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.
The angel said, "Fear not."“Fear not” is one of the standard opening lines that angels use to calm humans when they meet them, but it rarely does any good, and it certainly didn’t do any good on this night. At the first sound coming from the angel’s mouth, all eight shepherds fell flat on their faces. They were shaking and clinging to the earth as if crawling back into the dust from which they came might save them this night.
After days of protests during their Hong Kong talks in December, the 149 members of the World Trade Organization hammered out a scaled-down agreement on global commerce. But many Christian and civil society groups fighting for trade justice predicted that the deal will do little to help the world’s poor. “Those talks might not have crashed as spectacularly as those at Seattle and Cancun.
"It’s all grace,” my dear friend replied. For some reason, I was surprised at the simplicity and firmness of her answer. I’d asked how she was able to face the last stages of cancer with such peace, generosity and good humor. The complete absence of bitterness or resentment in her demeanor and words was striking.
In a culture that has made efficiency a moral requirement and credit-card purchasing a way of life, delays are frustrating. Instant messaging, fast food meals and express deliveries reinforce a sense that waiting for almost anything is a waste of our time and a poor use of our gifts and resources.
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.
I had told another visitor to the monastery that the monks had begun 1 Corinthians, in case she wanted an opportunity to hear the letter read aloud. She had written a doctoral thesis and a book on the passage—a process that had engaged her for more than ten years. She knew Paul’s words in Greek, in German and in many English translations. But as she listened in the abbey church, something caught her attention that she had never noticed before. It was a revelation that left her gasping for breath.
Observers of the Christian calendar celebrate Christmas for 12 days after December 25. Secularists and pagans who do not follow the church year hang their lights in the penitential season of Advent. Evidently some Christians have joined the secularists and pagans.
Friedrich Nietzsche once remarked that “Plato was a bore,” but this snooty remark merely confirms the madman’s madness. Alfred North Whitehead concluded, boring or not, that “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
On Christmas day we join choirs of angels and raise the strains of “Joy to the World!” Our children sing sweetly of the little Lord Jesus so peacefully asleep on the hay that he doesn’t cry out when animals wake him with off-key parts to the lullaby. But then the music changes drastically. We hear wailing and loud lamentation. Ancient mother Rachel weeps inconsolably over the loss of her children. Must we listen to this? Have we no season to block out the sounds of grief?