December 1, 2019
Thursday morning, I was walking to my gate at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. Okay I’ll stop there: yes, I was in Vegas on Thanksgiving. I’m a priest, but that doesn’t me without sin. If you’re judging me, I get it—but maybe wait until you hear more of this sermon. I could only make last-minute plans, and it turned out, strangely, to be a convenient place for my family to meet.
Anyway, as I was walking to my gate to fly home to New York on Thanksgiving morning, three very nice seeming airport employees walked out in front of me and blocked my way. They kind of held up their hands to stop us, and they seemed tentative and they did it with a smile. Then I saw why: right behind them was another employee pushing a huge container of…yes, Christmas decorations. Soon, there was a small crowd of passengers gathered who, like me, stood to wait as this Christmas convoy crossed our path.
I cannot think of a more evocative metaphor for the experience of the holidays in contemporary American culture. Christmas stops you in your path. There is no way to avoid it, and it will determine the rhythm of your life. But by “Christmas,” I really mean the period of time that begins on Thanksgiving and ends the afternoon of December 25. “Christmas” is a public liturgical season. Liturgy is the type of rite and ritual that we do in church, but when you think about it, we have lots of rites and rituals in the secular year as well. “Christmas” is one of those. It is announced through decorations and advertisements. It is experienced by some as a time of shopping and annual gatherings. This all happens in plain view.
Behind closed doors, however, this version of “Christmas” is a difficult one for many people. It is a time of grief and sadness at the loss of loved ones or relationships. It is a time when the image of a perfect holiday reflects back to us the disappointments in our own lives. It is a time when sensitive people can suffer the negative effects of the mania going on around us and will last for almost an entire month.
It may seem strange to hear this in a church, but I hardly know anyone for whom “Christmas” is pure joy. Well, maybe if you’re under the age of 6—but even that should tell you something. This version of “Christmas” is for kids, a child-like fantasy, one in which we all participate, children and adults alike. It has the depth of a schoolyard game. No wonder so many people are disappointed by it.
But actually, all this shouldn’t be a strange thing to hear in a church. Because let me be very clear: this version of “Christmas” I have just described has absolutely nothing at all to do with Christianity, the Bible, or the same Jesus Christ whose birth the holiday is meant to celebrate. Christmas doesn’t stop you in your path. Rather, Christmas opens the way for you to encounter God in Jesus Christ. Let me explain.
In today’s Gospel passage from Matthew, Jesus tells us that we will not know when he will come again. Noah couldn’t predict the flood. Two are in the field and one is taken away. Two women are working and one disappears. The difference between the two is that one is awake, but the other is asleep, figuratively. The sleeping house owner is unaware of the thief, but the one who stays awake can catch him. That’s why we all have to be alert and stay ready, according to Jesus.
Why is it so important to be awake? Why must we be ready at all times? Because God is everywhere. God created us. God gives and takes as God sees fit. God does not work on human timetables. Just when you think you have everything figured out, God has a way of breaking through your plans and presenting a different reality. Part of Christian faith is believing that whatever God has to offer us is better than what we ourselves can conceive. God does not put stumbling blocks in our way. Instead, God never gives up on us and constantly draws us nearer. If anything, God removes the comforts and conceits we place between us and God. And all this is to our own benefit, because that which keeps us asleep makes us unaware of God’s presence right here and right now in our lives.
We may think we are being powerful as we build our own lives—and of course we have little choice but to live under the assumption that tomorrow is going to happen, that tomorrow matters. So much of life is spent planning for the future. We study in order to get a degree. We commit to a partner and have children with an eye to the future. If we are lucky, we get to plan for a retirement. But no matter how much effort you put into these things, no matter how carefully you plan, there is no way around the fact that the only day you can be sure of is this one. And even that’s a stretch. When our plans for tomorrow become our lives, we idolatrize the future and discard the present, and that is not working on God’s time.
So sure, store up your grain for tomorrow. But remember: Jesus teaches us to pray for our daily bread each day. The lesson is simple: if you plan only for the future, then you become ignorant of the reality of the present, which is the gift from God.
True Christmas—Christian Christmas—is the celebration of God breaking through into our lives. Bidden or unbidden, God will come. The Christ child does not arrive on schedule or according to anyone’s plan. And his appearance among us certainly throws a lot of people off course. The birth of Jesus is the incarnation of God in the world. God comes directly into our lives. But only those who have been awake can witness it. Those who are asleep will miss it.
Do you see how different this true Christmas is from the so-called “Christmas” of our society? Do you see how God making a path directly into your life today is so different from a train of ornaments blocking your way to your destination? They couldn’t be more different. One beckons to a life of awareness, to be alive and awake to reality. The other stops you in your progress and puts you to sleep to dream of childish fantasies.
So how do we stay awake? How do we forsake the culture of “Christmas” and turn to God anew? The task seems urgent, and maybe you need some time to get ready. Well, then you’re in the right place. Because this is not a Christmas sermon. It is an Advent sermon. And in Advent, we have a whole season to prepare. It may be Christmas in the outside world. But in here, today begins the season of Advent—24 whole days to get ready, to practice being awake, and to resist the temptation to slumber. It’s an entire month dedicated to practicing being awake.
In so many ways, Advent is the total opposite of cultural “Christmas.”
“Christmas” is loud and boisterous. Advent bids silent contemplation.
“Christmas” is busy and distracted. Advent bids focus.
“Christmas” is a time to buy. Advent bids restraint.
“Christmas” is for kids. Advent is for the spiritually mature.
Most of all, “Christmas” is just an image—a picture of something perfect that never really exists to begin with. People bend over backwards to try to make their holiday look like something that someone else dreamed up for them. But Advent is about reality—the reality of God in your life today. All you have to do to see this miracle is to stay awake.
May God bless you in this holy season of preparation. May you take time each and every day between now and December 25 to take note of how God is in your life. And may each of these encounters quicken your pulse with expectation for the coming of Christ, which is the true Christmas.