Thursday, December 13, 2012

Why we hate Advent (or should), part 3: Linus got it wrong

(Thursday, 3:35 p.m.  Yes, it's early.  I might not feel like blogging Sunday.)

You're cheating!


It's not Sunday yet!

So? Since when can I only blog on Sundays?

But you know you're going to write on that Advent obsession of yours again, and you've done that on Sunday.  This is Thursday.  You're cheating.

As you so kindly pointed out last time, I may not be all that functional this Sunday.  No harm in thinking ahead.  Right?

And am I reading that title right? You're actually going to take on one of the iconic symbols of modern Christmas on behalf of this Advent rant of yours?

It's an illustration.  I'm not "taking on" anything.

And you're still going to flog those hypothetical members?

Maybe.  We'll see.

I defer to no one in my love of A Charlie Brown Christmas.  Let that be established up front.  I love Vince Guaraldi's score.  I love the frankly low quality of the animation, the rush-job editing, the way the nearly-barren tree suddenly turns lush and green when it finally gets decorated.  We own the DVD just so it doesn't matter if we miss the network broadcast.  We can watch it multiple times if we want to.

But I still say Linus got it wrong.

It's a beautiful moment.  Just as poor hapless Charlie Brown finally loses control of his seasonal despair, crying out into the empty auditorium for somebody, anybody, who can tell him what Christmas is all about, here comes Linus with his lines freshly memorized under threat of Lucy's "five good reasons" to do so.  He gives us the Luke nativity in a nutshell, with angel annunciation to the shepherds.  And caps it off with the ultimate line, suddenly sounding so much smaller:  "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

It's beautiful.  It's a tearjerker.  It's probably the last time so much scripture ever got quoted un-ironically on network television.

But I still say Linus got it wrong, or at least incomplete.

What he says is good: "fear not"; "unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord"; "the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."  All good.  All very familiar.  We hear it every year at this time.

But what does it mean?

Why a Savior?  Why does this poor baby end up in a feed trough?  And a troop of angels exploding into the sky sounds like a pretty good reason to fear to me, so why "fear not"?

What's the point?

John the Baptist, the crazy angry guy, launches into this week's gospel with seeming venom.  Having completed a semester on the subject of Preaching & Worship, I can report with confidence that at no point was it recommended to me that I address my congregation as "you brood of vipers."  And metaphors about the ax being at the root of the tree don't, I'm guessing, figure prominently into contemporary church growth strategies.

But by golly, when the crowd asks "what should we do?" John has an answer.  And it's a darned uncomfortable answer.  Give away your coat (your second coat) to the one who doesn't have a coat.  Give food to those who don't have any food.  Don't use your position to extort or threaten or exploit those over whom you have power.  Don't go grabbing for more.

Hmm.  Decidedly uncomfortable words in the wake of Black Friday.

John's not through; the one who is to come after him is a pretty rough character, by John's description.  Gathering the wheat but burning off the chaff is not really a concept you can work into your creche with great ease, is it?

But it isn't just John the Baptizer, though, and the picture takes on more and more depth when we listen to those prophets of old, who see the world as it should be.  This week it's Zephaniah -- "The Lord your God is in your midst, ... he will renew you in his love, ... and I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise... ."  Last week it was Malachi, with that line about a refiner's fire and being purified and offerings made in righteousness.  The week before, Jeremiah was heralding a righteous branch for David, to execute justice and righteousness in the land.

As strange and uncomfortable as these oracles may be, we need to hear them.  We need badly to hear them.  We need to know that the world as it is is not the world as it should be.  We need to be grabbed by the collar and reminded that the world that justifies having no coat, no food, being bullied or exploited is not God's world; that the world that is comfortable with injustice and unrighteousness is not God's world; and that this angel chorus with its Gloria and its bursting on the shepherds is not about that world, but about the One whose life will be all about undoing that world, and if we're too comfortable in that world the baby in the feed trough is not the sweet little holiday story we like to constrain it to be.

When we don't take the time to listen to those obscure prophets or the crazy guy baptizing out in the wilderness, we miss what that whole nativity scene really is all about.  We miss that God finds that old unjust exploitative world so not of God's will that dramatic, inexplicable, upside-down intervention was warranted; the Lord our God in our midst, purifying and refining and executing justice and renewing us in love...this is what the story means.  Without Advent, we really don't know what Christmas is all about.

So you decided not to bring back the snippy parishioners?

Maybe if I'm lucky, they're actually thinking about it.

And you're o.k. with this being your last word before you get mutilated?  Maybe having your colon reduced to a semicolon?  Turned into a freakish mess?  Strapped to a bag the rest of your life?  You can't possibly be content with that.

Content?  I don't know what's going to happen.  Maybe I'll be blessed that the surgery will be minor.  They might have to take out the whole rectum.  Heck, this is surgery, it might go horribly wrong and I don't ever wake up.

And that doesn't make you angry?

Of course it does.


What am I going to do about it?  It's time.  They go get the damn cancer and then I deal with recovering, whatever that looks like.  I can rant and rave all I want to (and I've done plenty) but now it's time to get on with it.  I can't solve anything about my future before tomorrow, so I don't see a lot of point in trying.  Whatever happens, happens.  The surgeon does his thing, God does what God does, and when the anesthesia wears off I deal with what's there or what isn't, and whether the fool's errand goes on or not isn't entirely up to me.

So you think you can handle this?

Of course I can't.

You make no sense.

Yeah, whatever.

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