In this time of war and rumors of war, of government intrusion into our lives on so many levels, it was good this week to pause and give thanks for our country, for our freedom of worship and speech.
I gave thanks. I considered those who fled religious persecution to forge a new nation under God, guaranteeing each of us life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The United States of America remains that nation as we struggle to protect life and ensure liberty so that we may indeed pursue happiness. I gave thanks that I was lucky enough to be born in America. I gave thanks that I am blessed to still be living, at the gentle age of sixty-four, and living in this exceptional nation.
I thought about liberty and its corollary, responsibility. And with responsibility, I thought, comes a standard by which we measure our lives, define our duties to God, family, community, country. With responsibility, comes self-examination. With self-examination, hopefully, comes penitence and repentance, a turning.
The “I’m okay you’re okay” culture will not support liberty. “That’s just me, just my thing, just the way I am” will not protect freedoms. We must, as individuals forming culture, return to an acknowledgement of guilt, make our confessions – if I may be so bold to use the unpopular word – of sin. Without this examination, we have little hope of ensuring life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
And so we enter Advent, that marvelous, mysterious, miraculous season of hope. A four-week preparation for the great intersection of the eternal into the finite, the immortal into the world of the mortal. The Incarnation. In the flesh. Christ-mas. We recall that two thousand years ago God took on flesh and walked among us.
We celebrate with rich symbols: an evergreen tree laden twinkling with lights and fantastical ornaments, candles aflame, gifts expressing our love for one another, holy-day foods and drinks that sweeten the tongue and warm the heart. We sing the stories of Christ’s coming so long ago so that we will not forget. To prepare for his coming we sing calling-hymns, in minor keys, “O come, o come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel….” The Messiah is coming… the one promised to the prophets! As we draw nearer to Christmas Day we tell the story in our pageants and Gospel lessons.
Keeping Advent prepares us for Christ’s coming to us again and again in the Eucharist and coming to us in our daily prayers. We prepare for his bodily Second Coming to earth, when a new world will be formed under his rule. How do we prepare our hearts? We clean them out to make room. We examine our lives and throw out the clutter.
We simplify. Not easy to do in our commercial culture of noise and bluster and busyness. But we try. We increase our daily prayer life; we go to church. We pause in the stillness to hear him speak to us.
Even in our secular culture the great story of the Incarnation rises from our common consciousness in symbols, rituals, and stories. Good Saint Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop of Smyrna, appears to us as Santa Claus. He drives a sled through the starry heavens full of gifts. He brings hope and cheer, and a sort of justice, a rustic memory of God the Father. His steadfast reappearance each year is, I think, for the most part a good thing. In Santa we honor laughter, love, and sharing, not to mention responsible behavior. Santa is making a list and checking it twice. He is keeping a moral scorecard. Examine and repent, Saint Nicholas reminds us through our children. Will we listen? Perhaps we are too grown-up to believe… too grown-up to bear freedom as it must be borne. Perhaps we are not grown-up enough.
Because I am so very thankful for our freedom, I take this holy season of Advent to examine my heart, to turn to the light and away from the dark, to prepare for the child born in Bethlehem, the child that will save my soul.
O come, o come, Emmanuele.