“There is snow everywhere. It must be Christmas!” says my daughter.
Which is fortunate or unfortunate depending upon how your December is progressing. If we keep power and heat, then this will be good news for most of us. We’re an overworked people in an overly anxious season. Christmas is two weeks away, which means that Advent is halfway over. It’s a perfect time to stop for half-time. To take a break. Slow down.
Snow should be on the checklist for every great Advent-Christmas, along with shopping, hot cocoa, Home Alone, and at least one good meltdown. With nowhere to go, nothing to do, we are invited to unwrap true sabbath rest as even most critters go into hiding. The streets shut down and everything is quiet, until the silence is finally broken by chirping birds and crunching snow. It’s an open invitation to be a child again—binge those Christmas classics and make a snowman. Heck, make a snow-family. The world slows enough to notice that ice crystals fall from the sky.
What’s advent without one day of wonder?
Zechariah, who we met last week, was forced into a season of silence when he didn’t believe that his wife had become pregnant with child (who would be born as John the Baptist). And who would? But the angel sealed his lips and held is tongue. John must have come out of the temple miming a ‘Y’ with his arms stretched upward and a beachball with his arms outstretched and rounded.
He lived like this, in a perpetual game of charades, for nine months until his wife gave birth. Now, this is often interpreted as a punishment—usually by extroverts, I imagine. This might have been a blessing. It’s December and we can’t talk! Silence is free therapy. It's a way of watching and a way of listening to what is going on within and around. Before we inquire about the gift that is to come, we must first come to understand what is happening around us—to sink deeper into each moment and let your eyes linger on those things that are so often ignored.
It might be that our angel takes the form of snowflakes and icy roads.
The December calendar fills up quicker than any other month of the year. Advent has been hijacked by Christmas busyness, loud noises, and too many bad songs. Bah humbug. There’s not a spare minute to prepare a room for the coming child, to make a wish list, to dwell in the stillness. Christmas arrives and there’s no room in the Inn. Go next door, Jesus. This house is full of eggnog and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.
Then, we’re blindsided by snow and the calendar is suddenly empty. There is absolutely nothing to do. Many of us can’t even distract ourselves with church—even church is cancelled. Turns out that we have to find God in snow blossoms and white blankets covering lawns. We’ll have to look for God in a quiet house, the children sledding, the neighbor who needs a warm place to stay. It’s even possible that we might have to play board games with family. Oh, the horror.
Worse yet, we might have to look within ourselves and prepare a place in our hearts for Christ to be born. Where is Jesus’ looking to be born this year? In your heart? In our world?
As much as I love the cheer, it’s not always helpful. Welcome to the season of imposed (faux?) happiness! Christmas is a slow, steady morphine drip in the veins of the world's brokenness and grief and despair. If we manage to schedule our calendars full enough, then we can ignore the pain during ‘the most wonderful time of the year!’ Or, we can throw money at it, which usually works temporarily.
But what happens when there are no distractions? Enter melancholy and stress. Silence can often be the precursor to an avalanche of worry, dread, and pain that you never heard coming. If there’s one person I don’t want to be in a room alone with—it’s me. There I am, face to face with my receding hairline, that weird pain in my throat, and too many meetings scheduled for next week. God may not even show up. I’m left all alone with just thoughts, lost dreams, and false hopes. And it feels way too close to death.
At least I can still send text messages.
The desert fathers told this short tale: A brother in Scetis went to ask for a word from Abba Moses and the old man said to him, “Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”
But there’s also a threat with these kinds of snow storms. Trees fall and transformers blow. Roads are snow covered and slick. We are fragile and dependent people. Milk and bread is no condolence. Thousands are not only stuck in silence; they’re cold and fearful. Literally yearning for someone to turn on the lights. Will we ever be warm again? When will the quiet, stillness of advent’s labor move into transition? And that's the cry of a people who wait.
Someone once said that silence is the loudest cry. For whom is the world cold this year? What blankets can you offer them?
