The following is a Christmas confession, not a sermon. It is a personal reflection on my experience through Advent and Christmas this year. The three pieces of scripture are a compilation from the Anabaptist Prayer Book Take Our Moments and Our Days Vol. 2, Advent through Pentecost. Following them are my reflections.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert.
John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to the Lord to ask,” Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them. But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.
The season of Advent and Christmas is upon us. There seem to be two stereotypical extremes of advent personalities: those caught up in the excitement of our habitual preparations and those who somehow can’t quite seem to get into the so called “spirit of Christmas,” the scrooges. Most of us, I suspect, find ourselves somewhere in between – I certainly do.
The differences and similarities between how the world celebrates Christmas and how the church does always strike me. At the risk of sounding too sentimental, I confess that each year I have a hard time negotiating what this advent and Christmas business is really all about. This time around it’s not about the children’s Christmas play, naïve and precious, and it’s not about the large table of socks, toques, and mittens that we’ll bring to Siloam Mission, too often a pseudo-charitable expression of our faith, and this time it’s not about the scandal of the virgin birth. This year, I’ve experienced something else, something more horrible, perhaps, than ever before, but also, I think, more honest (at least to myself). It is my Christmas confession, and it’s not something I’m about to apologize for. Are you ready? Brace yourselves…I’m offended by Christmas. It’s true – I’m offended, by the orgy of material consumption which distracts us from what we are actually preparing for, by the increase in monetary donations – what I earlier called pseudo-charitable expressions of our faith, and I am offended by the birth of Christ. Perhaps, in this sense, I ought to identify most with Herod in the Christmas story.
But how can I possibly be offended at the Good News that the angels bring to poor shepherds? And the unconditional love, joy, peace, and hope that we receive with Christ’s birth? Actually, that’s exactly why I am offended. Let me try and describe to you how this offense has emerged.
I spent most of November reading Doestoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov – a deep and wide and turbulent book with existential themes running throughout. One of the brothers, Ivan, a noble intellectual, struggles with the question of faith in God and the problem of suffering in the world from the very beginning to the very end of the book. In one of the most powerful speeches in literature on the offense of theodicy – of the moral defensibility of God despite the existence of evil – Ivan expresses his deep anguish over the injustice and innocent suffering in the world. Especially stark, for him, is the picture of an innocent child beat and tortured by her parents and then locked up in an outhouse all night and forced to eat her excrement. Ivan asks his brother Alyosha (a novice monk) “can you understand why this nonsense is needed and created? Without it, they say, man could not even have lived on earth, for he would not have known good and evil. Who wants to know this damned good and evil at such a price? The world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to ‘dear God.’” It is the problem of suffering that is at the core of Ivan’s doubt in the moral defensibility of God. If God allows for innocent suffering and the forgiveness of wickedness with the Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ, then belief, never mind faith, in God is far too offensive for Ivan. He further exclaims:
“I do want to forgive, and I want to embrace, I don’t want more suffering. […But] I do not, finally, want the mother to embrace the tormenter who let his dogs tear her son to pieces! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she wants to, let her forgive the tormentor her immeasurable maternal suffering; but she has no right to forgive the suffering of her child who was torn to pieces, she dare not forgive the tormentor, even if the child himself were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, then where is the harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who could and would have the right to forgive? I don’t want harmony, for love of mankind I don’t want it. I want to remain with unrequited suffering. I’d rather remain with my unrequited suffering and my unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong. Besides, they have put too high a price on harmony; we can’t afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket. And it is my duty, if only as an honest man, to return it as far ahead of time as possible. Which is what I am doing. It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.”
What does this have to do with the birth of Christ? With the time of Advent, of preparation for the Messiah who brings us “good news of great joy that will be for all the people? At the heart of Ivan’s incapacity for faith in God is his deep offense at the grace of God. The preparation during Advent for the coming of God incarnate is an operative anticipation of the inauguration of a new way of living in the world – of the body of Christ, the church, transfigured here and now. My question this Christmas is, do we actually realize what we’re beckoning when we sing O come, o come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, the mourns in lonely exile here, until the son of God appear / O come, thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh. To us the path of knowledge show, and cause us in thy ways to go. The Kingdom of God names a radically different way of living in the here and now, formed and informed by the wisdom of the cross which includes love of enemies, praying for those who hurt us, serving those who make ours lives difficult and unbearable, inviting the strangers in our lives into our homes for dinner. Grace and forgiveness are offensive. Urging a mother to forgive her daughter’s murderer is offensive. Advising a brother to let go of the injustice he’s suffered in his broken family, and to prepare a meal for those who have abused him, is offensive. Encouraging the poor to be more merciful is offensive (see Kierkegaard). The Christ event is offensive because it is counterintuitive to our ideas of justice, peace, good news. The Christ event inaugurates a new way of living that breaks the sovereignty of justified violence, corruption, and deceit, but also the seemingly neutral parts of life, the-way-things-are, or what-we-are-used-to. The birth of Christ marks a breaking in of God into our daily living (which isn’t to say that God wasn’t working in our lives before).
In the story of Peter and John above, we find two apostles encounter one face of suffering in the world. How do they respond? Not by tossing the crippled beggar some coins, to make themselves feel better, not an act of pseudo-charitable giving, as we see and participate in all too often during this time of the year…because it is Christmas, after all. It is crucial to remember that these are post-ascension disciples, and it is the event of the infusion of the Holy Spirit into the lives of those who choose to follow Jesus that characterizes their response. The beggar, once a cripple, receives healing from the apostles, healing by the power of the Holy Spirit. And the apostles, offer this healing in faith of its potency. This is only the beginning of the transformation of the world into a new creation. This is only a glimpse of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. I am reminded of a quote by Rowan Williams: “The power that counts for the [disciples] is a power that bestows life, not a power that simply commands. God’s will can be done, and the [disciple] can maintain loyalty to Jesus under the most appalling threats, because something has been imparted … a new depth of truthful living, a new and deeper centre to the self relocated in the life of Jesus, or standing in the place where Jesus stands.”
How often do we eagerly approach the manger with all the joy, hope, and peace the sweet newborn baby brings us? and then hasten to return our ticket when we find ourselves at the foot of the cross – faced with suffering, and the many options of response we can choose from? What were we preparing for during Advent? A quaint nativity scene for the birth of our Lord, or were we preparing ourselves, to do that which the Lord requires of us, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with Emmanuel, God with us? who invites us to come and follow him, to take up our crosses and follow him? Have we calculated the cost of discipleship?
The word Advent, from the Greek word parousia, signals the coming of the Messiah. Advent is a time of preparation, but I would suggest that it is a time of preparing ourselves for the task of discipleship, of preparing ourselves to be formed by God according to God’s will in the continuous work of transforming us into a new creation on earth as it is in heaven. In a world in which we are told we are in control, to not only accept the gracious gift of new life in Christ, but to have faith in it, to put our hope and joy in the possibility of world -reconciliation despite of, even in spite of the immense suffering in the world, the brokenness in our lives – this, is offensive…but it is also the good news of great joy. And although we are continuously offended by Christ breaking into the world, into our lives, in unexpected ways, that derail us from our ideas of justice, peace, and harmony, the struggle of Advent – parousia – will continuously be not to return our tickets.
Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.””
 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1990), 242.
 Ibid, 245.
 Rowan Williams, Christ On Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 90-100. Emphasis mine.