Christmas is easy to find. Despite the protestations of the culture warriors who see attacks on nativity scenes and holiday displays at every turn, I feel inundated by Christmas. There’s so much Christmas on display it is hard to see the world beyond the lights. Christmas, in one form or another, is everywhere.
Let’s take that premise at face value: Christmas is all around. Santa knows when we’re asleep and awake. Holiday lights stay on day and night. The advertisements for holiday products have been on radio, television, and the internet since late September. Christmas, whether for economic, religious, or social reasons dominates a third of our calendar year. We know Christmas is coming. Holidays stress management and planning experts tell us each year: do your shopping early. Yet unique to the Christian tradition is a paradoxical message, deep from the middle of Advent as Christmas is quickly approaching: prepare while you prepare.
The message is to prepare for whom and what’s coming next. This preparation goes hand in hand with the subsequent arrival of Christmas. Preparation defines Advent. Without preparing, there is no Advent and there will be no Christmas. What we perceive as Christmas and define as indispensible holiday traditions are just imported cultural practices from central Europe. That kind of Christmas takes no real effort. It’s what we do each year on autopilot. That’s why the Hallmark channel makes it look so simple.
Scripture says the preparatory work of Advent isn’t as shiny, glamorous, or predictable as we’ve come to expect. There is little rote re-telling of stories and few reenactments of Jesus’ birth.
So how do we anticipate the arrival of something that’s already here? What does one do to prepare for the reality we are currently encountering?
We begin by realizing where we are. We are in the wilderness. Our preparations begin in the least Christmas-like place one can imagine. No one wants to picture the wilderness at Christmas, unless you’re listening to a collection of instrumental holiday favorites and you happen notice the snow covered peaks on the album cover. The Advent story, which culminates on Christmas, begins and ends in the wilderness. Whether it is the Judean desert, on a sand dune miles off shore, or a wilderness inside your soul; the geography doesn’t matter. It is the detachment which defines the wilderness experience.
Amid the isolation, it is possible to hear a voice. We don’t see a person or persons. There is no manger with a cast of seven to nine people. We hear a single voice, as both John and Isaiah say, “crying” in the wilderness. Our preparation begins by listening. Are we listening to the voice? What does the voice say?
We make a path. Advent, or Christmas for that matter, isn’t something that happens to us. First, Christmas is something that arrives on our doorstep, whether in the form of a package, relatives, or a yearly church service. Once Christmas comes, for all the busyness we manufacture this time of year, it’s becomes a very passive experience. We listen to others sing. We see the lights on someone else’s house. We drive by the nativity scenes. We receive cards from family and friends. After an initial flurry, for the most part, Christmas happens to us. We sit there and watch the Advent calendar open one day at a time.
Isaiah, John, and ultimately Jesus say something unique about listening and preparation. Advent is a season of active engagement with God. We prepare with God, in the wilderness; well before the world sees Bethlehem, wise men, or a star in the east. The truth is that it’s hard to get to Bethlehem because of the spiritual and material clutter confusing family celebrations, gift giving, the winter solstice, and the incarnation of Christ into one grand cultural celebration.
We clear the clutter and prepare a path by listening to what Isaiah says about how God wants us to engage with the world. Remember, Jesus preached these same words from the Isaiah when they ran him out of his home synagogue in Nazareth and tried to kill him. Listening is hard in the wilderness. This kind of listening makes us uncomfortable because we’re asked to change something that’s more important to us that gold, frankincense, or myrrh: our perspective.
What does Isaiah say? He tells us that path-clearers are sent to do many things:
- To bring good news to the poor,
- To bind up the broken hearted,
- To proclaim release for the captives
- And liberation for the prisoners
- To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
- To comfort all who mourn
- To provide for all of Zion’s mourners
- To give them a crown instead of ashes
- To give them joy instead of mourning
Listen one more time: bring, bind, proclaim, liberate, comfort, provide, and give. Bringers, binders, providers and givers are using the path to make Advent come alive. There is nothing passive about those verbs.
Advent is about how we prepare to meet the physical and spiritual needs of vulnerable people. We prepare for this in Advent, because as Jesus preaches in Nazareth, this is what he came to do. This is his mission statement.
How many times did you see the word all? This message is for everyone. No one is excluded. There are no qualifiers on the poor (at home or around the world), broken hearted, captives, or prisoners. Isaiah does say, “All who mourn” and “all of Zion’s mourners”. As we prepare for the coming of the Messiah there is an acknowledgement of the reality of grief, especially in the midst of the holiday season. God embraces, welcomes, and offers comfort to our sadness. In the midst of our preparation, no one is told to get over it, take a walk to clear your head; you should be over it by now, or any other tired cliché. If you are grieving this holiday season, there is a place on the cleared path where God can meet you. The waiting is over. You’re not alone.
Last thing I’ll say is this: it’s hard to bind, bring, prepare, liberate, and comfort if our hands are full of stuff. We need both hands free to do what Isaiah, John, and Jesus say we should be doing in order to prepare. The problem is, at Christmas, we’ve got our hands full. Whether it’s buying things we don’t need or moving clutter from point A to point B; our lives are otherwise engaged. It’s hard to be actively involved for “all”, especially the most vulnerable, if our hands are full with our concerns. Perhaps, in order to get ready for Jesus, part of clearing the path means we need to put a few things down.
Richard Lowell Bryant