A couple of snowy days is the perfect Advent gift. Here’s why: advent is about anticipation and longing and quiet can be the medium to develop that patience. If we sit long enough, we’ll long for a savior. Maybe even prepare a room in our chests. A child will come “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Quiet is busy, though it’s a different kind of busy—the kind that Advent intends: waiting, wonderment, joy, yearning. It’s sledding down a hill, but also introspection. It’s The Great Christmas Light Fight, yet longing for a more just earth. It’s making sure your street is warm and fed and talking about nothing.
For one day we will look for peace on our streets and create peace in our hearts. And that’s what advent is about. After all, there will be no peace on earth if we can’t first find peace at home.
Advent is a season of pregnancy for Christians. Well, that’s to put it mildly. This is the season when we become like a woman in her third trimester. We’re waddling around like we’ve just eaten at Golden Corral. We’ve already decorated the baby’s room. And redecorated it. Forget about getting any sleep. Speaking of forgetting, why did we just get in the car? Everyone tells us to savor the season—the anticipation, warmth, and wonder. But all we really want is rest and normalcy. We’re yearning and praying for this child to be born among us. The world is broken and we need a Savior—like, now. In fact, yesterday would have been great.
I think this is one reason why the secular culture loves Christmas. It’s a sign-act that we’re not giving up on this world. Help is on the way. And for us, help means a newborn baby. Even strangers can’t help but to come near to the church, to touch her protruding stomach. Our houses are strung with lights and trees are standing tall in living room windows. The darkness will not overcome us. We sing, we eat, we snuggle. We buy each other gifts, which is a good instinct if it can be reigned in, subverted, and made cruciform. Take that, despair.
I wonder if we criticize people too deeply—the ones who never quite make it all the way to Christ’s stable. They stop short at “Happy Holidays” with shopping malls. Or, they watch from the fringes at the Christmas parties with one too many egg nog mixed drinks. Maybe, they’ve followed a different star and ended up at a different stable. But we’re on this earth together, each of us waiting for the darkness to recede and the light to shine longer and brighter.
A life without hope is not a life. This is why Dante wrote that the gates are hell are inscribed with ‘abandon all hope ye who enter here.’ We need hope so much that we can’t make it through Thanksgiving without singing Away in a Manger. For three years at my first church we argued about Christmas hymns. The congregation wanted to sing the carols. Life is painful. Can we go ahead and celebrate Christmas now? I wanted to make them wait until Christmas Eve. The congregation won.
Christ is born in Bethlehem. Today, Today, Today.
And why not? We’ve all seen the news. The world has dealt us so many blows. Not to mention the disappointment of so many prior Christmases. We’ve gone under the tree, picked up the present, shook the package, and ripped the paper. Great! It’s another pair of underwear. Something more must be under that tree—more than sentiment, good cheer, pieces of plastic. Or maybe that's all we'll ever unwrap.
Advent begins with uncertainty and a high risk of miscarriage. Pregnancy is full of excitement and wonder, but it’s also a season of fear. You place your hope in flesh and blood vessels and cells that need to divide and grow. Everything is supposed to ‘just work,’ but we still wonder if the heart is still beating. We can’t control it—we’re held hostage by a bundle of cells the size of a mango. All of our hopes and fears are bound in a tiny package marked 'fragile.'
The church teaches that hope is waiting for deliverance from something that can only come from the outside. We've been waiting to be freed once and for all for a couple thousand years. If that’s the case, then why should we dare to hope for more than the emptiness and silence? Will this finally be the year that the humble will be exalted? That the rich will be sent away empty?
Most Advent seasons Zechariah is my patron saint. What’s hope look like for Zechariah? It’s showing up to work on time. Zechariah is a priest of Israel. His job consisted of going into the temple, deep down into the Holy of Holies, the place where God resides. And he burnt incense. No one else gets to go that deep into God’s heart. Others would have tied a rope around his leg in case he died back there so they could pull him out.
Exteriors are often misleading. Through another lens, Zechariah was dealt a difficult hand. He and Elizabeth were childless. To say they were righteous and childless would be like hypocrisy. Other Jews would presume they were being punished by God for their unrighteousness. So what’d he do in his brokenness? He went to work.
