“We’re getting up at 3:30 a.m. tomorrow morning to shop at Kohl’s,” my nephew announced during Thanksgiving dinner.
“Really?!” I asked.
I am going with my girlfriend, Magdalena, as a support person. She knows exactly what she wants.”
“Well, may God go with you. You will NEVER see me in any store at 3:30 a.m.”
I was reminded of the words of Richard Horsley, professor of religion at the University of Massachusetts. “Imagine a complex, multi-cultural society that annually holds an elaborate winter festival, one that lasts not simply a few days, but several weeks. This great festival celebrates the birth of the lord and savior of the world, the prince of peace, a man who is divine.
“People mark the festival with great abundance – feasting, drinking, gift-giving. Public space is festooned with images and decorations of the season. Special public events – song, dance, theatre, sporting events – happen almost daily. Local political and religious leaders preside over various rituals and ceremonies. The economy booms. The sales of goods and services flourish as at no other time of the year. The poor are recipients of special philanthropy and generous giving by the rich. In all, a great festival, which brings a sense of civic unity while honoring the savior.”
Is Horsley talking about the contemporary experience of Christmas? He certainly could be. During this time of year, millions of Americans head toward the light in order to worship at the altar of consumerism. Our gods are the cathedrals of consumption: the malls and big box stores. “This is what you need to be happy.” “Buy now, pay later.” We put a few coins in the Salvation Army kettle to assuage our guilt, adorn our homes with extravaganzas of light and color, and make our lists, then check them twice.
Yet Richard Horsley’s words, while capturing much of what passes for a month of secular merrymaking in contemporary America, describe a major festival of the Roman Empire, the festival of celebration of the Emperor’s divinity. This festival was observed in the Roman world at the time of Jesus’ birth and throughout the early Christian period.
When Jesus was born it had already been established that Caesar Augustus was called the “son of god.” He was the great “lord and savior” of the whole earth by bringing “peace” to Rome. The announcement of this was heralded as “good news.” How is it, then, that these very same words are spoken by the angels at Jesus’s birth? Coincidence? Certainly not. Luke was very intentional in proclaiming that what was supposed to be true of Caesar is actually true of Jesus! The qualities that were ascribed to Caesar are fake. Jesus is the true light coming into the world.
Our Advent and Christmas scriptures conveyed a critical message to their readers, that through the birth of Jesus, God was offering the world a very different Savior than Caesar Augustus. The early Christians were challenged with a life-changing question: Who is your Savior? The Emperor or Jesus?
The first recorded instance of a celebration of the birth of Jesus on December 25 was in 336 a.d. during the reign of the Emperor Constantine. A few years later, Pope Julius I declared that Christmas would be officially celebrated on this day. Why December 25? The timing of Advent and Christmas was meant to directly compete with the midwinter Roman festival, with its over-indulgence, excess, and celebration of the Emperor. Certainly, the season of Advent was set aside for waiting and watching for the coming of Jesus in the world, just as Lent was a time of introspection and preparation for Easter. Even more, Advent was a challenge to the Roman worship of the Emperor. So Advent today stands in opposition to our culture’s worship of consumerism.
Advent asks the question, “Who is our Savior?” If it is Jesus, then how do we observe this sacred time of year? Head toward the darkness and practice revolutionary patience.
Head toward the darkness
Moving toward darkness is counter-intuitive, since we all love the lights of Christmas. Yet Advent invites us to embrace the darkness of this world with one another as we wait for the light. While the rest of the world immediately heads toward the light, we find Jesus hanging out in the murkiness of human life.
During Advent Jesus walks most closely with of those who are grieving the death of a loved one, are struggling with relationships, or are fighting addictions – such as overeating, alcohol, shopping, and gambling – that are only fueled and encouraged by the season. Jesus makes Advent friends with the poor, the homeless, the rejected, and all those for whom Santa will not come this year.
The author of Psalm 139 says, “Even the darkness is not dark to you, for the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” Could our Advent calling be to proclaim that in every place of darkness God is already present and that Christ is with us in our struggles, even though we may not feel him there? If Jesus is our Savior, we wait for the coming of the light of the world by heading toward the darkness.
Dorothee Soelle was a German feminist liberation theologian who spent six months a year between 1975 and 1987 as a professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In the 1980’s Soelle coined the term “revolutionary patience” in a book by the same title.
Revolutionary patience may seem like an oxymoron, but it is a complex virtue that holds in tension a sense of urgency in addressing the problems of this world, at the same time persevering and practicing resilience in the face of setbacks, failure, and disappointment. Revolutionary patience does not give in to despair even in the most devastating of circumstances. Even when God seems absent, we do not give up hope. Revolutionary patience means taking the long, slow walk approach, fighting injustice wherever we can, loving and caring for others in need, and resisting the forces of this world that beckon us to focus on ourselves. When we practice revolutionary patience, we discipline ourselves to keep faithful to God for the long haul, determined never to give up our mission to bring in God’s kingdom on the earth.
Most of the transformative leaders in the history of our world have understood the wisdom of revolutionary patience, including Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, and Nelson Mandela, who died just last Thursday. Certainly, those who are marginalized are understandably suspicious of any talk of waiting and patience because the implication is that nothing is going to happen by those in power. Yet revolutionary patience is not the same as complacency. Nor is it cynical, despairing, or satisfied with the status quo. Revolutionary patience knows the wisdom of small or incomplete victories.
Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Capetown, South Africa, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, wrote this tribute to Mandela on December 5 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/wp/2013/12/05/the-moral-courage-of-nelson-mandela/): “Can you imagine what would have happened to us had Nelson Mandela emerged from (27 years of) prison in 1990 bristling with resentment at the gross miscarriage of justice that had occurred in the Rivonia trial? Can you imagine where South Africa would be today had he been consumed by a lust for revenge, to want to pay back for all the humiliations and all the agony that he and his people had suffered at the hands of their white oppressors?
“Instead the world was amazed, indeed awed, by the unexpectedly peaceful transition of 1994, followed not by an orgy of revenge and retribution but by the wonder of forgiveness and reconciliation epitomized in the processes of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission… A colossus of unimpeachable moral character and integrity, he was the world’s most admired and most revered public figure… His passion to serve drove him to continue his long walk so prodigally, even after retiring. Thus he campaigned vigorously for those affected by HIV and AIDS, even as the government that succeeded his appeared to falter in the face of the epidemic; and he continued to raise funds for children and other projects – all for others, and not for himself.”
Caesar or Jesus? How will you observe this holy season of Advent? Will you give in to the cultural celebration of Christmas with a sigh of resignation? Or will you head toward the darkness that leads to the light and practice revolutionary patience?