I love Christmas lights. We didn’t grow up with a family tradition of a lot of outdoor decoration, and maybe that’s why I appreciate them so much! But my favorite kinds of lights are the ones I find in unexpected places. We have a lot of opportunity for that, living out in the country. As we drive up the hill on our road, we have a neighbor who usually puts a lighted star—just the star—on the top of his barn. We’ve been looking for the star all month, and just last night, it appeared. It appears in the distance, and, as you drive up the hill, it disappears. You can spot it again, close up, for just a few seconds, as you drive by the property. Catching a glimpse of that single bright star, shining in the darkness, seemingly appearing and disappearing out of no-where is a great sign of hope for me.
You see, when our culture tells us “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” and “our troubles will be miles away” and to put on a “merry” face—well, that’s a happiness that usually doesn’t run very deep. It’s a happiness that ignores, covers up, sweeps under the rug for a few weeks at best grief, pain, suffering, the effects of poverty, and the darkness that exists in our world. Advent is full of contradictions—especially this “Gaudate”—Rejoicing— Sunday!
But Advent, with all its apparent contradiction, prepares us to receive the true light—the light that shone in this world’s darkness at Christmas, and the darkness did not overcome it. Real rejoicing—real light—does not ignore or cover up difficulty, but embraces it in faith. Faith does not ignore reality, but opens itself to a much greater reality.
The harsh words of John the Baptist are meant to “stir” his hearers out of complacency. Apparently he subscribed to writer Flannery O’Connor’s philosophy—that sometimes to get people’s attention, you have to yell! Interestingly, this 3rd Sunday of Advent, besides being known as “Rose” Sunday or “Gaudate”—Rejoicing!— Sunday is also known as “Stirrup” Sunday, because of the opening words of the collect of the day, “Stir up in us, O Lord.” People with relatives in England told me that this was a reminder for cooks to go home and “Stir up” their Christmas puddings!
It stirs us—this mixture of darkness and light. This combination of joy and grief. This interplay between rain and sun. The juxtaposition of poverty and plenty. Hopes for peace set alongside so much violence. If we pay attention, these contrasts, this paradox, will stir up our souls. What is Advent stirring up in you?
I would like to share with you a little of what it is stirring up for me. There is much that is fearful in our world today—it is perfectly reasonable to be afraid. But I am choosing, in faith, not to be afraid. In the world, even in church, so much is unknown. But God’s got us. I am not afraid.
The other thing that Advent is stirring in me this year is to stand for something that is real. To do and say what is important today. Don’t think “Someday I’ll get around to being more generous, spending time with the kids, having fun, doing something that really matters to me.” Someday is today. There is no time for playing it safe. Every day is the new someday. Now—this precious moment—is all that we are guaranteed. And it is where God is.
Vince and I were chatting while driving at night in November. The kids were asleep in the back seat. We were thinking about what our culture has made Christmas into, and what Christmas really is—the birthday of Jesus, who said that what we did for the least of these his brothers and sisters we did for him. I got all hot under the collar and said, “If we were really celebrating Christmas, we’d all be giving away at least as much as we spent on Christmas presents! I mean, it’s Jesus’ birthday, and he said poor people are him now!” So Vince said calmly, “Why couldn’t we do that?” And though it means we’ll probably be taking money out of savings to do it, we’ve committed trying to give away as much as we spend on gifts for family this year.
What if, instead of a exhaustion of excess, Christmas was a real celebration of the light that shines in the midst of darkness, and the darkness does not over come it. What if Christmas instead of burdening us with more stuff, more to-do’s, filled us with true joy that no darkness could snuff out, deep peace that passes all understanding, and love that gives itself away, and so has all it could ever want?
True joy, deep peace, unending love. Don’t be afraid of the darkness, dear ones. True joy, deep peace, unending love. These are our inheritance—these are the real gifts of Christmas. True joy, deep peace, unending love. They are yours. Don’t try to ignore the darkness for a couple of weeks—but light candles in your windows. Put up a star in the dark night. Be light in the darkness for others. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
- c. 2015 The Rev. Amy Denney Zuniga
Readings For 2 Advent C
I confess to being a recovering Advent grinch. I, along with most other Episcopal clergy I know, and some other die-hards, look at all the Christmas trees, lights, and decorations going up the day after Thanksgiving and think (and sometimes say,) “What is this abomination? It is NOT EVEN ADVENT YET. Don’t these people know that there is an ENTIRE SEASON BEFORE Christmas, a season of quiet reflection and preparation for the coming of our Lord, and that Christmas actually STARTS on December 25 and lasts for TWELVE DAYS? What is wrong with them?!”
