A Stolen Advent

Second Sunday of Advent, December 6, 2020

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief,

and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar

and the elements will be dissolved by fire,

and the earth and everything done on it will be found out. – Peter 3:10

The tracking numbers, the phone calls with the post office, emails with the seller. It did not seem possible, but it is official now. Someone has stolen our Advent. 

More precisely, someone stole the awesome, now sold-out Advent kit I ordered.  This kit was going to make our Advent…. So we could really immerse ourselves in the activities, prepare our children for the season when little else they expect is happening.  But instead, Advent was stolen.

Our long standing traditions are cancelled. My preparation for Christmas won’t involve gatherings with my closest friends and family members. There will be no lengthy meals or cross-country flights; no sitting on Santa’s lap or Nutcracker Ballet. I have not even entered a mall to purchase Christmas gifts. Instead I have bought most things online and ended up with fraud on my credit card too… My craft kit, my credit card, and many things I hold dear…. All of them stolen. 

I feel uneasy. If these things can so easily be stolen, if I can be taken advantage of like this, where else is my safety in jeopardy? In today’s  second reading, the false prophets instill doubt in the people. Maybe God isn’t even in control anymore? This is all no longer a part of salvation history.

But like a thief, God has snuck in where I least expected Him.  God has been stealing moments, forcing my eyes to see and my ears to hear. My eyes cannot ignore the long lines of cars backed up on city streets, awaiting the contactless distribution from the food pantry. My ears cannot forget the little boy on my son’s Zoom who casually mentions not having enough to eat. My heart aches for dear friends whose lives are crumbling like a house of cards right now. I feel the loneliness in being helpless. 

Like John the Baptist prepares the way for the Lord, the people around me are directing my attention towards what is still to come. A vaccine, a cure, peace. When tempted to despair, I am reminded  there is hope. 

My Advent was stolen, but not by porch pirates or cyber criminals. What I thought I needed for Advent was taken from me, and I’ve been invited by Jesus to something new. I was captured by the One who opens locked doors and barricaded hearts. 

What I’ve Been Looking For

And coming forward at that very time, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.  – Luke 2:38

For the past several years we have visited the San Jose “Christmas in the Park” with a close friend (our younger son’s godfather) on the day after Christmas. The 2-acre park in downtown San Jose is covered in animated figures and displays along with hundreds of trees decorated by community or school groups. The trees include handmade ornaments from Girl Scout Troops, tributes to recently deceased people, high school physics projects… you name it, someone has put it on a tree. We are always on the lookout for something truly unique, truly weird, and truly outrageous. This year, the winner was a dinosaur skeleton eating a donut with a nest full of Easter eggs. When I spotted it, I cried out “Dan! We have found the winner!” Each year we don’t know what we are looking for, but we know we will find it. 

In today’s readings, the prophetess Anna has spent years awaiting the Messiah. When Mary and Joseph arrive with the newborn child at the temple, she recognizes the truth before her. The redemption of Israel has come in ways that were unexpected, shocking, and even seemingly ridiculous.  From the very beginning of Jesus’ life, there were people who recognized Jesus for who He was… the salvation of Israel. We can assume that the prophetess was long deceased by the time of Jesus’ public ministry, and yet in her faith she glimpsed what was to come.

The gift of the Christ child makes for a charming Christmas pageant (that my own and so many other children participated in last week). Yet the readings today remind us that he has come to undertake a mission far more difficult, scandalous, and radical than being born to an unwed mother in unsavory conditions. I am tempted to try to understand the meaning of God’s plans, to rationalize the difficult things that have happened or to hold too fast to the gifts I have received out of fear of losing them.  Sometimes wrapping my mind and heart around God’s dreams (for me and others) feels like looking at a Christmas-Easter dinosaur skeleton eating sugary carbs. It makes no sense, it is ridiculous, but I know I can delight in it.

Do I sense God revealing himself to me in unexpected or surprising ways today?

Unashamed

“He was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame…” -Matthew 1:19

My sister recently received a Christmas card from a friend that included the line, “Most days I’m okay,” admitting how difficult the previous year had been for her. Moments of total honesty like this are rare amidst the typical glitter-covered, premium cardstock Christmas greetings filling the mailbox. There is a temptation to only report on the highlights of the previous year (and not the low points). In our annual family photos, we want our children perfectly posed and smiling sweetly. But the daily reality of our lives is messy, boogery, rambunctious chaos. Why sit demurely amidst the Christmas decorations when you could swim through the oversized ornaments with reckless abandon?  Around the family Christmas table (or the office holiday party punch bowl) we can feel pressured to put on a perfect face. To minimize the struggles we face. The fear of shame is greater than the desire for meaningful encounters. 

In today’s Gospel, Joseph tries to do the “right” thing that will save face and avoid scandal, while protecting Mary’s life and dignity. When the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph and confirms the deeper truths around Mary’s circumstances, the Lord is also calling Joseph to drag a scandalous situation into the light and claim it. To air the dirty laundry and take whatever grief may come in doing so.

The gift God has prepared for Joseph is beyond anything he could possibly imagine. Sometimes the righteous response means looking beyond the written law to the spirit, recognizing the deeper truth. Our Catholic tradition is filled with examples of saints, and other holy men and women, who protest unjust laws or practices. Those who face ridicule, arrest, and even martyrdom for standing with the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised. It’s earnestly attempting to connect with the family members with whom we normally have conflict. 

Sometimes wrestling fear is as futile as wrangling a toddler into fancy clothes for a picture. What if we stopped allowing that fear to control us? 

Are there aspects of myself (or my beliefs) that I’m fearful of allowing others to see? What might it look like to live from a place of greater freedom, and less shame?