In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk Annie Dillard writes:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies straw hats or velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmet. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God draw us out to where we can never return.
Much to her mother’s dismay, in early January 1952 my Mom got on a airplane for the first time in her life. She flew from Pittsburgh, PA to the Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, AK to marry my Dad who was stationed there during the Korean War. I was reminded of this because on the day after Thanksgiving I drove to Pittsburgh to see my Mom. After having dinner together, she ask if I would help decorate her apartment for Christmas. I pulled out her container of Christmas decorations and began putting them around her apartment. The wreath went on the door and the stuffed Santa on the floor outside her door. Her collection of snowmen found a place scattered among her pictures of her grandchildren. Finally, towards the bottom of the container and wrapped in a piece of tissue paper I found an old ornament of a child on a dog sled being pulled by a Huskie. When I asked her about it and ask if she wanted me to find a place for it, my Mom told me it was the first ornament she and my Dad bought together when they were in Alaska and the only ornament they had on first Christmas together. I cleared a space and placed it on the bookcase directly across the room from her favorite chair so she would see it each day. Christmas is like that, isn’t it?
Shodie and I did our own version of that this past week.
We lifted boxes down out of the attic.
We placed candles in our upstairs windows which we do each year.
The Santa painted on a ski went to its designated spot by the front door.
Our collection of creches found their way to the mantle and the hallway table.
And, later today ornaments our children made years ago as Christmas gifts for us will be carefully lifted out of their box and lovingly hung on the tree.
Christmas is like that, isn’t it?
For all those reasons and more, I love Christmas.
So much of this season is like that. Wrapped up in memories. And in a hope so deep and so real and so profound we can hardly find words to put around it. That is why it is so wonderful. And sometimes so hard. Christmas is like that, isn’t it?
Next Sunday in the Confirmation, the program Kathy DiBiasi and I lead for our 9th grade students as a part of their preparation for their decision about whether or not to join Bedford Presbyterian Church, we will give them our Christmas Quiz. It consists of 24 questions about Christmas and about what the Bible tells us about the birth of Jesus. Here are a couple of the questions.
- How did Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem?
Camel. Donkey. Walked. Volkswagen.
Joseph walked and Mary rode a donkey. Who knows.
- How many wisemen came to see Jesus?
Write the correct number.
- Which animals does the Bible say were present at Jesus’ birth?
Cows, sheep and goats. Cows, donkeys and sheep. Sheep and goats only. Miscellaneous barnyard animals. Lions, tigers and elephants. None of the above.
The last question on the quiz asks how many of the multiple choice responses you think you got right. Most of the youth guess 15 or 18 out of 24. Pretty good, right? But, as we score the quiz, most only get 2 or 3 or maybe 4 or 5 correct. Once everyone gets over the shock and the shouts of disbelief die down, we then look more closely at the narratives about the birth of Jesus to see what is really there. Then talk about the way tradition and story and candlelight and starlight have become wrapped around our understanding of Christmas. But, Christmas is like that, isn’t it?
All of that is to say, that alongside all of our careful and thoughtful preparations for Christmas and the meaning we both give to it and find in it, stands the simple and often surprising, maybe even startling, witness of the Bible. So, with Annie Dillard’s observation about Christians lingering in the background, these two passages – one from Isaiah and one from Mark – designated by the Lectionary to be read on this first Sunday in Advent 2017 as we, as a Christian community, begin our preparation for and our journey towards Christmas.
Isaiah 64: 1-3
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
Mark 13: 24-26
But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.
O come, O come Emmanuel.
Come, thou long expected Jesus.
Be careful what you ask for.
Be careful as you say those words and sing those carols and as we, as a community of faith, do our best to be ready for God when God comes.
Or, was Annie Dillard correct.
Maybe we are like children playing on the floor with our chemistry sets mixing up a batch of TNT.
Here is what I find myself thinking about as we begin our preparations for Christmas. Besides all the wonder and the excitement and the tinsel and the holiday cheer, the Bible reminds us there is something disruptive about Christmas. Something about the coming of God which make mountains quake and the heavens shake. Something about Advent and Incarnation which turns our world…the world…this world…inside out or right side up. Something about the birth of Jesus which stands counter the traditional world view of who is in and who is out. And about what power looks like. And about who or what asks for and deserves our allegiance.
So, here is my challenge to you. In the midst of everything else you do to get ready for Christmas, pay attention to the story. Pay attention to those moments which are waiting to be transformed turning the moment you have right then right side up. Pay attention to where the disruptive story of Bible wants to break into the routine of your life or the headlines in the news or into the way you use your time or spend your money. Pay attention to that moment which invites you and opens you up to Incarnation or to being Incarnation.
As I said, I love Christmas.
The decorations. The carols. The cards.
I even love shopping for gifts.
And, I also love the Bible.
And I take its witness seriously.
So I am often stopped in my tracks and challenged and convicted by its witness.
Come, thou long expected Jesus.
May the mountains and the heavens and my life and our world be shaken by your coming.