A Touch Of Foreboding
All around town the Christmas lights will now appear and shop windows be re-dressed with snow and tinsel. I wish the stores would wait, but that's not likely. Christmas means so much to so many people that no one wants to wait. At the very least, Christmas is a time when those things which are lovely and good are celebrated; when the stringencies of life are relaxed and we come as close as human beings do to saying to one another those things which really matter. It's a good time, and I'm no Scrooge, so I have no intention of arching an eyebrow against "Jingle Bells" and chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
It's not less of Christmas which I desire, but more of it. I remember when I was young how I used to devour books--just eat them up the way I'd eat a chocolate bar. I never doubted that I understood these books; the idea of savoring them never crossed my mind. Then, years later, I'd come across a reference to a book I'd devoured when I was young, a reference indicating that the book was a classic account of this or that, and I'd discover that though I'd read the book, I hadn't really touched its deeper meanings.
And now I find that when I was young I did the same with Christmas. Christmas tasted good and I devoured it; the smell of the Christmas tree, dinner in the oven, fire in the fireplace, the gifts I knew were coming and the never disappointed expectation of at least one surprise. The family was gathered and God was with us, come as a gift and harmless as a child in a manger, love in all innocence. It was the best day in the whole year. What else was there to understand? I knew Christmas well.
There were clues to the possibility that there might be more to Christmas, but I ignored them. Floating at the edges of a child's Christmas is the tradition that Santa Claus knows who is naughty and nice and will leave a lump of coal instead of candy for those who don't behave. "You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why…" But who paid any attention? There was always candy. Never knew a kid who received coal in his or her stocking.
But about the same time that I began to discover that I hadn't understood the full meaning of the books I'd devoured, I began to discover that there was more to Christmas than I'd thought.
It became clear, for example, that while I enjoyed receiving well-chose gifts, I myself was a shopper who invested no tie at all in the process. Even quite recently, I bought flashlights for everyone, a dozen big, fancy flashlights. It didn't matter whether people needed or wanted them, or could afford to replace the size batteries. Another year I bought all of my colleagues staplers, an act of sheer desperation.
I didn't get away with this. People were very nice about the flashlights, pushed all the buttons and said they'd never seen anything like it, but I knew I'd failed, and that was a cost to Christmas which wasn't money. It was the cost of thoughtfulness and time. I knew that I had not paid the cost.
And then, over a period of years, I learned that there is always a touch of foreboding at the edges of even our secular Christmas. In the late, night hours, when the lights are out and conversation has ceased between husband and wife, there are times of foreboding. Will the children be disappointed? Will all the gifts arrive on time, and should they perhaps have gone home as the grandparents wanted? Can they really afford what they have already spent? "Dear God , let there be no fire, no accident, no argument to spoil the day."
I remember that when I was eight or nine, late on a Christmas Eve when fog shrouded our city street, a delivery man with an armload of packages was struck and killed by a car. And the next day, Christmas Day, my mother cried--for the man, for his family, for the driver--but for us as well, that fog should take joy from our street light and stars and a shroud come close to our tree.
This note of foreboding, the inward sense of coming misfortune which is part of our secular Christmas, is even more pronounced in the Christmas that has to do with God. Our secular Christmas has its origin and fullest meaning, not in our behavior toward one another, in what we give to one another, but in God's behavior toward us, in the gift which God gives. And our foreboding is not just that we have bought flashlights for everyone, or in fear of a Christmas Day argument, but our foreboding is rooted in the sense that we are unworthy to receive the gift of God. Foreboding is rooted in the intuition that we live in a moral universe, a moral order which as a human family we have violated, and that the Christmas gift of God will contain a judgment upon us, a piece of coal for our stocking.
It's this note of foreboding which we hear in the scripture lesson read on this first Sunday in Advent. Jesus said, "There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the wrath distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, grown people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken."