Sometimes that’s what hope looks like. Hope does not know any excess. But it also doesn’t know any dearth. A sky ripped open sounds great, but most of us are just hoping for a good night’s sleep. A better co-worker. That she’ll get out of the hospital by Christmas Day. Hope doesn’t always have to be so heroic. Sometimes hope is brushing your teeth and getting dressed the week after the funeral. It’s planting a garden when last year’s was destroyed by a groundhog. Hope is buying energy efficient lightbulbs after the latest climate report has been released. When the world is caving in on itself and we can manage to sit down at the piano and write a song. That’s hope, too.
God uses people who have just enough hope to show up. It’s not bold or heroic; it’s the path of least resistance. It’s the bare minimum amount of hope—just enough to pass the course, to get the pay check, to stay out of the hospital. But it’s an open door and God’s done more with less.
Does Zechariah expect God to show up? Doubt it. Regardless, he's given these words:
Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.
John became the unexpected gift to Zechariah and to the world.
Now, it doesn’t always end that way (spoiler: it usually doesn't). We’re not promised every happy ending. But it often begins the same—in darkness and barrenness. The blues of advent can be as deep as the blues of lent. This year Advent begins with tear gas, fires that terrorize entire landscapes, guns in schools and synagogues.
Here's the question: do we dare to show up for work?
Saint Augustine says that “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” I also think that Hope has two less attractive, chain-smoking stepdaughters. They’re named Duty and Perseverance. Duty to show up today, and Perseverance to show up again tomorrow.
And so we show up. Not because we want to, but because we have to wait. Christmas will arrive, but there’s no way to induce it to come earlier than scheduled. In the mean time, we go into the temple and burn incense. We wait. Light the Advent wreath. Wait. Speak up with the voiceless. Wait. Deliver cookies to the shut-ins. Wait.
Something might come when we least expect it—during a rally or a dinner at the women’s shelter. We’re sitting on the couch watching a Hallmark movie and suddenly something contracts. It’s go time. God is speaking something new into existence. A light is rising against the night sky. A shining star is appearing. Follow it. Follow it all the way to the stable. A Savior will be there. He must be, right? It's our only hope.
Until then, all we can do is show up. And then, show up again tomorrow.
Jews, who have taken the time to ascribe prayers for most everything that’s important, have a traditional prayer that’s said each morning upon arising from sleep:
I am thankful before You, living and enduring King, for you have mercifully restored my soul within me. Great is Your faithfulness. (Modeh Ani)
It’s a beautiful prayer—the kind of thing I should say, even the kind of thing I aspire to say. It’s not what I actually say. My prayer is generally something like this: “Oh God. The kids are up.” The phrasing is ambivalent on paper. It might be read as an exclamation of anticipation for the start of another day. Or, it could be a grumble that my soul has awoken my body from its death-like sleep.
Is the Mr. Coffee gurgling yet?
There’s a list of things that must be done before the day can be started. The coffee beans must be ground to a fine dust, but that will leave a black residue on my hands that’s reminiscent of soil. The mound will have to make its way into the hot water bath. On second thought, I’ll shove a K-Cup into the machine and pop the lid down. I throw the plastic cup into the trash, which will make its way to a landfill. Slices of ham are rolled into cylinders and put in Tupperware along with crackers and fruit. A bag of muffins is mindlessly eaten to the tune of a morning cartoon. Kids are pinned down like alligators and wrestled into clothes. No, that shoe is on the wrong foot. Switch them. The youngest’s diaper leaks. We forgot to change him. Do I need to carry you down the stairs or are you going to walk?
We’re on our way.
Turns out that ingratitude is easy—just don’t pay attention. I’ve already paraded by a whole slew of blessings while marching toward work. We are pompous beings. Every morning is made easier, if not possible, by countless hands from all over the globe. Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way: “before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you've depended on more than half the world. This is the way our universe is structured. It is its interrelated quality.” We’re not self-made people, not a one of us. Nothing merely appears with the swipe of a card or a push of the button. What we have comes from others, and more often, at their expense.
Gratitude, on the other hand, takes time and it’s time that we apparently don’t have. The coffee beans were selected, picked, and roasted by someone. The bag said Ethiopia. The baby’s hand wrapped around my finger while I was giving him the bottle, which was less important than finishing that article for sermon preparation. The ham roll-ups were once a living animal, but who can make that connection after all the processing and packaging? It’s hard to believe that the sweater she’s wearing was once cotton, growing in a field somewhere.
