When I think back over my life and all the Christmases I’ve spent, a lot of memories come flooding back: the smell and taste of Grandma’s cookies, the sense of joy I felt as I trimmed the family Christmas tree, breathing in the aroma of a freshly cut spruce, walking with my own young sons at night while thick snowflakes floated gently all around us. It goes without saying that these holiday memories we carry within are a crucial part of our experience of Christmas. And though we may feel a twinge of sadness for those innocent days that are gone forever, we are grateful for having met key people in our life who showed us the meaning of love, and how simple acts of kindness change everything.
Like our personal memories, the Church itself invites us to remember, to keep the memories of the past alive and to allow them to inform and shape our present. The Church remembers the messianic predictions of the prophets, and the unique role of John the Baptist. It is John who is our personal voice of Advent: he reminds us that the coming of Jesus is an important development in the relationship between God and ourselves.
John and his message not only appear at the beginning of the Jesus’ earthly ministry, they also appear at the beginning of every Christian’s desire to follow Jesus, for those who want to walk with Jesus, for all those who want to find their way out of the wilderness and into the promised land of wholeness and healing.
John came to point out that the way of the Lord must be prepared, and that way is not simply a highway in the desert, it’s a highway in our hearts, it’s both a step and a direction we must be willing to take if we are to be ready for Christ’s coming.
A man was studying the principles of Zen but felt he was making almost no spiritual progress, so he sought out a Master, and asked him what he needed to know to have a contented life. “I have studied the sacred scriptures, and I have visited the greatest teachers in the land,” the man said, “but I have not found the answer I seek. Please teach me the way.”
At this point the Zen Master had tea brought in to serve his guest. He set a cup in front of the visitor and filled it to the top and then kept on pouring and pouring so that the tea ran over the rim of the cup, across the table, and cascaded down onto the floor.
The visitor watched until he could not longer restrain himself. “Its overfull, stop, no more will go in!” he cried out. “Like this cup”, the Master said, “you are full of your own opinions and biases. You don’t even remember who you are. How can I give you anything more until you first empty your cup?”
How, then, can we welcome Christ, how can we enter the Reign of God with him, if we have no room in our hearts for him, if we are so full of our own ideas and hurts and ideas, if we’ve forgotten who we are, if we are not prepared?
The conversion that John calls us to embrace is about turning our heads around and going in a new direction. We’ve tried going our own way, insisting that God approve of our choices, and that hasn’t worked for us. We’re still in the wilderness. In order to see the Lord we need to change direction and be willing to leave our personal wilderness behind. It is not what is outside us that defines our wilderness, rather it is what is on the inside. Wilderness is the product of our own action and inaction, and that is why the Church calls us to remember.
At Christmas time, when we have forgotten to prepare for Christ, it’s easy to perceive that we lack so much, it’s easy to feel left behind by the joy of the season, it’s easy to feel lonely and isolated. Buying things with our MasterCard or VISA isn’t going to help because the teacup we are trying to fill can only be filled by God. Only God can reveal to us the truth that we have every spiritual blessing needed to live joyful lives of service. Only God can set us free and ease our burdens, and He does this by helping us to remember all that God has done for us in the past.
Remembering is at the heart, not only of Advent, but of the whole Christmas season as we retell and meditate on the story of Christmas. We recall Gabriel’s visit to Mary, the birth in a cave at Bethlehem, the visit by shepherds who have just seen a multitude of angels and come now to worship the newborn King. There are the wisemen from the Orient with their mysterious gifts that reveal the truth of who this Jesus really is to us.
Retelling these stories helped the early Christians to gain perspective on their own lives. Recalling how Jesus suffered helped them endure persecutions they themselves were enduring. Remembering his miracles and healings gave them courage to call on him for help whenever they were in need. And today our own remembering of the prophecies and of the words and deeds of Jesus helps us make sense of our own experiences as well: each person’s life is a story, a part of the one beautiful love story recounted in the Scriptures. When I am facing a difficult experience or trying to deal with tragedy, it helps if I can remember that I am part of the ongoing story of God’s faithful love, and, even if I can’t understand it at the time, I can believe that my whole life makes sense because it belongs to that larger story.
Yesterday, as I made my way through a crowded Kmart store that was full of shoppers, I made a point of going down every aisle that pertained to Christmas decorations. I wasn’t really in a holiday frame of mind and I didn’t need to buy anything except a $2 package of spare light bulbs for the Christmas tree, but I thought I would take a look at all the sparkly, pretty things anyway. And I remembered every other Christmas store I’d ever been to, from my earliest years as a little boy. The smells of cinnamon and pine filled my nostrils and brought back a flood of memories. And for a couple minutes, I was that little boy again, captivated by the lights and baubles and filled with anticipation of the Christmas miracle. I rounded the corner a bit too fast, and almost ran into a young woman with her son. “Excuse me, sir”, she said. And it hit me that I wasn’t a little boy, I was a middle-aged man, a taskmaster to some of my students, a father to three sons, a grandfather to two young boys, and a “sir” to strangers.
I said a quick “thank you” to God, thanking him for so many magical Christmas memories, and for letting me know that my story is still part of that one great story—God’s endless love affair with humanity.
Advent is that time we are called to remember who we are, and where we are going. We’re invited to walk with Christ through the wilderness, through the forgetfulness to a place of light and clarity. As soon as we begin walking with him, we find that John the Baptist was right: our path is made straight, the low valleys in our way are raised up, the mountains and hills we feared crossing are made low, and the roughest places in our hearts are smoothed out. All because we emptied ourselves a little and remembered who we were. All because our God chose to walk with us.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, her debt has been paid. AMEN