The Lebanese Presbyterian community is faithfully lighting candles on an Advent wreath this Sunday—and waiting. Disillusionment and desperation are growing all around them in Beirut, but, as Pastor Joseph Kassab says, “We have no choice here but to hope in a better future.” Then he adds: “Unfortunately, we don’t control it.”
Paul’s letter to the Philippians puts me in mind of the annual ritual of Christmas letters and how much I enjoy receiving them, though I have to admit that sometimes the correspondence can veer off into the stratosphere of braggadocio. You know the type.
How odd that the most hopeful season of the Christian calendar begins in the midst of darkness! When we light the first candle on the Advent wreath, it will not be a second too soon. This Advent I feel an urgent need for the light that comes from God, and I do not think I am the only one.
It’s my favorite time of year—though I never heard the word Advent until my mother brought home an Advent calendar one year. Presbyterians didn’t observe Advent in western Pennsylvania in those days. I learned about it from the brightly decorated calendar with its tiny paper doors, one for each December day until Christmas.
My favorite Christmas book is The Donkey’s Dream, which is about the journey Mary and Joseph made to Bethlehem. Meant for young children, Barbara Helen Berger’s story is a brilliant and subtle work of theology. Or perhaps antitheology, as it allows simple images to tell us more than words can convey about what the incarnation signifies.
"Mercy” is the one expletive my grandmother Norris allowed herself, the all-purpose exclamation for times when she was too awestruck, befuddled or exasperated to say anything else. During the '60s, I considered her “Mercy” to be amusing and even charming, but also embarrassingly anachronistic. Now that I am older, however, "Mercy" seems a fine word for moments when other words fail.
It is hard to believe what we hear, that we are a blessed people, standing in God’s favor. Hard to believe that God will bring righteousness to our world, as mysteriously and yet naturally as a seed sprouts and grows out of the earth. We know it is foolish to put stock in such promises, when we have devastated God’s creation with war and willful misuse.
The most prophetic thing that Thomas Merton ever did was to say to a drugstore clerk who asked him which brand of toothpaste he preferred, “I don’t care.” Intrigued by the clerk’s response, Merton wrote, “He almost dropped dead. I was supposed to feel strongly about Colgate or Pepsodent or Crest. . . . And they all have a secret ingredient.” He concluded that “the worst thing you can do now is not care about these things.”
My extended family once had so many males named Frederick that the women in the family assigned each of us a number so the tribe could distinguish between us at family reunions. I became Fred IV. A casual observer might have thought that we considered ourselves royalty, or perhaps a line of renegade popes.
Few know blindness so profoundly as prisoners who once could see the whole world but now find the universe shrunk to the size of a cell. Inmates hear only what jailers allow, most often some version of “We own you.” As for music, the rhythm of one’s own pulse must suffice, and that hardly leads to dancing. One can even forget how to walk.