Sunday, November 27, 2011

We need a little Christmas right this very minute

Haul out the holly/ Put up the tree before my spirit falls again/ Fill up the stockings/ I may be rushing things but deck the halls again now!/ For we need a little Christmas/ Right this very minute/ Candles in the windows/ Carols at the spinet/ Yes we need a little Christmas/ right this very minute/ It hasn't snowed a single flurry,/ but Santa, dear, we're in a hurry.
I love how that song captures the spirit of these times. So incredibly manic. So driven. So frantically in pursuit of – of something. Because there's a great un-ease in the world today. The tension is building, building, building. And something's got to give.
The song is a frantic call for Christmas celebrations to begin, and to begin right away. Things are wrong, but perhaps celebrating Christmas will make them right. And how do we celebrate Christmas? Holly, stockings, trees, carols, candles. By themselves, these empty outward signs are unlikely to resolve any of what is wrong with the world. But a prompt celebration of the underlying reality of Christmas may indeed heal what ails us.
The spirit of the times seems to harbor a deep sense that there's something profoundly wrong with the world. Things are fundamentally not as they should be. These are unsettled times. Like in a work of music, the dissonance is building. And the more the dissonance builds, the more it seeks resolution. And so, in these uneasy times, we arrive at the First Sunday of Advent.
The holly has indeed been hauled out, and the trees put up. To the extent that they aren't made of plastic, they're already starting to wilt, since Christmas decorations have been up for a month already in many public places. But the malaise that they so desperately seek to mend continues unabated. We're celebrating with greater and greater energy in the hope that it can bury what's wrong. Because what's wrong is very very wrong.
The economy, that amazingly complex, interconnected system that organizes our production and consumption, is profoundly out of balance. On the one hand, we're making more stuff, on a per capita basis, than has ever been made in human history. But all is not well. We're going on almost three years now where the national unemployment rate is above 8%. For the state of Michigan, it's been above 10% for that entire same time period. We're producing more wealth than ever, and yet poverty rates are climbing, and so many people who want to work can't find any job at all, let alone one that uses their skills and pays a living wage. We frantically make more and more, yet the human condition still languishes.
And to produce and haul all this stuff, the world’s factories are emitting exponentially higher levels of greenhouse gasses each year. The number of deadly heat waves, blizzards, floods, tornados, and other natural disasters is rising. We, here in Michigan, have been spared so much of the brunt of it, thus far. But in the world and even around this country, the severity of these "Acts of God" is on the rise. Can any particular one of these events be definitively attributed to global climate change? No. But disruption to climate patterns linked to greenhouse gasses make them all more likely.
The human world and the natural world are on edge. And people have noticed.
Harold Camping had been broadcasting his take on the Gospel on the radio since 1958. Some people have tuned in, to be sure, and most of the country mostly tuned out and ignored him. But this year, he predicted that the end of the world was at hand. Specifically, May 21, 2011. And then, what attention the world paid to him. People quite content to ignore him for fifty three years suddenly started paying a great deal of attention. Yes, there was plenty of mocking. Yes, to some extent people tuned in because they thought what he said was absurd. But I believe he wouldn't have received the coverage he did if he hadn't struck a nerve. In these uneasy times, people were ready to hear something about a Big Change Coming.
The Mayan civilization in Central America seems to have collapsed around the year 900 of the common era. We seem fairly content to ignore the Maya most of the time. And yet, their calendar system enters a new "long count" a little over a year from now. And suddenly, people are paying attention to the Maya. Does the completion of one of their "long counts" mark the end of an era? Will the world be fundamentally changed at this point? Not that we pay attention to anything else they said, but there's this hunger, this receptiveness to something that will cause a fundamental change in the world, an end to the world as we know it.
Things are amiss. This must be the time that things change.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
William Butler Yeats wrote that back in 1919. You see, this isn't the first time the world has been in a state where we've believed that things fall apart.