What's going on here? This is the biblical way of saying one of two things. Either terrible things are going to happen because of the behavior of the human family, or awesome things are going to happen which will usher in a new age. Whichever it is, and there is something of both in today's passage, these ancient images express a human intuition that there is a moral order which they called, and so do we, the will of God; that some terrible act of retribution is bound to accompany the coming of God. We sense that justice requires it.
Even if Jesus is talking about the coming of a new age, he and the biblical writers must announce a kind of climactic clearing of the way, the wiping out of old patterns by which human beings have its beginning. "Naughty and nice" in the world prisoners, and the cocaining of a nation.
There are, of course, people who say that if the Church would stop talking about sin, we wouldn't experience so much foreboding, and that's nonsense. This past summer when the thermometer passed 90 degrees week after week, when the grass dried and cropland turned to dust, many of us, whatever our religion, sensed that the source of this infernal heat could be traced to human abuse of the atmosphere, The Church was largely silent; nevertheless, we experienced foreboding because we sensed that creation itself draws a line beyond which the atmosphere which sustains us can be abused no longer. We had crossed that line. Foreboding was a part of our summer.
The soldiers who have won a great victory and advance among the tanks which they have destroyed, among the enemy soldiers who they have killed and maimed, the homes which they have leveled--the victorious soldiers are seldom shouting. The victors in war are themselves judges by an ancient and intuited prohibition against the taking of human life. Whatever the provocation, the necessities, however evil the enemy, the victor knows that a great evil has occurred about which most rarely speak. But the victors and not just the vanquished live with a sense of foreboding.
In this Fall's political campaign, there was a great deal of emphasis upon the family. Why were all these children being trotted out by the candidates? It was because deep in its collective soul the American people have a sense of foreboding about the crumbling of the family, the sense that our insistence upon our personal liberty, our right to be unencumbered, has grievously wounded the family, and that a wounded family is a mortal illness in any society. There is a deep sadness among us, a grief born of knowing that millions of children are reared on the meager finances of a single parent and shuttled between separated fathers and mothers. It's no accident that the candidates paraded their stable family life. They were assuring us that, as our new leader, each--would be able to save us from these troubled waters.
These forebodings are part of Christmas, and always have been. Like the books which we read as youngsters, Christmas has levels of meaning which have escaped us. In some of the earliest Christian paintings, for example, the Christ-child is wearing a crown of thorns, as though to say, "The world will destroy this gift of God," One of the earliest prayers used on this Sunday in Advent begins, "Stir up your power, O Lord, and come; that by thy protection we may be rescued from the threatening peril of our sins, and be saved by thy mighty deliverance."
Now Advent is an honest season. There is an honest season. There are those who prefer their Christmas simple, and prefer it white. I'm sympathetic. Buy a dozen flashlights. I'm sure grandma always wanted a flashlight which blinks yellow or red, shines forward and backward, and is too heavy to lift.
But thoughtful men and women know that Christmas is much more--considerably profound, and in some ways more satisfying. In, with, and under the joys of our secular Christmas, the warmth, the music and generosity, Christmas is ultimately about an act of God by which we are rescued from the threatening perils of our sins. It is about the God who comes in mercy, comes to chasten and to comfort, to renew what has decayed and become ruinous, the God who comes in mercy to judge and to heal. Therefore, there is always a touch of foreboding as well as the sound of joy in our Christmas. Advent is honest, but it's a season celebrated with hope, too. It's not just a time for observing the signs in sun and moon and stars, the distress of nations, and grown people fainting. As the text for today says, in the face of what we intuit is a judgment upon us, we are asked to "look up, raise our heads, and know that our redemption is drawing near."
I don't want less of Christmas, but more of it. Too old to devour candy bars and too experienced to believe that I fully understand a book, I now desire Christmas in its fullness-both Advent which names my foreboding and the Christmas which declares compassion of God, the hope of a new beginning for me and all people. If it's a white Christmas and the family comes, so much the better, but as more than a child longing for the honesty and hope of Advent, the context within which faith celebrates Christmas with wonder and joy.
John Vanrondall Protestant Hour--Lutheran Series