Those are the rantings of an Advent Grinch. The recovering part is that I’ve come to accept things I cannot change—that our culture’s celebration of Christmas lasts from the day after Thanksgiving to December 25. They don’t know about Advent, and if they have some vague idea of 12 days of Christmas they probably think they begin December 13. But what’s brought me a great deal of peace is that I’ve realized that our culture’s celebration of Christmas and our Christian celebration of the most central, mind-blowing mystery of our faith: the Incarnation of the eternal Word of God in a tiny human infant 2,000 years ago—are two completely different things. Our Christmas and the cultural celebration of Christmas have about as much to do with each other as the resurrection of Christ and the Easter bunny.
I’ve known for a long time that the spirit of Advent runs counter to the spirit of our culture’s celebration of Christmas—I like to think of Advent as the spiritual antidote to the “Christmas Crazies.” Church publishing put out a poster a few years ago that said something along the lines of “Stop. Reflect. Breathe. It’s Advent.” I’ve known that Advent was the time when our counter-cultural calling as Christians was most evident—just when our culture is asking us to run around like chickens with our heads cut off and be merry and tinsel-bright while doing it, we go dark, take flowers off the altar, where solemn blue and purple, and sing in a minor key.
But what I’ve come to realize is that our Christian celebration of Christmas is actually counter-cultural as well. And not just because we blast our carols and leave up our lights and tree until January 6. You see, our Christmas is about something entirely different from the world’s Christmas. The world’s Christmas is about stuff. It’s about excess and consumption and keeping up—scratch that—out-doing the Joneses. It’s about obligation and appearances—for adults. For kids it’s just about stuff, and magic dust. In a way, what Vince calls the “Coca-Cola Santa Claus” has come to represent all of that. Exhaustion and appearances for grown-ups, magic and stuff for kids.
But we know, we know like the who’s down in Whoville “Christmas can’t be bought in a store, Christmas you see means a little bit more.” The Spirit of Christmas is kindness, generosity, self-giving love, moderation and proportionality—not too much, not too little, but enough, enough for everyone. St. Nicholas—a 4th century bishop from Greece, embodied this spirit of love and generosity better than anyone. Giving away his inheritance, bringing gifts secretly to those most in need so that he wouldn’t even get the credit—St. Nick was the real deal. And I think that the spirit of St. Nicholas, and the real spirit of Christmas, are not non-existent in our broader culture’s celebration of Christmas. Like the Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s plague victim “not dead yet!” But they can’t be taken for granted either. There is a war for Christmas—and it’s not about whether Starbuck’s writes “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” on their cups. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that the spirit of kindness, generosity, self-giving love is at the center of Christmas, instead of stuff, exhaustion, and appearances.
You see the spirit of Advent is about grace—God’s grace, God’s love and forgiveness and healing and mercy, falling down on us like rain, coming to us not because we deserved it, not because we worked so hard and had the poster-perfect Christmas celebration, but because we need it. Because we need it so very desperately. Because we need God-with-us, God as close as a breath and a touch, God as close as a newborn baby held to its mother’s breast. We need it so very much. And Advent, with all its firey prophets, is about grace as well. Advent is about making room for that grace—at the busiest, most crazy-making time of year. Making room. Making the high places low, and the low places high.
You see, that’s what grace does. It makes the high places low, the low places high, the rough places smooth. It brings balance, evenness, peace, hope, and even joy. There are high places in our lives and in our world. There are places where we get ahead of ourselves, want too much, work too much, and there are people and parts of the world, our part included, that have too much. And there are places that have too little—not enough to survive, to feed and clothe and educate their children. There are people in that situation in our very community. There are low places in our lives as well—despair, grief, hopelessness. The low places—spiritually, economically, need to be lifted up, and the high places brought down. This is the job of prophets like John the Baptist and St. Nick—to announce and denounce, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. This is what grace does—makes the way smooth.
I’d like to offer you an invitation—don’t become an Advent Grinch. But become an Advent and Christmas prophet. Find a low place—in your heart, in someone else’s life, materially or spiritually—and do what you can to lift it up, to offer God’s grace and light and love and hope. If you need a little help just re-read our first reading from Baruch. And find a high place—this will probably be in your own life because it’s hard to impose on others, unless you feel called to be a Salvation Army Bell-ringer! Find a high place and take it down a few notches. Replace false Christmas with real Christmas. It doesn’t have to be loud and in-your-face—remember, the bringing of the Kingdom of God is a super-secret, covert operation. Take St. Nick as your model. Drink deeply from the ever-flowing stream of grace—and offer that life-giving drink to others.
