12/04/2012 11:07 am ET Updated Feb 03, 2013

Advent: Asking for a Sign

Some years ago, during Advent, I overheard a mother saying to another in the supermarket line: "It's a shame. These people dragging religion into Christmas and spoiling it for the children!" And it's understandable! The themes of Advent are in sharp contrast to the bustle and spending of Christmas.

The problem is that Christmas has lost it's shock value. One of the great purposes of Advent is to help us recover that shock. What do you think was the hardest thing to believe for the early Christians? The shocking truth that everybody matters. You matter! What is the most real thing about you? The most real thing about you is that you are loved! The good news is that there is one human family and each one of us matters. St. Irenaeus tells us: "There is one human race wherein the mysteries of god are fulfilled." But the misdiagnosis -- particularly poignant at Christmas with all that shopping! -- of who we are, diminishes us. We are not essentially consumers, but adored creatures designed for communion with God and with each other. And as for gifts this year, God's own first gift to us is our own fragile self.

And Advent teaches us that the way back home to ourselves is through the door of repentance: a change of heart and mind, a correct diagnosis of the human condition. Repentance reconnects us with what matters and the big issue for this generation is connection -- the Internet, the Web. Look at the world of Facebook! We have come to use of "the word 'connect' as believers use the word 'Jesus,' as if it were sacred in and of itself ... Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits -- none of this is important ... a lot of social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak, superficial connections with each other..." (See Zadie Smith, "Generation Why?" in NYRB, Nov. 25, 2010, p. 57).

Jaron Lanier, in his book "You Are Not A Gadget," points out that people reduce themselves because of information technologies. "Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality." It can't give us the full picture. There is no perfect computer analogue for what we call a "person." When life is turned into a data-base there is degradation and we barely notice. When a human being becomes a set of data on a website he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks." Advent is a revolution -- a refusal to be degraded, diminished, under-represented; an insistence that everyone matters. And as for true connection, you have to be somebody before you can share yourself. Advent and Christmas are good news because the Gospel understands that each of us is somebody there is a mystery here. What makes something fully real is you can't fully describe it. You can't capture it in words. The way forward is our recovering the truth that each of us is a mystery -- you are a mystery to the world and to yourself. You are somebody! You are a gift.

So, Advent is vital as a preparation for the surprise of Christmas! The surprise shows up great misdiagnosis of who we are. This is why some people, deep-down, find this season depressing. Remember W.H. Auden's point in his great Advent poem "For the Time Being": This is a time when we unsuccessfully try to love all our relations! Think of the passive and joyless mood that defines our present culture. Our flatness of soul is rooted in two main problems: first, our understanding of ourselves as essentially consumers, with the result that we think that everything is in principle fixable by our popping a pill or embracing some new technology; second, the depression that results from this misdiagnosis. Think of the cheerless and raucous exchanges in our politics, the bread-and-circuses flavor of our entertainments. Advent affirms that a right diagnosis of who we are (creatures made for communion and connection) can offer an antidote to our soul-sickness. The shock that each of us matters. The most real thing about us is that we are loved.

The really hard thing is not questions about the Virgin Birth or even about the divinity of Christ. The hard thing is for us to accept our own significance -- even our own divinity. God knows, I'm not asking you to think of yourselves as God! But the Christmas story is as much about you as about God. Christmas is a celebration of your identity as a precious human being -- in whom God chooses to dwell. God makes a home in you, in us -- all of us. You are a bearer of glory. You, like Mary, are the container of the uncontainable, the bearer of God in the world. That's who you are. Adorable! Christmas heals the damage done by the great misdiagnosis of who we are.

The time for the baby is getting closer! The stirrings of new life give hope to the world. The real surprise of Christmas is being able to experience yourself as gift -- experiencing yourself as pregnant with new life. We love babies because a baby is a sign of possibility. We look at a new-born baby and think -- even if only for a moment -- that there is a chance that the human race might make it after all! The baby, who cannot speak a word, is the Word of God! It's absurd. Yet there is the deepest of truths here. It's true.

Rabbi Lionel Blue, just after WWII, was convenor of Beth Din, the Reformed Jewish ecclesiastical court here in the U.K. His job was to try to apply rules, some archaic, to actual situations. "As we listened to our clients' stories, we realized what a gap had grown up between our pre-war religion and post-war reality." The job was somewhat restricting and claustrophobic, so Rabbi Blue decided with a refugee friend Eva to found an unusual congregation. The mirror image of the ecclesiastical court. There were no forms to fill in and everyone was welcome.

"No questions were asked about anyone's religious status, or about their personal relationships, whether single, divorced, or bereaved -- or with no marriages at all ... If they wanted a Jewish Sabbath evening with candles, cinnamon cakes, company and blessings, they were welcome, and they did not they could walk out whenever they wished. We also asked them to add something to the supper table if they could ... They were all kinds, even some well-set-up Jews, pillars-of-society Jews, Jews living with Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, and Jews who kept very non-kosher company indeed -- and of course their partners came too, and received an even bigger welcome, not to convert them but because they might feel strange. There were half-Jews, quarter-Jews, one-eighth Jews ... to these we added a Christian evangelical choir, who were so decent that they didn't try to convert anyone there, except by being the decent Christians that they were."

An odd assortment of people including one man "who said he was the Holy Spirit and locked himself in the broom cupboard, and some who took one look at us and left in disgust..."

He goes on, "I could have cried with relief. At last I had found a temporary religious home, and Judaism was doing what it does best, turning the religious ragtag and bobtail of a big city into a family, even a sort of holy family." What will you do in the next few days until Christmas Eve? Visit the Crèche -- with the gifts of your heart's hunger? Allow Joy to be born in you. Allow yourself to be loved and adored. Come as you are. Accept the gracious work of God to turn us -- all of us without exception -- into a family; yes, even a sort of holy family.

No one is turned away from the synagogue of the unqualified! Everyone is welcome. If you feel unqualified you know that you're in the right place!

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