In Europe in the wake of the first World War, as the dead were mourned and the damage surveyed and the surviving crops gathered in the hopes that the food would last through the winter, amidst political turmoil and hunger and the hope that it might have been the war to end all wars, Yeats used these end-times images to talk of some sort of Second Coming, some sort of change from this age to a new one. He continued:
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity./ Surely some revelation is at hand;/ Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The people of the time of the third part of Isaiah knew that things were not right. Cyrus the Great had liberated the Jews from captivity in Babylon. They had returned to The Land. But they were in a time of profound identity crisis about how they were to live, and how they were to follow God in this new era. Before the Babylonians came, they had a divinely appointed King to enforce God's law in the land God gave them. Now, they were back in the land, but without their own king, and subject to the law of the Persians. Their former understanding of how the world worked no longer held, but neither had they settled into a new one.
The prophet lamented how his people had turned away from following the Law and from worshiping the Lord. As his society went through the moral decay associated with having no social code of religion or ethics in place, Isaiah sounded the common theme: "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down". God, things are messed up here. Come into the world and make it right. They prayer of Isaiah is for the arrival of a Messianic Age.
The inhabitants of Palestine at the time of Mark's gospel knew that things were not right. Roman rule was growing more and more oppressive. Revolution was in the air. The grand bargain between the temple elites and the Romans was starting to break down. The people of Mark's time knew that the present situation was unstable. And so, when they heard Mark's Gospel talk of the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory, this was a tale of hope. God would shake things up. The unstable, oppressive era would end, and God would make things right. As Mark's Jesus said, "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates."
This was welcome news. The end of an awful era was at hand. The fig branch was tender. Things were about to change.
In Mark's account, Jesus said "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place."
And yet.
The historical record indicates that things changed, all right, but the change was hardly the dawning Messianic era in which all was made right. Shortly after the Gospel of Mark was written, tensions came to a head. The Jews revolted against the Romans, and the Roman army utterly crushed the rebellion. Jerusalem was sacked. The temple was destroyed. The inhabitants of the land were scattered.
Despite any expectation raised by today's Gospel, the full reality of the kingdom of God, the fullness of the Messianic era, the time when God tears open the heavens, comes down to earth and makes everything right -- that long-awaited time did not come before the generation that first heard Mark's gospel passed away. Harold Camping is hardly alone in unsuccessfully predicting the arrival of the final end times.
But in a very real sense, the end of the present era is indeed near. The kingdom of God is at hand. Perhaps the transition isn't as dramatic as we might want, but that doesn't make it less real.
So if there isn't going to be some dramatic flurry of fire and brimstone to make everything right, what will fix it? Maybe the remedy to our society's ills is that we do need a little Christmas right this very minute. Maybe this early appearance of Christmas isn’t untimely, but necessary – it’s just that we're looking for the wrong things in the wrong places.
If fire and brimstone ending the age isn't the way to escape what's wrong with the world, neither is drowning our sorrows in plastic holly and mounds of presents. We need a little Christmas right this very minute. We need to celebrate Emanuel: God with us. We need to celebrate that the divine took human form and dwelt among us, and empowered us to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world. Christmas is a celebration of the arrival of the kingdom of God, the birth of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Today more than ever, we need to celebrate the presence of the kingdom of God.
When we pray "Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven," we are describing the reign of God. The kingdom of God arrives when we on earth do God's will as do those in heaven. To the extent that we live the Gospel, that we persist in doing what is right, that we proclaim the strength of the weakness of Christ crucified, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoners. To the extent that we go and make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and empowering them to likewise go and serve those in need -- to the extent that we do this, we are a living proclamation of good tidings of great joy for all people: that unto you this day is born a savior, which is the Messiah, the Lord. That this world moves toward taking the shape of the heavenly kingdom. We need a little Christmas, right this very minute. Not presents and bows, not carols and plastic greenery, but celebrating the appearances of Christ in the world.
Christ arrives when we, the Church, the body of Christ in the world, can respond to our call to be Christ to all in need. But how do we know when the time comes to be Christ serving a hurting world? How do we know when the moment is ripe for Christ to be more present? The opportunities present themselves at all sorts of unknown moments, like a thief in the night. Jesus' answer in the Gospel of how we can find them is this: “what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!”