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Bashar al-Assad are to us today. Luke mentions them because he wants to make it clear that the message of John the Baptist was meant to impact them. You see when John the Baptist cries out, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he not seeking to prepare the way of the Lord into heaven, or even prepare the way of the Lord into our hearts, he is announcing the way of the Lord into the complex, corrupt, and violent world in which we live.
The message of John the Baptist (and by the way the message of Christianity) is that God is coming. God is coming into this world to change things, to clean up the mess of this world. John’s language about making winding ways straight and rough ways smooth is his way of saying that God is coming to unravel all that is corrupt and unjust in this world. God intends to eliminate poverty, violence, war, hatred, and greed. God is coming to set things right, so that this world will not be Rome’s kingdom or America’s kingdom or Russia’s kingdom, but the kingdom of God.
Today the gospel challenges us to accept John’s message. But this is not easy. Once we realize that his message applies to the political structures of our world, the stakes of believing are heightened. When we look at acts of terrorism in Paris and San Bernardino, when we look at the dysfunction of Washington, the pollution of our earth and thousands of refugees fleeing Syria, it seems that it is more logical to conclude that, far from coming, God is staying away. But faith calls us to believe that John’s message is true, that God is still coming into the broken world in which we live. Such a conviction marks the difference between believers and unbelievers. All people of good will want a better world, a world that is peaceful and just. But believers trust that peace and justice can be established in our world, not simply through the efforts of John Kerry, Angela Merkel, and Pope Francis, but through the presence and power of God working around them and through them to bring about God’s kingdom.
So the next time you become despondent because of all that is wrong in our world, the next time you become frightened by the presence of terrorism on our soil, the next time it seems hopeless that this world will ever be free of hatred and greed, John the Baptist tells us to believe that God is not indifferent to this world and that God still intends to change what is wrong.
Of course, many people in our world would see such a belief as pious nonsense. It certainly would have seemed that way to the Emperor Tiberius, if someone had reported to him that there was a wild Jewish prophet proclaiming the coming of God in the Judean wilderness. But today only a handful of people remember who Tiberius was and millions and millions of Christians gather as we do today to again hear the preaching of John. Let us stand with them in faith and believe that John’s message is true. Let us believe that even as we work for peace and justice, we are not alone. God is active. God still intends to come.
The Gift of the Desert
December 9, 2018
Outside today it’s snowy and cold, but today’s gospel brings us to a very different place. It brings us to the desert. Not cold, but hot. Not damp, but dry. Not populated, but empty. Today’s gospel brings us to the desert because the desert is the place where we learn what is most important. The desert is the place where we realize what we need.
This was the experience of the Jewish people. After God freed them from the slavery of Egypt, they wandered for 40 years in the desert. It was in the desert that they became a people because they learned what really mattered. In the desert they did not build homes nor maintain businesses. In the desert, only two things were important: their faith in God and their love for one another. Each day they had to trust that God would be guiding them. Each day they had to care and support one another.
Today’s gospel brings us into the desert with John the Baptist because it wants to remind us that for all the things that are going on in our life, only two things are important. In the desert, no matter how much money we have, there is nothing we can buy. In the desert, no matter how many computers and gadgets we own, there is no place to plug them in. No matter how we are attached to our smart phone, in the desert there is no reception. In the desert there are no parties, nothing to bake, no dinners to prepare. In the desert only two things matter: our love for God, and our love for one another.
So how do we get to the desert? Some of us are there already, because whenever sorrow or loss enter our life, they focus us on what is really important. When we face a serious diagnosis of cancer, we realize that now is the time to trust in God and in the support of those who love us. When we lose someone suddenly in death, we realize that our relationships are more important than all of our activities and accomplishments. When a relationship is broken by hurt or misunderstanding, it makes us thankful for the relationships that still continue.
But we do not need to experience loss and pain in order to see what really matters. With God’s help we can learn the lesson of the desert even as we remain in our own home and circumstances. We can try to wake up each morning aware that no matter what we own or what we have to do, nothing is more important than the people we love and those who love us in return. We can work our way through the activities of the holidays being conscious that God is leading us and that God promises us eternal life. We can do all that we need to do always remembering that nothing is more important than God’s love for us and our love for one another.
So today I invite you, as you face all the challenges of life and all of the activities of the holidays, to keep one foot in the desert—to remember the two things that really matter. If we live with faith in God and love for one another, we will really have all that we need—and that will bring us peace and lasting joy.