But, wonderful as it was in a lot of ways, my event also illustrates a deep and troubling confusion in our culture around this season.
At least three different things were going on, all at the same time. We did some Advent stuff. We celebrated a religious Christmas. And we celebrated a secular Christmas.
Now the idea of a secular Christmas might sound strange at first. But several of the carols we sang at my event had no meaningful Christian content. I think, for example, about “Jingle Bells.” We sing it at Christmas time, but it does not mention Jesus. It is really a secular song.
Much of what we do in the name of Christmas is more secular than Christian. This is the Christmas of shopping malls. Santa Claus is the great “saint” of our secular Christmas. And, as best I can tell, this is overwhelmingly the dominant form of Christmas celebration in our culture today.
I mostly enjoy the secular Christmas. But every year I worry that all the secular Christmas festivities distract us from the true meaning of Christmas. That was a danger even at my gathering last week, which was a Christian event in a Christian Church.
At my event we also celebrated a Christian Christmas. We sang explicitly Christian carols, carols like “Silent Night.” As a priest, I prefer those carols because they point us to the holy child and the good news of Jesus Christ, who is the reason for the season.
But even those carols did not satisfy me last week. It was too early for Christmas. I was not ready for Christmas then. I am not ready for Christmas now. Not many of us are.
Here is an analogy. Let’s say that the President of the United States decides to celebrate Christmas Eve with an ordinary American citizen. Out of the blue, today, he chooses you. How would you get ready?
I would make sure my house was clean. I would spend a good bit of time planning the menu. I might buy new clothes. I would probably read the newspaper more carefully so I would have something to talk about. In addition to all the external preparations, I would brace myself for something exciting and a little scary.
If the President were coming to my house, his visit would be the main thing I thought about, no matter what else was going on in my life. Getting ready to host the President is NOT something I would just fit in as best I could.
But that is what most of us do at Christmastime when our visitor is God, who is a MUCH bigger deal than the President of the United States. We jump straight from Thanksgiving to Christmas as if meeting God in a special way took no spiritual preparation.
The Church’s recommended antidote to that attitude is Advent. Advent is all about getting ready to meet God. That is why we are not singing Christmas carols during worship. We are not ready, not yet.
Where we are heading is the good news of great joy, the peace that passes understanding. But we have work to do first.
Christian peace comes from resting in the presence of God, as God’s beloved child, renewed, restored, and forgiven.
And that peace begins in an apparently disturbing way. That peace begins with an acknowledgement that we do not always live as renewed, restored, and beloved children of God. That peace begins with the acknowledgement that all is not well in our lives. That peace begins with the acknowledgement of our need for forgiveness.
We know we need forgiveness. We know that we do not live lives of perfect love. We know that we do not love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. We know that we do not love our neighbors as ourselves. We know that, all too often, we do not even love ourselves as beloved children of God.
We know all that.
The season of Advent invites us to acknowledge to ourselves what we know to be true and to do something about it. In short, the season of Advent invites us to repent.
Not everyone recognizes the invitation to repent as the gift that it is. But to the degree that Advent enables us to be honest with ourselves and with each other, to stop pretending that all is well when it is not, to confess to God that we do not have the full intimacy with God that we crave, to that degree, Advent is an incredible gift.
In a few minutes, we will confess our sins. We will begin with a few seconds of silence, during which I invite you to reflect on your life and your relationship with God. When we recite the words of the confession, really think about them.
Do the same at home over the next two weeks. Take a few minutes each day to review your day. Think particularly about the moments when God seemed most present, but also about those moments when you did not love God or neighbor or self as we are called to do. Ask God to forgive you. Ask God to help you do better.
As we approach Christmas, most of us need to spend more time with John the Baptizer and his message of repentance.
But there is an important sequel to John’s message of repentance. Repentance is important. But repentance is not an end in itself. Repentance is a means to an end.
After repentance comes the good news of God’s forgiveness. We repent, not so that we can wallow in our sinfulness, but rather so that we can let our sin go, so that we can forgive ourselves, so we can know the peace that comes with being forgiven.
That move from repentance to being forgiven is harder than it sounds. In our Advent devotional for yesterday, Henri Nouwen said the following:
The central message of the gospel is that God sent his beloved Son to forgive our sins and make us new people, able to live in this world without being paralyzed by self-rejection, remorse, and guilt. To accept that message in faith and truly believe that we are forgiven is probably one of the most challenging spiritual battles we have to face. Somehow we cannot let go of our self-rejections. Somehow we cling to our guilt. . . .”
The Advent invitation is to repent, and then to let go of our guilt, to bask in the forgiveness and love of God. The Advent invitation is to repent because that is the first step towards knowing the peace which passes understanding. That is why the second Sunday of Advent always combines a reading about John’s message of repentance with the theme of peace.
And so, on this second Sunday of Advent, I give thanks to God for the gift of the season of Advent. I thank God for inviting us to repent and to prepare. I give thanks to God whose forgiveness makes Christian peace possible. And I pray that we may use this season wisely so that we can know the peace that comes from intimacy with God.
In the name of the one who is to come. Amen.