We are ‘lucky’ enough not to realize this. What’s worse is this: even if we did realize the interrelated nature of our reality, we can’t thank the actual people and animals who gave their lives for our convenience. The best we can do is give thanks for abstract generalities like ‘pig’ or ‘farmer’ or ‘textile manufacturer.’ Who can afford to know the name of the chicken that’s been raised and slaughtered? The kinds of ‘woke’ people who can afford a house in West Asheville or Montford, that’s who. Since when is it a privilege to want to treat the world better?
Thanksgiving, in our country, must often begin with confession.
We’d like to think that we’re grateful people. After all, we set aside a full day on the calendar to gather around a table with a few family members that we can stomach once a year—like cranberry sauce that comes out of a can. We slow down. Someone asks, ‘what are you thankful for?” And we all squirm to think of something admirable while the food gets cold. Our eyes are drawn to our plates—there’s turkey and stuffing. There’s sweet potato casserole. Pumpkin pie. We give thanks for the hands that labored all morning. There are family and friends gathered with us. Life is good. We are blessed.
Is that all we’ve got?
Thanksgiving Day is as much a Hallmark-washed facade as the idyllic story about English colonists who shared a meal with Native Americans in perfect harmony. It’s just as much about overindulgence, consumption, and ignorance as Black Friday. Maybe that’s too pessimistic. Surely we can be grateful for more than gluttony. Slow down, listen for the gift, see the sacrifice, and taste the offering. You are not just a consumer. Our relationships are not transactions.
German pietist and philosophical traditions have a phrase that captures this sentiment: “denken ist danken,“ which means “to think is to thank.” In other words, no thinking, then no thanking. The two are inseparable. A proper disposition toward the world is determined by a posture of thankfulness. It’s gratitude that reminds us who we really are—creatures of the dirt, bound together with soil and flesh for better and worse.
The reverse is also true. Thanking is predicated on the hard work of thinking, paying attention, and noticing. Look deeply into your plate and become cognizant enough to see the turkey that gave its life. For the farmers that grew and picked the potatoes. The interrelated quality of our lives together. Confess your hurried, mindless way of life and gratitude will become the catalyst toward a more merciful and just way of life.
It’s a start. How can we become better thinkers?
I think that the Christian practice of Eucharist, which is Greek for thanksgiving, is one of our teachers. After all, the first thanksgiving was two thousand years ago when Jesus and his disciples gathered around a table and Christ gave his body and blood to all who were gathered. We’re called to be grateful.
Here, God’s goodness is re-presented, smelled, and tasted. ‘Lift up your hearts with joy,’ we say. We confess our mindless eating—the degradation of soil and lives. ‘We have not love you with our whole heart…we have not heard the cry of the needy.’ We receive the meal side-by-side with friends, stranger, enemies. Boundaries are erased. The bread and the wine are a reconciliation back into a common life together, where everyone is interrelated and no one is estranged. Finally, we get up and leave the table pledging to offer our bodies to one another—just as the body had been offered to us.
It's a transformation of the mind.
The simple practice of noticing and saying thank you is not natural, but if it’s something we can muster up weekly, or even more often, then it might spread to all of our tables—the breakfast nooks, sandwich shop counters, and dinner tables. And who knows what might happen next.
Thanksgiving might even become the beginning and the end of our lives together— so much so that there’s no thinking without thanking.
Three years old is a bit premature for a first existential crisis. My family was visiting Yaya and Grandpa, my wife’s parents, when my daughter spotted a picture of my wife from middle school. There was Danielle, sandwiched in between her two brothers, all of whom looked noticeably younger. They were really only children.
“Where was I?” said Eden.
This wasn’t going to end well. Jean Piaget wrote that children in this ‘preoperational stage’ of life are so egocentric that they have a difficult time perceiving a world that doesn’t contain them. Seems to me that some of us never quite make it out of that stage. I knew this and I still smiled as I walked right into the trap.
Well, you weren’t born yet,” one of us responded. I’m not sure whether it was my wife or me. It doesn’t matter. I do remember the way Eden’s head so slightly dropped and how the little wrinkles formed around her eyes as she squinted in confusion. Someone once asked Augustine the same question about God: “What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?” Augustine replied, “He was preparing hell for people who pry into mysteries.” That’s as good an answer as any, but unfortunately it’s inappropriate for my three-year old daughter.