-c 2015 The Rev. Amy Denney Zuniga
Today is a kind of church New Year’s Eve—the last Sunday of the Season After Pentecost, the last Sunday before we begin a new church year with the Season of Advent. You notice I’m not wearing green as I have for most of the Sundays of this long green season stretching all the way back to May—but white, the festive church color. Because as most Eve’s do, this church New Year’s Eve somewhere along the way turned into a party—a party called the Feast of Christ the King.
Now Christ the King may seem like a kind of antiquated concept—after all, we find royalty quaint, and even fascinating, as celebrities—but they don’t actually have any power anymore, right? What’s interesting is that Christ the King is a relatively new feast day—it was established by Pope Pius the 6th in the democratic era of the 20th century, in 1925. In the aftermath of World War I, then called the Great War and thought to be the “war to end all wars,” Pius was troubled that rivalry among nations seemed to be growing even worse than it was before, and that the “armed peace “ in which they were living was scarcely better than war. He believed that true peace would only come when individuals were ruled in their minds, hearts, and lives by the Prince of peace.
We live in a world today where the violence of war has transcended the battlefield. Whether from random gunmen or terrorist attacks on people simply going about their lives, or from drones reining down death on villagers, the effects of war are felt now heavily by those who are not fighting.
Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world; that if it were, his followers would use the tool of this world—violence—to get and keep power. But Jesus’ kingdom is a different kind of kingdom. I have to tell you—that surprised a lot of people! When Jesus was arrested, Peter was ready to lead the defensive—he pulled out his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. His followers expected him to march triumphantly into Jerusalem and overthrow the Roman oppressors—this was the role of the Messiah, the anointed King of the Line of David—to fulfill God’s promise to David and rule over Israel forever. Some people believe that’s why Judas betrayed him—because he was so let down when he realized that Jesus was not going to conquer Rome.
Have you ever been that let down—that disappointed, maybe even by God? You had a dream, a lofty vision, like David’s vision of the Messiah—“One who rules over people justly…. is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.” And it just turns out so differently. It turns out to be the one who you thought would fulfill that vision, in shackles, beaten and bleeding, on trial before the governor. Sometimes, our greatest hopes turn into our greatest trials and disappointments.
Does that mean God is not at work? Does that mean it’s over? I recently told a friend, “You know, it’s possible that God may have different plans (for St. Luke’s) than I have. And it’s possible—just possible—that God’s plans might even be better.” Or as the character Sonny in the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel says, “We have a saying here. Everything will be alright in the end. And if it is not alright, it is not yet the end.” Or as Muriel tells Evelyn, “Most things don’t turn out how you plan. But sometimes what happens instead is the good stuff.”
God is at work, my friends. God is at work in our hearts and minds, in our lives, in our families, in our church, in our schools, in our communities, in our nation, and in our world. God is at work, the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace still reigns. God is doing better things than we can ask for or imagine. But there are other forces fighting mightily for control. And God’s work, this Jesus movement, is a somewhat undercover operation.
What is at stake this morning is the very first step in that chain reaction of change—35 minds and hearts here this morning. Will we allow ourselves to be filled and controlled by our disappointment, our anger, our fear? Or will we be ruled instead by the Prince of Peace, the Truth, faith and hope, Jesus’ graceful way of love. Facing what we face, each of us must make that decision for ourselves. We have a choice, this morning, and every morning, indeed every hour of every day. To choose fear, or faith. To choose hope, or despair. To choose forgiveness and freedom, or bitterness and anger. To choose violence, physical, or violence of the mind and heart, or to choose peace.
We have the choice. But the thing is, the end, though not yet here, is already written. As Martin Luther King Jr., our contemporary prophet, said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Violence cannot drive out violence, only love can do that.” Our disappointment, our anger, our fear are real—and even justified. But what we do with them will make all the difference.
Beloved, there is more than one priest here today. We are all priests—all called to mediate the reconciling love of God to the world. We are a kingdom of priests serving our God, working in this undercover operation to help God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. As John writes in Revelation, “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” And Amen.
C. 2015 The Rev. Amy Denney Zuniga