“A witness to the light … coming after me”– two phrases from the Gospel reading today I invite you to consider: “Being a witness to the light … coming after me.” In the context of the reading, these words refer to John the Baptist, the prophet crying in the wilderness who prepared the way for Jesus.
Of course, pretty much every year since that first Christmas Christians have celebrated Advent and Christmas. There’s something about Christmas that beckons to be repeated, that needs to be recognized again and again. We don’t just decide one year to suspend Christmas – even though 2020 would maybe qualify as one year to just forget it.
In one life we have only so many Advents and Christmases. Maybe especially because of COVID, this season calls us not to approach Christmas the usual way – with sentimentality or nostalgia. That approach might just make things worse.
Instead, maybe this year it is time to slice through the superficial and lay hold of what is real and true about God coming to us. Maybe this year we are called to approach Christmas as a rediscovery and rebirth.
The word, Advent, literally means ‘coming towards’. I suspect when we first hear that phrase, ‘coming towards’, we see it from our viewpoint. We must go towards God in our preparation and diligence during the Advent season. It starts with us – getting ready, cleaning house, decorating, making it happen. If we didn’t do any of these things, would Christmas still happen?
Flip the meaning of the word to go the other way, in the opposite direction. Advent is essentially not about us coming towards Jesus or God. It is about God coming towards us.
How does God come towards us, year after year at Christmas?
The speed of light is incomprehensible. Light travels at 300,000 kilometres per second! It takes just one second for light to travel from the moon to the earth, just eight minutes for light to travel from our sun to the earth.
Despite the incredible speed of light, the source – the starting point – first produced and sent its light long before we respond to it. Long before we can marvel at it. Long before we can choose to do anything about it – good or bad – it’s already been travelling towards us.
The important questions during Advent are not: What must I do to come towards Jesus? How do I find Jesus? These questions betray a way of thinking that suggests it’s up to me or us to generate the release of God’s love, a way of thinking that suggests we can never be good enough. That we don’t have what it takes. And never will. We are perpetually stuck.
Rather, as Henri Nouwen suggests, the better questions are: What am I doing that prevents me from recognizing this gift, a gift that has already been given to me, a gift that has been coming towards me year after year – long before I was even aware it was being granted to me? How am I blocking the light? How do I hinder myself and others from receiving it?
The COVID pandemic of 2020 has exposed our resistance to this gift. It has exposed our self-absorption. By remaining stuck in ways of thinking that keep us fixated on beliefs that are not true. You are worthy, beloved, child of God! You have what it takes! Don’t let the voices in your head and in the world tell you otherwise!
Exposing such lies has ironically made many of us uncomfortable, edgy, unravelled. The social restrictions that have, to varying degrees, forced us to limit our urges and compulsions. We’ve needed to bring focus to what we are really all about – forced us to look in the mirror. And we are faced with whether or not to accept the truth that has always been there but for whatever reason we’ve put off. It would be easier to get back to normal so we may continue distracting ourselves.
As Bishop Michael Pryse writes, “One should never waste a good crisis!”Don’t forget what you are learning about yourself and about our community during this desert experience. Because herein lies the key to a deeper receptivity of God’s coming to you and to me, and to us, as a church. Here is the opportunity to make the necessary and healthy changes, letting go of habits of thought and behaviour and traditions that keep us stuck and fixated.
Because what is coming at us this Advent, at the speed of light, is therefore already here. What does preparing for it mean, except realising the eternalbirth of the Word, the Son of God, within the historical birth in Bethlehem and, crucially, no less in our ourselves, and at this time. What is coming towards us is here already.We need the ritual repetition of Advent and Christmas, year after year, to accept this truth over the course of a lifetime. We have every opportunity to slowly but surely melt our cold hearts and bask in the eternal, self-giving light and love of God.
In other words, we are not alone. Never were. Never will be. No matter how much darkness surrounds us in the foreground. The light of Christ lives and shines within and through you! The dawn comes again just over the horizon. This is good news, full of hope.
So, we can risk it. We can do the right thing. Because God giving us love and light does not hinge, does not depend, on whether we get it right or wrong. We have nothing to lose.
The two largest planets in the solar system, Saturn and Jupiter, have been aligning since this past summer. And on December 21st, the winter solstice, those two giants in our solar system will be the closest they’ve been together since the Middle Ages, hundreds of years ago. When they do so, they will form what looks, from our perspective, like a double planet. This celestial event has been dubbed the “Christmas star.”
The universe, God’s creation, is communicating hope for us. Hope, that recognizes our need for a little more light. How about a lot more light in the darkness that seems especially heavy this year. The conjunction of planets provides a convergence that we cannot miss:
The light of the world is trying again to get our attention, ye people of faith!
John 1:7,27 – from the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B (Revised Common Lectionary)
Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth; Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), p.250.
Henri Nouwen, “The Heart of God” in The Return of the Prodigal Son (Toronto: Image Random House, 1994), p.105ff.
Bishop Michael Pryse, “Return to different” in Canada Lutheran Volume 35 Number 7 (Winnipeg, ELCIC, Oct-Nov 2020), p.30.
Laurence Freeman OSB, “First Week of Advent 2020”, https://laurencefreeman.me/2020/11/29/first-week-of-advent-2020/