My wife, who was grasping at straws, said, “Well, you were with the stars.”
Look, it’s instinctive to try and protect kids from the harsher realities of life for as long as possible. We know it’s not right, but it’s not terribly wrong. Aren’t we all just star dust, anyway? Not really. It’s cliche and sentimental, but she’s a three-year old who can’t read. It didn't work. Unfortunately, this vague answer about being with the stars didn’t appease her. Why do three year olds insist on better answers than so many adults?
She said, “I was in the dark. Alone? I don’t want to be in the dark! I don’t want to be in the dark! I don’t want to be in the dark!”
So much for the soothing lull of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’
Here’s what’s worse: a couple weeks later I caught her drawing pictures of herself in the stars. I asked her how it felt to be with the stars. She said two words: “It’s sad.” This is a terrible and heart wrenching thing for a parent to observe. It was as if she was drawing a portrait of hell—an existence that’s only dark. A life that’s only isolation.
What should we have said?
Most Christians have no doctrine of pre-existence. There’s no rebirth, cyclic existence, or reincarnation. Origen of Alexandria (185—254 C.E.) gave us the most prominent Christian idea of pre-mortality. He taught that God created a limited number of rational beings (logikoi) outside of time, but they fell from their divine contemplation and took on flesh. Thus, here we are. It explains these troublesome bodies of ours. But the church named it a heresy at the Second Council of Constantinople.
If there is any pre-existence, it’s only very relative. Augustine makes a compelling case that the past returns to existence in the present through our memories and the future, through our expectations (Confessions XI.20). We can conjure up events and relationships in our memories, so that they return to existence—albeit imperfectly. In our expectations, we create that-which-is-not-yet in the present moment. And so our expectations create existence, not in a proleptic sense, but as anticipation and hope.
I like that thought—Eden and Pax have always been with me, maybe even existing before me. Eden was settled in the hearts of my parents who must have dreamed of children and grandchildren who were birthed out of their own particular memories and expectations. Until she then became an expectation in my own heart. I thought about these kids most of my life. Sure, I never dreamed of a precocious, blonde hair, and blue eyed live-wire. But I did hope for God to call someone into existence for me—boy or girl, brown eyed or blue eyed, biologically-mine or adopted-mine.
It’s not the same, is it, as true being?
There’s a better answer than this vague sense of existence, though Eden’s too young to grasp it. It’s this: you were created. We are given a beginning, just as there was an initial beginning to all things. It’s a miracle that there is something rather than not-something, even more miraculous that there is conscious life, and an even greater miracle that there is someone like Eden. Or maybe it’s not. God is self-determined and resolved to be Creator. Not out of compulsion, necessity, divine struggle, or a boundless will set to dominate. It’s only love—from the bottom to the top. God’s love couldn't be contained. Nor, could it be locked away in a warehouse. It spilled over into galaxies with stars and planets because God is God. And it keeps overflowing because no one's quite figured out how to make it stop.
It took four and a half billion years, but it finally spilled into you.
Creation is the word we use to name the world and our existence. And it's important. The first thing we can say about each other is that God has created us. We are, each of us, God’s love enfleshed and put in motion. It teaches us how to be human and gives shape to our lives. It instructs us how to be in relationship with every facet of the created order—whether the oceans or mountains, beluga whales or grasshoppers, the neighbor or the enemy. You are gift. And so are they. Never treat anyone, or be treated, as less.
After Eden drew the pictures of the stars I told her that she wasn’t actually with them. I told her something like this: ‘God was making you, but it takes a long time to make babies. Meemaw and Poppa had to love me and raise me. I had to grow up and go to school to meet mommy. Then, we could have you. But that whole time we were thinking about you. You were in our dreams. And in our prayers. We thought about what you would look like, the ways you would talk, and how you would grow. Now, you’re finally with us. God finally made you. God made you at the perfect time (kairos).’
And she replied, “Daddy, that’s ridiculous.”
It is ridiculous. And yet, that’s what makes her grace—a completely undeserved and beautiful gift.